Tuesday 31 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 5: Friday

Today’s open stage had 3 musicians and a full room . It’s certainly grown over the week and is definitely something people want. Improvisers, like all junkies, need their fix.

The first half of the main show was Midnight Radio, a format devised together by Emil Struijker Boudier and Sarah Michaelson despite being several thousand miles apart. If you don’t know who these people are, let me get all wikipedia on you. Emil is an Amsterdam-based improviser most known for taking the art of tech-ing improv shows up to 11. He was the main tech of easylaughs before the pirate ship Boom Chicago kidnapped him one night. Sarah is also known as DJ Mama Cutsworth and provided the soundtrack for several shows this festival, most notably with the mostly-Colombian group Picnic, of whom she is the non-Colombian part.

It was a really nicely different show. The premise is that there is a midnight call-in radio show hosted by the above mentioned two (and really, there should be). The rest of the cast call in in character and request a piece of music, which, Spotify-permitting, is played. The music is then played and used to inspire or provide the soundtrack for the scene. And then another caller.

Again this was a vehicle for some great scenes, and some lovely callers. And there was a genuine feel of two DJs who have been together for ages despite having met the previous weekend. But this is a theme of the festival. By Friday, you have a strong cast of players who you would swear all knew each other since Jesus was a young improviser.

Felipe’s puppy stole the show. But there were plenty of other good moments. It started with a super-strong wordless scene with Dave, Roemer and Victoria acting out the classic boyfriend finds girlfriend flirting with another guy and bullies him out of money so that now boyfriend has all the cash, so girlfriend leaves with him. There was an interesting, almost surreal scene of a woman harvesting hearts that lead to what is possibly the call-back of the festival when Marta returned to collect a broken heart in the final scene.

The show was followed by British duo, Folie à Deux. Yes, I know it’s French. After Brexit, they will have to be called “You don’t have to be mad to be in this duo, but it helps,” which is not nearly as catchy.

Charlotte and Andrew are clever, good actors and have a ton of chemistry. There is much wit on display and they take their time to explore the world and the characters, plus find some games to play on the way. Returning to stories always sees them moved on nicely. The doomed romance between a hotelier and the only guest in the One Season Hotel was a particular joy to see unfold.

At this point in my notes, it says “Nele is great.” No one can argue with that which is why I wrote it exactly as she said.

I rounded off the night in the company of Phil Lunn, whose show centres around a female cabaret singer who has been around the block. She tells us about her life (with much help from the audience) and then sings songs inspired by those events with titles from the audience. The songs are great and the life story, from humble beginnings to present day, provides a nice arc.

Sunday 29 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 4: Quinta-feira

Backstage at festivals the atmosphere is nearly always of excitement. Sometimes towards the end, it’s exhaustion mixed with excitement, but mostly it’s excitement. Every year at IMPRO Amsterdam, the back-stage snacks get more elaborate than the year before. By 2024 there will be meals served by a butler.*

(* - probably not.)

The first show off the night was Cage of Fools which is a hosted show of short games with intermediate chats with the players. It somehow reminded me of the short-lived British TV improv show Fast and Loose.

In between games the host, Rod Ben Zeev, asked them questions about relationships. It was a nice chance to get to know something about the festival cast, or half the cast, although it was the bit that was more hit and miss than the games. By now, the cast is working well together and the show had some great moments. Something different than what normally happens at the festival these days.

After the break, we were treated to Impro Fado, a format by Portuguese group Os Improváveis. Fado is a style of music and the word fado means “fate.” As well as 3 actors they had 2 musicians and a singer. After every scene, the musicians and singer performed a song about what had happened. The show and songs were mostly in English but with some Portuguese. We didn’t mind that. In fact, although the actors weren’t held back too much by their English, they were physical and emotional enough that we could have followed with a lot more Portuguese. The singer sung much better when singing in her mother tongue. I think partly because the Fado style is very much tied to the Portuguese language. She had a phenomenal voice, and we could have happily listened to her sing the Lisbon telephone guide.

The scenes were highly dramatic and the story was closer to tragedy than comedy, but that suits the style of the music. There was some levity, but I always feel refreshed watching a show that is not trying to be funny. And the end of the main character going back to the abusive relationship she ran away from rather than stay with the kindly man who gave her freedom was fitting the genre and, unfortunately, life.

Of the late night show, I saw Ohana performing Sidekicks. Ohana seems to be a sort of improv band camp and the cast or this show were a collection of improvisers from various currently European countries. Their format, Sidekicks, follows two minor characters whilst around them or behind the scenes a bigger story is played out which the just bumble through. It’s very much based on the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which follows two minor characters whilst the story of Hamlet goes on around them in the background. The 2 central characters are a basically a comedy double-act comprised of two dumbards who talk about comedic inconsequentials whilst they almost get involved with (but never quite do) the action.

It’s an ambitious plan. The show was a lot of fun and they achieved what they set out to in a broad sense. There were some funny moments and the central duo had some nice games. This is a group that has un together but does not perform a lot together. I love the concept, I do feel it would have been much stronger if the backdrop had not been comic but epic or tragic. But instead it was very often played for laughs which took away from the power of the comedy of the central duo.

I’m looking forward to more high-concept format applications next year. Personally I want to see a show based on the movie Momento that plays scenes in reverse order.

Saturday 28 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 3: Miércoles In The Lion's Den (part 2)

Continues from Part 1.

Two Colombian clowns and a Canadian DJ are in a theatre. One Clown turns to the other and says absolutely nothing. Now that’s comedy!

Picnic Impro are Felipe Ortiz, Daniel Orrantia and DJ Mama Cutsworth. Their show, Speechless, uses the amazing physical skills of the two Colombians to create a very different show to other improv shows. They are both great clowns, physical actors, mimes and even have some acrobatic skills. They show that there really is no need for words. Acting, situation and music can provide the emotions and the stories that emerge. And sure, there is a limit to the complexity a story can have when there are no words, but given the choice between a great simple story with compelling characters or a highly complex story in which we get lost and eventually stop caring about the characters, if we did in the first place, most people would go for the first option.

That’s not to say the stories are simple. They are straightforward and there is an honesty of emotions, but a lot of stuff happens. They take their time to portray it and make it as clear as possible. It all helps make it very compelling.

This show had the strongest start to any of them. They had a strong opening using spotlights and their eye for physical comedy they made us laugh and impressed us just by appearing in spotlights.

DJ “MC” provided the soundtrack. She has a director role sometimes, cuing music that will bring certain scenes back and perhaps steering the emotions, and at other times she has the perfect track or sound effects to heighten what is going on.

Felipe’s portrayal of a child was so spot on, we needed no information. We could see the rough age and the relationship with the parent. From this start we got to see a cycle of life story, saw the parent get old in front of our eyes and in a finish that moistened eyes all over the theatre, the Death came and led the parent into the light. It was an amazing moment and I must commend Emil Struijker Boudier, technical improviser extraordinaire, who was on fire this show. He was doing all sorts of subtle light things, that most people probably wouldn’t notice, such as slight light changes when doors and windows are opened or closed. But in the end he was ready with a set of lights at the side of the stage to be the literal light to be walked into, so that the whole show ended with perfection of sound, lighting and movement.

It really makes you wonder why do we need talking at all? And certainly don’t need nearly as much talking as goes on in most improv scenes.

Friday 27 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 3: Midweek Cute (part 1)

My plan had been to be a day behind the festival in these updates, you know, life and stuff. One thing which should not slow me down as much as it does is I’m still waiting for a robot vacuum cleaner to arrive, which I realise means it’s not really a robot vacuum cleaner at all because a robot vacuum cleaner would have delivered itself days ago.

The main show started with “Promised,” a format about 2 people coming together and falling in love. The audience picks which of the cast they want to fall in love. This time they picked WIll Luera and Roemer Lievaart. A European audience will typically pick 2 men when presented with a choice like this. It happens much less I’m sure in shows in Saudi Arabia or Alabama.

The audience named them Mike and Sanderson, which was pretty restrained of them. The show, which is a kind of an indie rom com, has four acts pertaining to the four seasons. It starts in Summer with them randomly in the same place, but with other people. I say randomly, but because it’s love it’s actually fatalistically or, as it’s a romcom, it’s more plotpointedly.

Before each act, the main characters have some facts told about them. The facts paint the characters a bit, but didn’t seem to get used much.

It was great to see the worlds around the main characters, although there were not so many strong relationships there, which I missed because the main characters don’t meet until the end and so that relationship, which is usually central to a romance story, is not there. A way some stories where the couple don’t meet until the end get round this is by having a strong relationship between them because they are communicating without knowing or showing that their lives are so parallel that you know they are going to be together.

Will Luera and Charlotte Gittins had such great chemistry tonight both when she played the love doomed by the self-discovery Will’s character had to go on and the domineering tango teacher. The latter scene was lifted even higher by an impromptu tango song by the two musicians and a singing Swede.

The whole show built nicely so that Spring, the final act, starts as summer did, with the main characters in the same place as before, but now they (and we) are primed for what they call in movie terms a meet cute. This is where the couple meet properly for the first time and you see the spark of what will come. (Or at least until Summer if you’re being cynical.)

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 2: Twosday

As a reaction to the heated activity around the Compagnietheater Amsterdam always gets very cold in the week of the festival. It often snows. It hasn’t so far, but the canals are freezing and extremities get a bit numb if you let them. The Swedes on the other hand, are enjoying the very mild temperatures.

Today’s open stage had lights, music and members of the main-stage cast. It’s certainly building.The crowd also seems to be growing.

The first main-stage show was Mortal Coil a format devised and directed by directed by Patti Stiles. It’s an interwoven-stories type of format and Patti gives subtle direction in that she doesn’t use a lot of words but she gets a lot of information in there. She sets up a clear start and then usually leaves the actors to find their path. She brings the strands together with ease.

The stand-out story was the relationship between a queen and her servant (played by Marta Borges from Portugal and Felipe Ortiz from Columbia). It was a bitter-sweet tale of two people who love each other but could never admit it because of their differing roles. They played perfectly the pathos underscored with some great physical comedic games. It’s exactly the sort of thing Chaplin was aiming for.

The main show of the evening was Big Bang Improv from Boston in the US. The name is well chosen. They start strong and keep expanding. They start by getting something that “brings you joy” which is a simple and powerful way to begin and already puts the audience in a good mood.

Movement is a big part of the show and they managed to use much of the theatre and also the audience. They swap easily between scenes using a variety of techniques, but it is always clear that a new scene has been started. Even when there is little movement to show a new scene, there are clear physical, vocal and emotional cues. They are great at following paths, heightening, using whatever happens and creating great “what if?” situations.

The most notable moment for me was the expression “broken sperm” being expanded by logical steps so we can see the full world of spermatozoa including this one broken sperm making it through to graduating university (presumably graduating cum laude).

A great show which found a great end incorporating much of what had happened before.

The Greek group Bus Kai (which is probably not pronounced how you think) performed their show Myth to Myth as one of the late-night shows, They are a duo who take their inspiration from the mythological stories they read as children, bringing their childhood books for the audience to pick a phrase out of to inspire them.

They then took the structure of these myths and brought our two heroes on a journey of both literal traveling and self-discovery. They had a good use of the structure and archetypes of these myths. They struggled a little to find the end but we were still very much with them when they did. A fun turning of myths into a cute modern story.

Finally, I’m reposting this famous photo from the battle of Impro Jima...

Thursday 26 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 1: The Måndagening (part 2)

Continues from previous blog.

From the first part, I’m still thinking about an infinite number of Patti Stiles and what kind of amazing universe that would be. Everything you did (and I’m not just talking on stage, but in the rest of life as well) would be supported 100% by at least a million Patti Stiles and there would be nothing you could not achieve. It’s a great thought.

Back to the show. After every set in the first half, you were left with a determination to see the show of that group. For the Swedish group (Gbgimpro from Gothenburg (which is Swedish for Gothem City (possibly))), you had little to do to be able to see their show except not go home early. After 15 minutes to top up your alcohol / nicotine / sugar levels, they took the stage to do their format “Big Issues.” This is a collection of scenes and stories related to a theme in the form of an issue we face everyday as people. They are hugely likeable performers. Right from the beginning you want to be their friends and make sure they are getting enough to eat. They start off with such energy and quick changes, you get sucked in easily. The stories were good, the changes seamless. The initial pace was hard to maintain but their likeability, undoubted talent and sense of fun did not wane. And although it seemed to take a little finding, they did get back to a variation on the first scene for a very satisfying finish.

Every night a choice has to be made between one of two late-night shows. This night I saw the Romanian group Improvisneyland with their show “what makes you you?” They had professional promo material and a strong concept including introductory videos. Their concept was about looking beyond the national and regional stereotypes and looking at what makes people who they are.

We were presented three segments of scenes about 3 different aspects of both stereotypes about different places and the deeper questions of what makes us us (or we we? No, maybe not). These three parts allowed them to introduce us to the three regions in modern Romania and to show us a bit about them. So we were going to at least learn something.

It’s quite a tall order to tackle something like this especially when they can include such tricky subjects as “casual racism” and espespecially doing it in a second language.

There was a running story about a “gypsy servant” that evolved nicely to subvert the stereotypes which was necessary for comfort of the audience, but sometimes tricky in improv because you can get stuck in the portrayal and attitudes that were started.

The group brought an earnestness but still with a sense of fun that helped pull them along. It was a worthy endeavour that we admired them for doing in a language that was not their own. My favourite line of this show was the heart-felt, “I like his eyes: they’re sad.”

Wednesday 25 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Day 1: The Mondayening (part 1)

The performing part of the public festival started off with an open stage, where eager festival attendees can perform with each other and cast members. Unfortunately due to a scheduling conflict no cast members could be there, but 20+ eager improvisers of all levels from all corners of the globe did turn up. I made them play all those classic games you do when you start plus a couple of slightly harder ones which they all did with that spirit of fun that infuses much of improv.

Journey to the centre of the Earth.

You don’t really expect the first day of the festival to knock the ball out of the park, but there were a couple of moments where the ball got send way beyond the edge of the theatre and a metaphorical ballboy had to run off and get it.

The smoker takes it all... Gbgimpro sing "Smoking!" from the unmade musical "Smoking!"
Picnic Impro leave us speechless

In the first half, Each team got to show off what they do, that is what they will do in later shows. Well, kind of. The Swedes sang an amazing, stunningly-accurate high school musical song about smoking; the Dutch team (who actually don’t have their own show, but mix in with others) explored relationships at a typical Dutch celebration; the Portuguese performed a highly dramatic scene and then sang beautifully about it (in a classic Portuguese fado style); the Colombians told the story of 2 wrestlers coming together for a fight with no words, only phenomenal mime, clowning and acrobatics, aided by a sountrack. If I had to pick a highlight this would be it. Every now and again you see a set off skills on stage and you go to yourself, “I so wish I could do that.” This was such a moment for me.

Paul Dome reaches another
high point in his improv career
Team America are Big Bang (from Boston) who take the kinetic impulse and energy from the beginning of the universe and transfer it onto stage. They not only showcased their impressive brand of quick-fire, quick-change, energetic improv, but the also they threw in a rule whereby one of their players (Paul Dome) was not allowed to touch the floor for the entire set. What transpired was a hugely playful workout, not just for the other 2 players but also the audience who had to carry Paul all the way to the back of the room and back (to the front that is). In terms of committing whilst having fun with each other, they are a group hard to beat.

Because only half of the British duo was there, which is (2 multiplied by 1 over 2, carry the 1, round to the nearest decimal…) just 1; and Patti Stiles was there not with a team but with just herself (that's 1 minus 0 divided by 0, no that means there were an infinite number of Pattis); plus the Colombians had brought a Canadian to provide their soundtrack… these appeared together as The Commonwealth, which is the euphemistic title the British have for the collection of countries it obtained to enrich itself.

Patti and Charlotte get in deep.

Charlotte (UK) and Patti (CA/AU) played a scene inspired by music from Sarah Michaelson (aka DJ Mama Cutsworth, CA). This scene about a woman and her grown-up imaginary friend had that kind of genuine depth of exploration of what it is to be human you rarely find in an improv scene. Hell,you don't get it in movies enough. Again the poor ballboy had to run and fetch the ball.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Sneak Preview

Every year just before the start of the IMPRO Amsterdam festival proper, there is a sneak preview show where the teams playing at the festival perform for the organisers, volunteers and other members of the organisation behind the festival, TVA.

For those of you who don’t know, TVA is a sort improv academy / social club providing classes for all levels (from beginners to yellow (yes, the levels go all the way to yellow)). It started the festival long ago before many of you (us?) even knew what improv was (before some of you could even string the words “yes” and “and” together, I'll bet), so that they can invite groups from around the world they wanted to see and learn from. The founding principles still remain, but after 20-odd years the festival has grown and become as close to a well-oiled machine as any festival can be.

The sneak preview is a chance for the cast to warm up before the week and also to thank all those people who helped make the festival happen. We were treated with two sets of musical-inspired montages. A montage in this context is a sequence of seemingly unrelated scenes (which I might make the title of my first movie). Obviously nothing in life is unrelated - we are all connected by his hallowed noodly appendages - and an audience will find the hidden connections. What I enjoyed most about the show was seeing great players giving themselves the time and space to build great scenes. Players who yesterday were not a team. In fact many had not met before that day.

The scenes that emerged were sometimes amazing. There were a couple that turned out to be super dramatic: something that does not happen in improv so much at all, but shows how it’s not simply a medium for comedy but a method to create any form or style. Most notable was the tear-jerkingly realistic goodbye scene between Patti Stiles and Paul Dome.

What was also great about the show was already getting a chance to see some of the differences in styles that players from different backgrounds and places bring. There is a nice mix of players and they already feel like a team. It bodes well for the rest of the fest.

Last night’s interviews (for which you might read “conversations I drunkenly stumbled into”) included a promise that Patti Stiles, Charlotte Gittins and myself made to solve all of the world's problems - more on this later in the week; and having Will Luera explain how improv is basically physics. There is too much information to go into in one simple blog - you’ll have to take his workshop on the subject or read Stephen Hawking’s "A Brief History of Improv."

Thursday 19 January 2017

IMPRO Amsterdam 2017: Introduction

This year I will be blogging (nearly) every day from IMPRO Amsterdam. For those of you who don’t know it, It’s one of the biggest and longest-running improvised comedy festivals in Europe. It’s also one of the best-organised and one that always has a great atmosphere (although I’m not sure which improv festivals don’t.) It runs for a week during the coldest part of the Amsterdam year and despite that attracts some top performers and teachers from all over this planet.

I’ll be attending shows, the odd workshop, and hanging out backstage and barside. I’ll be giving my opinion on what’s going on, mini reviews and I may even interview people. This in practice be more in the manner of getting drunk with people and asking them random questions.
[NOTE: this blog does not condone the use or abuse of alcohol or imply that its use has any relation to improvisation.] 

I’ll be posting here on my blog, the facebook page for that blog. Follow and like them to be kept up to the date.

And as well as me blogging during the festival there will be a podcast every day produced by the festival organisers interviewing (properly and soberly) members of the cast.

I’m already excited for this year’s festival. If you’re not, then you haven’t seen the list of people who are coming or are very jaded or are reading a blog about a subject totally alien to you.

If you don’t go, you can read all about it here. If you do, I’ll see you there. If I start slurring a random set of words at you in the small hours of the night, remember it probably means you’re being interviewed.
[NOTE: this blog really does not condone the use or abuse of alcohol or imply it should be used as a good technique for interviews.]