Wednesday 21 November 2018

Performing for a Foreign Audience

You are very excited because you have been invited to play at the Fargleskarg International Comedy Festival. You're all rehearsed, you know your format or set, you have your tickets. Could there be anything else you need to think about? Actually there is... It's worth taking time to think about how well you will be understood.

This blog has come from more than 10 years of performing and teaching in many countries. It will be performance-focused and will mostly be about improv, but much of it also applies to stand-up, theatre and other types of performance. At least with most of these others, you have a chance beforehand to review the text and see if there are things which potentially could trip you up.

It is intended for any performer or group intending to perform for a foreign audience in their own language or a second common language.
Whether you are performing in your own language to people who may or may not have a good understanding of it; or a second language, which you and the audience could be at different levels at, there are a number of issues that may arise. Even performing somewhere with the same official language as your own can be open to problems. Let's have a look at what a few of these things can be.

1. Speak Clearly

This may sound obvious, but a native-speaking audience will almost certainly be able to follow you, no matter how fast you speak, what accent you use, or how lazily you pronounce words. Not so an audience for whom it is a second language. If you speak quite fast, you might find you need to slow down a notch or two. If you tend to mumble or slur words, you might also need to pronounce them clearer. And some accents are harder than others to understand. I've done scenes in certain strong British accents and been told later many people didn't understand a word. If you have a strong accent, it's worth checking how well people get it in the country you are performing in. You might have to soften it. You might not want to hear that, but if you speak a (second) language you are not fluent in, you know how difficult it is when someone doesn't speak clearly and with the pronunciation you learnt it in.

Another side of this is grammar. Grammatically it is highly possible, as many of you will appreciate, to do highly complex things with the structure of what we will call, as most people do, a sentence. Even to a native speaker, that was a complex sentence, spoken to someone who doesn't speak English so well, it might be received by a blank expression. Better to keep it simple.

In improv it usually is better to keep sentences simple anyway. Add a small bit of information at a time and together build something that will become complicated enough. British improvisers, especially, often pride themselves on their verbally dexterous loquacity, and although this plays well to a home audience, it can lose audiences abroad. Be prepared to adapt.

2. Vocabulary

This is an extension of the above, but big enough a topic to get it's own section. Even if you are going to another country that speaks your language, there can be a differences in the words used every day. A lot of the time, this situation won't be a problem. Brits, for example, know a lot of American words and slang thanks to movies, and also Americans hear more Britishisms than they used to. But it is something to especially be aware of if your audience is not fluent in your language. They will most likely not know slang words, old-fashioned or rarer words, or the more complicated word for something where a simpler word exists.

Some of this can be obvious. If you are feeling your audience, you can often sense when something you have said is not clear to them. And it's always possible to fix it if you realise you have used a slang or complex term by saying the standard or simpler word, and/or by describing what you mean.
“Let us go to the refectory. I mean the canteen. You know, where we can get food.”
Maybe that was a little too much, but it is usually better to over-explain than to not be understood.
Of course, it's fine if an audience doesn't get a couple of words during a show and you don't have to second guess yourself with every single thing you say, but if they don't get words key to understanding the plot or relationships, that's a different matter.

Professor Stanley Unwin, eminent scholar and linguist 
(see cultural references)
Common expressions, sayings and euphemisms very often don't translate well and are not understood except by very good speakers of a language. I studied Dutch for a few years, and I can sometimes understand all the words in a sentence but have no idea what it means because they are using one of the many, many Dutch expressions where the literal meaning has nothing to do with what they are really saying.
“And now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.”
What monkey? Whose sleeve? Why was there a monkey there, anyway? (It means “and now the truth is revealed.”)

It's worth remembering that found that whilst most adult native speakers know about 20,000–35,000 words in English, non-native speakers have an average of 4,500 words. So you should be avoiding most of the fancy words you know.

Now of course, a lot of genres come with their own vocabulary. If you are doing a Shakespeare show, for example, there is an expectation of a few obscure words thrown in. And I say, verily, do so, but if your audience is not native, you can get away with doing it a lot less than you would for a show at Ye Olde English Society.

3. Cultural References

Everyday, you say things, do things, eat things that are culturally specific. There are facts you know without knowing you know. Facts that other cultures don't know or maybe even disagree with. You are usually so immersed in your culture that sometimes it is hard to imagine that people don't share the exact same experiences and set of knowledge as you all over the world. But people don't share them. Not every culture eats Wheatabix / hagelslag / Skorpor / Pfunchlacks for breakfast.

It's often a shock when you go somewhere and nobody understands your joke about Ant McPartlin / Gordon / Gunde Svan / Paavo Väyrynen / David Levy / Lazlo Philosovic. Even though it would almost certainly get a laugh back home. Every country has its classic comedy go-to celebrities. B-listers whose names you mention and that will nearly always get a laugh. These are rarely celebrities that are known at all outside of your own country.

This even goes for bands, films, etc. Some bands and movies are internationally known, but a lot aren't. Just because Frambleplank are huge in your country, doesn't mean they made it anywhere else. In fact, I learnt a long time ago, just because I think a band are awesome and one of the greatest bands ever, doesn't mean anyone else has heard of them. Even people on my street.

If you are going to make references to people, things or events, they have to be well known internationally. This can be hard to judge if you haven't spent a lot of time out of the country in the company of locals.

Madonna, Brad Pitt, the current US president (whoever that is at the time of publication) are all suitably international that most people in most audiences will know who they are. Others you don't really know until you try, and it can vary country to country.
Even local references can be problematic. You might want to throw in that you know who the queen of Denmark is and that will work fine if the audience is made up of Danes, who will nearly all know who their queen is, but if the audience is international (visiting improvisers or local expats (who are only there for a short while and often don't get too involved in the local culture)), it might fly over their head.

Lazlo Philosovic, probably.
Overall it is best to avoid a lot of cultural references (and not just at international festivals). They are a particular type of spice you can add to a scene, but they are almost never necessary. Scenes ultimately should be about the characters and the relationships in the scene. References anyway, whilst funny, often take the scene and the actor out of the here and now and into the head world. They are often anachronistic (meaning out of place), which again can be funny, but it is something else which breaks the reality of the scene and improv seldom needs more of them.

4. Do more than just words

So far we've mostly looked at things to avoid or be careful of, but what are things we can focus more on. Most of the complications as we have seen have been about words. Improv tends to be a very verbal medium.

One approach for festivals is to do away with language. Or at least learn to not rely on it. French and Italian groups are great at doing this. Partly because English is often not so well spoken in those countries but also because they have a very strong physical theatre tradition. They tend to perform very physical shows where emotions, characters, relationships, etc., are not explained but shown. (Which is, after all, what your improv teachers kept going on about anyway.)

Play clear, true emotions, physicalise your characters, heighten your relationships, find and play games that are not word based.
A good story is always about the characters and relationships. As the great Hollywood story guru Robert McKee says, “All stories are 'character-driven'” [Story, Methuen, 1999]. You should always be focussing on characters and relationships. References, jokes and word-play are sprinkles on the top, which are not necessary. If your scenes are all just confection on the top, your audience is going to get diabetes pretty quick.
A clear character and well-defined relationship can also be something that is shown and not told. Sure, the specifics of a relationship might be hard to convey, but you can tell if two characters love each other, hate each other or whether one is jealous of another who doesn't even notice them. Likewise, we can usually see if a character is confident, shy, adventurous, thoughtful, romantic, fearful, etc, by just looking at them and seeing them interact with the world and others.
A great story can be told without words, and yet as improvisers we cling to words like they are everything.
In fact if you concentrate on the physical, the emotions, the character, the relationships, make it clear what's going on, you don't need words at all. I have seen groups struggling to express themselves in a second language who when allowing themselves to slip back into their own language or no language have suddenly freed themselves to really play.

The Italian team Teatribu often perform in Italian. They use simple Italian and use their great mime skills to make sure we can follow, and everything else is super clear. And the fact it is in Italian makes it all the more beautiful. It's funny that I know almost no Italian, but watching their shows I feel I am fluent. That should be your goal, to make sure the audience completely understands you no matter how well they speak the language you are using.


To summarise, the main points are these...

1. Speak clearly
2. Use simpler language
3. Avoid slang and expressions
4. Avoid references that are not universal
5. Focus on character, relationship, emotions and physicality.

The bottom line is, be aware of what you are saying and doing and be aware as much as possible of your audience. And this is not just good for festivals, this is good for all shows.
Do that and you'll keep the horse from eating the spanners.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Walk This Way: Walk-on Examples

My last post dealt with the subject of walk-ons and there were a few things I left out despite it being a bit long for a blog post. There are a couple of resources out there, which you might find helpful. There are also examples in a lot of movies (and plays, books, etc) that show this is not just an improv phenomenon.

To recap, walk-ons are a simple idea that can be a very effective tool. They can also easily get overdone or steer a scene in the wrong way.

Let's start by looking at examples in popular culture. I had a lot of trouble finding good clips because they are by their definition not hugely important, and usually they are not memorable. They are not meant to be memorable. You might remember the message they bring, but not the messenger. Which is mostly how it should be.

In movies, they are usually little more than a talking extra. The character that comes on and gives a report of what's going on is the classic. Or the character who adds to the terror by screaming "Oh, my god, it's huge. It'll destroy us all!"

In movies they don't actually have to walk on, because the camera can cut to them. But any character with who we see briefly and has one line, or only a few lines, is a walk-on.

A classic scenario for a movie is that an authority figure is approached by a second character, This second character gives a report of the current situation, is optionally given an order and leaves (or becomes once more a background figure). We'll take a look at a couple of a couple of examples. There might be spoilers, but mostly these are classic movies so if you haven't seen them yet, you haven't been trying.

There's a classic one in the original Star Wars movie, which is hard to find a good clip of, where an imperial officer enters and begins, "Lord Vader, the battle station plans are not aboard this ship! And no transmissions were made," and then pretty much leaves.

This is from the same movie and shows that it's not just humans that can do walk-ons, but also mouse droids. It's more comedic than explanational, but it is more than simply comic, it also highlights something of the characters we are following.

At the start of this next clip, from the classic nature-turns-on-man horror/thriller, The Birds, there is a walk-on which heightens the tension and unease of the main characters.

In Jaws, Harry, the old man on the beach character has a two-part walk-on. To first, heighten the tension and give us a false scare and then to give us some character exposition about the main character.

The final clip is a classic joke button at the end of a scene type walk-on (or in this case a CUT TO). In fact it's probably the most famous punchline end to scene by a walk-on character in the history of cinema: “I'll have what she's having.”

Some people might point out that the character is briefly shown earlier, but this is fine. Walk-on refers to the characters role in the current scene or moment, not their function in the whole piece. Here the character went from being background to being a walk-on.

Having an established character do a walk-on is perfectly fine, and happens a lot in movies and TV shows. The Simpsons is full of established characters who do walk-ons all the time. One of the clearest examples – and most used – is Herman Muntz and his iconic "Ha-ha!"

As they said in the movie Walk-On Club: “The first rule of Walk-On Club is you do not walk on unless it is absolutely necessary.” The second rule of Walk-On Club is once you've done the thing you were doing, walk the feck off stage.”

Other Resources

I got a lot of inspiration for the videos from The Greatest One Line Movie Roles from the Overthinking It channel.

Here's a great set of succinct list of questions you could ask yourself before doing a walk-on from Jimmy Carrane.

Friday 25 May 2018

Walk On By: The Subtle Art of Walking On and Walking Off Again

This topic came up as a recent discussion on everyone's favourite data-mining site, facebook. It set my brain off so here's some of its thoughts on the subject.

Before I start properly, I will state that my brain can't decide whether it likes "walk-on" or "walk on." (It already objected to “walkon.”) I'm going for the former as this seems more widely accepted and is clearer in some circumstances. If I offend any grammarians, then I'm am sorry.

I'll start this piece by defining what I mean by the term "walk-on." A walk-on is where an actor goes on stage during a scene and interacts with the scene (usually in a way that adds something) and then leaves. This can either be as a character who enters the scene or as a "director" pointing something out (scene painting, explaining, etc).

"Waiter, there's an extra person in my scene!"
It seems simple enough but it's fraught with danger and it can easily become something else. For example, if the actor doesn't leave, it is not a walk-on, they are adding a character. If they walk on and somehow take too much focus from an already established story that didn't require it, this is stealing focus. Walking on to edit a scene I do not consider a walk-on as we are discussing here, it is it's own separate thing.

There is also a walk-through, which is slightly different, but in the same ball park. It's where, for example a couple of characters cross the stage not interacting with the scene itself, although possibly referencing it. Once they actors have crossed the stage, that bit is over. It's like an INSERT in a movie.

Walk-on: Or a short flashback on Family Guy!
Again if the actors start a walk-through, but stay on stage, it becomes a split screen.
Walk-on: Oh, the jargon!
99% of the time in a walk-on, the actor physically enters the stage (usually by walking, but not exclusively), but, a voice from off-stage adding some details is also technically a walk-on.

"Sire, I bring you good news from off stage."
There are several reasons why walk-ons can be a good thing. They mostly come from the fact that actors on the side can have a better overview of the scene / story than the actors in the scene. They can usually better see what a scene needs or what the actors want.
Walk-on: So let's hear some.
Some reasons to do a walk-on:
  • Clear up confusions; explain things.
  • Add a helpful detail to enrich the scene, characters, atmosphere, etc.
  • Further a game.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Highlight an offer that is more important than the actors in the scene realise.
  • Solve a problem which is distracting the players.
  • Helping the story along when it's time to do so.
  • Add some element of fun.
  • To throw in a joke, make a call-back or add a counter-point.
  • Ending a scene. Although this is almost a separate subject, but if you come on and add a line that gives the scene a good end (or "button"), then this is also a specific kind of walk-on.
Again these things can all be done, but should only be done if they are needed. If you are not sure they are needed, they are probably not. Keep watching the scene and see if something feels missing or needed.
Walk-on: You will spend a lot of your time in improv standing on the sides and watching.
Now a lot of people are wary of walk-ons for some good reasons. Here are some of the pitfalls...
  • Sometimes the actor providing the walk-on doesn't leave, either because the actor thinks there is more to add or the other actors took this walk-on as another character - this can especially happen when the actors in the scene feel it is going badly and latch onto anything they can and are horrified that this new character might leave them alone.
  • The offer brought by the walk-on steers the scene unnecessarily in a direction it wasn't going. Walk-ons can nudge a story on track, most notably when the actors on the side can clearly see this is a story about one character's desire for revenge but somehow they characters are getting bogged down making coffee. But sometimes the actor on the side wasn't paying full attention or is obsessed with an earlier offer they think the story should be about.
  • The scene starts to be about the walk-on character when this isn't necessary.
  • The walk-on comes on as a character that the audience loves and this takes the focus. In general, come on for a walk-on as a minor character, do what you have to do and leave, but sometimes, you hit upon a great, funny character and they audience responds well to it. My advice here is still leave. Still serve that scene and help it. Because you can almost always bring that character back later in the show, which will probably have more impact, anyway.
  • The walk-on was to do a joke which ruins the atmosphere or takes away from what's happening on stage. A lot of  judgement is needed as to whether this is the time for a funny walk on. Sometimes the funny gets in the way of the story and although you might have a great gag that you know would get a laugh, if this is a touching moment, it might not be right at all, as you'll stamp all over the story and ruin a chance for improv to be more than just a bunch of joking nods to the audience and call-backs. Sometimes you can save it for the right moment (a touching scene followed by a great, funny line is good comedy) and sometimes you have to let that little birdie go (there will be other jokes, trust me).
  • An actor just wants to be on stage. I think we have all cringed at shows where there is one actor who somehow manages to be in every scene whether they are needed or not. And many of us have cringed when we have realised that actor was us that evening.
Walk-on: Hi everyone!

As with all these things, we can analyse them until we are blue in the face, but they only way to really learn the parameters is to do them. Rehearse with your team, practice walk-ons: do a montage-type longform and say beforehand, “we will do as many walk-ons as possible and then see / feel which ones work.” Play games where, say, only new information can be added by players outside the scene. There are more exercises, I'm sure.

And don't be afraid to evaluate and discuss after. "When you walked on during the egg scene, I didn't understand what you were bringing." Don't be afraid to ask yourself or fellow players, "was that needed?" Understand that it is hard to lean the balance of when to go on and when to not, and we will go too far sometimes in our enthusiasm, but that's how we learn. And sometimes it is a matter of opinion. As long as we are open to questioning ourselves and learning we can find that perfect balance point where we only enter a scene when it truly needs it and then, if this is a walk-on, we get the bejesus back off stage.

Quiz for the keen: There were several walk-ons during this piece. Can you determine which were the helpful ones and which were not? There will be a follow-up post with some examples soon.
Walk-on: As ever feel free to comment.

Saturday 3 February 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Gotta get down on Friday

On Friday I took a workshop on hip hop improv because one should always push oneself. Plus it’s a workshop with a beatboxer in it, and pretty much anything without a beatboxer is lame. I won’t even go shopping these days without someone beside me laying down some dope beats.

The night started with Friend Friend, where two friends, Amy and Anna, channel their love for each other to portray a heart-warming array of characters. There is so much charm and calm joy on display here. You get drawn into the worlds they are themselves discovering and feel you’ve just watched a show of two people giving each other lovely gifts.

I'll Be There For You. (Photo by Marwan Youssef)
The second show was Stuck in the middle. In this show, one of the players is selected to be “stuck in the middle” which means they are on the stage the whole time and it’s up to the other players to start scenes with you, to look after you, and to mess with you. I was blessed enough that day to be the one selected.

You know that feeling when you are in a toy store and one of the staff comes up and says “here’s a large scale millenium falcon, play with this” and then when you’ve had a little fun another comes up and says “here’s a lego castle, play with this” and shortly after another appears and says “here’s an classic Atari console fully loaded with Ms Pacman…” (Let me know if my references are dated at all.) Anyway if you can understand the concept of this then you understand what it’s like to be the chosen one in this format. A gang of talented performers give you a selection of awesome gifts and the main thing you have to do is react  I’m still a little hyper from it all.

We'll be there for you (Photo by Marwan Youssef)
After all this fun, there was more fun. A choice of fun. There was The Final Gig, a duo show showing the final concert of a legendary, nonexistent musical pairing, with great singing and high emotions.
The other show was Decibel, a Franco-Finno trio who combine mime and acrobatics with their improvisation. And I really do mean acrobatics, I’ve never seen a group, climb, carry each other and tumble with such ease. They also do the one of the seemingly most difficult improvisational skills: not speaking. Also they had beatboxers guesting because, well, if you can you really really should.

This is the last time we'll be here.

Monday 29 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - T to the hursday

Tonight there was an extra early show from the Brazilian mime group doing their living statues show. There are not many improv shows where you get painted from head to toe before you go on stage.

The main presentation got started with Dogville. This is an improvised adaptation of the movie by Lars von Trier. It's the one where the set budget only stretched to some chalk. Also the actors had no trailers and had to be on set the whole time even in scenes not about them. The original movie is in the genre of harsh drama; This was definitely lighter.

Downward Facing Dogville. (Photo by Mathieu vd Berk)
As far as I'm aware this is the only Lars von Trier movie to have inspired improv shows. I’m still keenly waiting for the formats Nymphomaniac and Antichrist.

After the break, North Coast from New York took the stage. North Coast do a thing called hip hop improv. It's exactly what it sounds like it is. The energy they bring to the stage, the rhythmicality, the sheer scale of commitment is exhilarating. They do scenes and games that lead into or somehow involve music. They are not only versatile within the reasonably broad category of rap / hip hop but also jump into other styles too. What really sets them apart from other improv groups who may do music is that they bring with them two world-class beatboxers. What Kaila and Mark can do with their voices will blow your mind. At this moment, I can’t imagine doing a show without a beatboxer in it.

Northcoast in the Haunted House (Photo by Mathieu vd Berk)
Tonight the late night shows were The Ghost Sheep from Brussels with The Fortune Teller where an audience member has their future predicted / improvised; and the sensitive Dutch men from Broos. The Ghost Sheep told the future of one of the beatboxers because, well, every show needs a beatboxer.

The Ghost Sheep Need Ewe!
Broos - the brooding bass-backed boys of improv.

Saturday 27 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Tales from the Garage

Flicker is a format by Katie and Chris of Project2 and one I was lucky enough to be in. The simple explanation is that half the scenes are played in the dark and the other half in the light. The scenes without light force you to use sound to create radio plays or soundscapes. They also hopefully remind you to be more physical in the scenes where people can see you. It certainly produced some fun scenes and made for a show with a strong visual identity.

Scene with the lights on (Photo by John Mabey)

The second half was given over to Dad’s Garage. Dad’s Garage are a theatre with a good reputation based in Atlanta in the US. What do they make in Dad’s Garage? Well, lots of things, but tonight two of them showed us Working Title, which is an improvised Hollywood movie. Using the language of movie scripts to help paint and link the scenes, they get a description of a hero from the audience and two very different locations and launch themselves into if. Our hero then somehow gets from the first location to the second one, far from home and what he knows. They hit all of the beats of a good script and clearly know their movie structure. So the show has a well-structured story with some action, a little romance, camera pans and a satisfying end where everyone feels good. But it’s all done with a ton of confidence and a lot of fun, discovering the story as they go and following the twists to their conclusion.
Lights on, cameras on, actions (photo by John Mabey)
After the main shows, there were 2 options as previously:

In one room, most of the cast of the main stage shows ganged up and threw down a show. It was basically a talented bunch of friends putting on a show simply for the joy of what they do.

In the other room, BAFNI from Scooby Doo, I mean BAFNI the Vampire Slayer, I mean BAFNI from The Czech Republic performed. They took stories from themselves and the audience to inspire them in all directions.

I know I promised lots of gossip, but I think everyone is too sleep deprived to cause scandal, or I’m too sleep deprived to notice it. All I can say is that in the green room there is a teddy bear groupie that partied way too hard this week.

Fight's on! (photo by John Mabey)

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Mardi

Tuesday night began with The Ghost of Love, a format where 4 couples go on 4 very different romantic journeys. For each couple, two “ghosts” control them, mock them, add atmosphere, emotions and plot points. The ghosts leave the actors free to play the characters and situations and not worry too much (or anything) about the story, which is always helpful for an actor.

Ghosts, Actually. (photo by Robin Straaijer)

The resulting show was somehow very cinematic, touching and filled with metaphor and symbolism. The fact that all 4 paths were very different made this feel like a written piece. The paths were not just a new couple getting together, but an established couple getting over a rocky patch and a couple who has always been together who never experienced a bump, but were still a joy to watch. The fourth couple got together, but it didn’t work out, and this, more than anything, made it a well-rounded show. None of this, four neat, happy endings mulch. And seeing the characters in their couples (or not) in the final moments, dampened many a nasolacrimal duct.

L'Action (photo by Robin Straaijer)
From the joy and heartache of love, we moved on to the joy of joy. La Carpe Haute are from Strasbourg in the bit of France everyone thinks is in Germany. They do physical theatre with a ton of mime, clowning and plenty of heart and soul. If there is an object needed, they will not hesitate to demonstrate or be that object - whatever it is to make sure you know what that object is. There is never doubt. And even that object, no matter what it is, exudes joy. They love to play, they clearly love each other and they commit to whatever they discover about 104%.

To cap off the evening, there was a choice between two solo shows:

Las Vegas I Gave You My Heart (Photo by John Mabey)
The Laser Comedy Show by Chris Fair is comic book drawn right in front of you with the addition of sound. You’ll find comic books pretty lame after this.

The alternative was Trudy Carmichael Presents: The Improvised One-Woman Show, in which Robin Rothman plays a Las Vegas legend telling the improvised story of her life and career in between songs.

Lasers or divas, sometimes in life you have to choose between the two.

Thursday 25 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Opening night

Festivals should begin with a bang. That is unless you running The International Festival of Slow Fades, or Disappointed! The Festival for Mismanaged Expectations. (Both of which are great festivals, but I’ll discuss them another time I absolutely promise. Honest.) But this festival went for the tradition of bangular openings.

This show is the first chance for the general public to really see the ensemble cast. For this first show, everyone performed in their original teams. Each team has a show of their own later in the week. Except the Dutch who were only assembled as a team for this festival and are merely along for the ride. It's a kind of taster for the whole week.

(Also there is another team with a main-stage show that is not part of the ensemble, but I won’t mention that now to keep from confusing you. It’s Dad’s Garage.)

Each team showed off a bit of their style and were then given a second challenge to pay homage to another team, which got Americans being Australians, Australians being Dutch and the Dutch rapping. What could possibly go wrong?


The second half of the show was given over to Project2 an English duo who improvise in the style of science fiction. It is fair to say they kicked the ball straight out of the stratosphere. A lot of improvised science fiction is goofy, soulless, gadget-obsessed parody. (Actually a fair few movies are too.) Katie and Chris (who are the current incarnation of Project2) are doing this out of love and respect. They know their science fiction. They might mock it, but they do it with love. They can find the funny, but they are not afraid to be truthful and their commitment cannot be questioned. The stories they weave and eventually manage to tie together contain so much human truth, that the end was a veritable burst of joy.

And all this with a superbly atmospheric live soundtrack by one half of noughties electronica duo Lemon Jelly.
Zombie vs Sentry Drone

Night at the Museum of Stories
After most of the shows this week, there is a choice of 2 late night shows. Firstly, there were Brazilian living statues with Museum of Stories. Yes those actual living statues you find in most big cities on the streets near the most touristy of spots were brought into theatres to be both statues and actors in scenes. Any improviser who has ever had to try and be still on stage for more than 1 minute can learn a lot from these guys.

And secondly there was some “playback theatre” from local group, Wordt Vervolgd (which means To Be Continued). Playback theatre is where the audience tells their stories and these are then recreated or interpreted on stage for fun or therapy.

In all a great official first night. Well up there with the opening night of Bangfest IV: The Bangening.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Secret Preshow

A festival the size of IMPRO Amsterdam doesn’t just happen because of the efforts of one person. There are scores of people who help make the magic happen. From the artistic team who decide which teams come to the people who wash the dishes after the performers have eaten. (Yes, this festival provides food for the performers. I know, right!)

As many of these volunteers as can fit in the chosen venue (about 50) are rewarded with an extra free show where they get to see the newly assembled team show what they can do. It’s a very nice pre-actual festival show. A time to really play with your new friends but without the pressure of a show in a 220-seater theatre.

And house spirit makes three.
The players were divided into two groups, spreading each of the national teams as evenly as possible between them. Each group played for 40 or so minutes. Showing off the mixed skills, styles, heights and accents of the cast. It’s hard to remember scenes in shows you were in, but from what I recall there were scenes about how accommodating French hairdressers can be to uncomprehending foreigners; haunted hotels where you can probably never leave; the difficulty of finding pets that will stick around; waiters caught between a hard chef and a gang of customers; the complexities and absurdities of negotiating a shoe shine; and the importance of light-switch positioning when taunting light-fearing demons. All very valuable lessons in life.

You actually can'r even check out anytime you want.
There was definitely a lot of not just playing well together but the joy of playing together on display. It all ended with a huge dance number including much of the audience, which, being almost entirely made up of improvisers, was more than will to join in.

It’s already uberfun and it’s not officially started.


Sunday 21 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - The cast meet the cast

Drawing the teams from 5 countries (over 3 continents), the men and women behind the organisation of the festival have pulled together an awesome, diverse team of players. There are Hip Hoppers from New York, Science Fictioneers from London, Comédiens physiques de Strasbourg and a couple of talented sheilas out of Melbourne.

These, with 6 Dutch (and adoptive Dutch) players, form the main stage cast for this year’s festival. There are other players doing the more specialised late-night shows and adding to the number of countries and continents, but I’ll talk more about these later.

Some of these people had met before, but many had not. They arrived as several different-shaped containers of talent, and the first stages of mixing them together and making them a team began Saturday, with a dinner and a chance to play together.

Dutch bikes after the storm.
“Familiarity breeds content” is an old adage in improv that I just invented. And so this was a chance for the players to get to know each other, both as players and as people. The more you know and like someone, generally, the better you perform together. It’s true. Try performing with someone you just met who you hate. It’s really difficult. Everything they say is so stupid.

After the foundations of the team were built, the next, more powerful method of bringing people together took place. Dinner! Food unites people. The communal breaking of bread (or, in this case, pizza base), is guaranteed to bring people closer together. Unless for some reason they like Brussels sprouts, in which case everything they eat is so stupid.

Also, there was alcohol. Everything that goes for food, goes for alcohol (except the effects are quicker but much shorter lasting).

After all of this there was a chance to perform for each other and see some of the skills these kids have brought to town. Oh, man, are you in for a great festival!

Saturday 20 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - introduction (not that it needs one)

In September last year, Theatersportvereningenamsterdam (TVA), organised a kind of knock-out competition to find who is the team to represent the Netherlands in this year’s IMPRO Amsterdam. The various gods of comedy smiled on me that night and I am to be part of the 6-strong cast of funny people who next week will, as they say, represent.

For those of you who don’t know IMPRO Amsterdam, shame on you. But, it doesn’t matter, it will happen without you knowing about it. And even if you know nothing about it, it doesn’t really need an introduction, all you need to know about it is in the title. And certainly if you use it’s full title, “Improvised Comedy Festival Amsterdam The Netherlands 2018.” (Which in Dutch would be “Improvisatiekomedietheaterfestivalamsterdamnederlandtweeduizendachttien” (IKTFANTTA).)

As last year, I intend to blog every day about the festival. This time from an insider’s perspective. As a performer at the festival. I’ll give my impression of the highlights, the lowlights, and the midlights. I’ll give you the low down, the goss, and the words from the streets. I give you as much as I can before I fall asleep through sheer exhaustion, because it’s quite a full-on week.

So, if you can’t make the festival, keep reading and live it through these words and occasional pictures. If you can make the festival, still keep reading and see if you agree with my twisted view of what happened. And if you are involved in making the festival happen, keep reading as all this is dedicated to you.
The Dutch cast: Jochem, Sven, Nardje, Huib, Nicole, and
Myself (winning the goofiest expression competition).