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Improv artists make it up as they go – to the West End

Adam Meggido, centre, in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. Photo: Idil Sukan
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It’s an exciting time for British improv. An ever-multiplying number of venues are hosting courses and classes in the art of improvised performance, while established and emerging companies are exploring its creative potential in innovative ways. And, this month, the project widely credited with inspiring this new wave is literalising improv’s move in from the fringes. Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is coming to the West End’s Apollo Theatre.

Josie Lawrence, of the Comedy Store Players and Whose Line Is It Anyway? Photo:  Ruth Crafer
Josie Lawrence, of the Comedy Store Players and Whose Line Is It Anyway? Photo: Ruth Crafer

For Adam Meggido, who co-founded the award-winning Showstoppers back in 2007 with improv legends Ken Campbell and Dylan Emery, this is “the culmination of an eight-year journey of trying to hone, examine and craft the art form to its top level and bring it back into mainstream theatre”. From its start at the Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s potent mix of musical and improvisation – its live band and audience-proposed ideas – has defied pigeonholing.

Skip forward to 2015 and, as far as Meggido knows, this is the first time a full-scale, improvised show has ever been attempted in the West End. “Two weeks of Whose Line Is It Anyway? is one thing,” he reflects, “but an actual run of a drama that’s different each time you see it?” He calls it “an absurd risk”, but states: “It’s time to give it a go. People will like it or not, but what’s important is that we keep pushing ourselves onwards.”

While improv entertainment existed here before Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the popular improvised game show introduced the form to TV-watching British audiences in a big way in the late 1980s and still looms large. It recently had a live stint at the Adelphi Theatre. While many contemporary acts welcome the show’s profile-raising impact, they also stress its brand of rapid-fire entertainment is just one type of improvisation.

Josie Lawrence“I think it’s so important to have multiple voices,” says Andy Yeoh, original member of improvised theatre company Degrees of Error and founder and director of programming at the Bristol Improv Theatre. “In any developing art form, especially this one, you get people saying, ‘Oh, we must do it this way’.” Yeoh, like many, also teaches improv and encourages his students to study as many disciplines as possible.

But what explains improv’s current resurgence? While Meggido believes sheer intrigue was key with the Showstoppers (“People just went, ‘How do they do that?’”), he also sees the proliferation of new companies around that time as a creative response to the belt-tightening precipitated by the financial crisis. “Improv is credit crunch-friendly. You’ve got a group of people who don’t need a set or the high costs of theatre. They can step into a blank space and entertain.”

And a generation of would-be improv performers who grew up with Whose Line Is It Anyway? began to look for inspiration to countries such as Canada and the US, with well-established improv scenes. “If you go to any decent-sized city in America, there are hundreds of people who have a lot of teaching and performing experience in a way there just isn’t here,” says Jules Munns, founder and artistic director of London-based Nursery Theatre, which has been pivotal in bringing talented practitioners to the UK.

“Making a connection with all those people and bringing them over seemed like the obvious way to raise the quality and increase the variety of the improvised work going on in this country.” But Munns laughs: “That’s the public-spirited way of looking at it. Selfishly, I also wanted to be on stage with [American performer and director] Dave Razowsky.”

For Munns, the challenge for an audience facing improv “is that it’s not theatre, it’s not comedy – it’s a third thing”. Defining it to the public is “very hard, because as a country, we like things that fit into easy traditions”. He hopes developments like the Nursery having hosted the Edinburgh Fringe’s first dedicated improv venue this year will encourage people to experience a rich range of work.

Austentatious! An Improvised Novel, featuring Amy Cooke-Hodgson, seated front, is a comedy play in the style of Jane Austen. Photo: Richard Davenport
Austentatious! An Improvised Novel, featuring Amy Cooke-Hodgson, seated front, is a comedy play in the style of Jane Austen. Photo: Richard Davenport

Michael Orton-Toliver relocated from the US two years ago and co-founded the Free Association. Based in east London, it hosts in-house and visiting improv groups and provides training in long-form American techniques. Orton-Toliver has seen a “real explosion” of interest in improv. “In January, we had three classes and three levels. Now, we have four levels and two classes in each level,” he says.

In part, he credits this to the breakout popularity of the likes of the Showstoppers and, more recently, the period-dressed Austentatious! An Improvised Novel. “They’re making it accessible,” he says. He also sees a growing awareness of the power of the improv community stateside.

improv fundingSteve Roe, who runs improvised comedy club Hoopla, echoes this: “The rise in fame of TV and film comedy actors, like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, who all came from improv backgrounds, [has led] to a large increase of interest in training with actors in the US, and there has been a knock-on effect in the UK.”

“As a community, we’re skilling up,” attests Amy Cooke-Hodgson from Austentatious. From “improv class tourism” abroad to coaching at home, “we’ve been working really hard to make sure our shows are the best quality they can be,” she adds. Cooke-Hodgson compares the adrenaline rush of improvising to a rollercoaster ride – “As a performer, you have to be on top of your game.” It is a way to hone skills from acting to comedy.

“For me, it’s the creativity that comes with improv,” says Heather Urquhart, who studied at Chicago’s Io Theater and performs with the likes of the award-winning Maydays and the Showstoppers. “Because you’re writing it as you’re acting it and staging it, you’re kind of the master of your own destiny.”

Something that every improv performer relishes is what Cooke-Hodgson calls “the achievement of creating something as a group, on the spur of the moment”. Urquhart reminds her students that successful improvisation isn’t about being the funniest or the cleverest, “it’s about creativity, making each other look good and letting ideas grow”.

On a larger scale, through exposure to the work of other groups at festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe or the sharing of ideas through training, this spirit of collaboration is key to development of improv in the UK. In that regard, Meggido thinks we’re still finding our feet.

For Meggido, British improv is at “an interesting point, where people are just beginning to talk to each other and loosen up their boundaries”. But with a rising star like Degrees of Error’s Yeoh hoping to turn BIT into the UK’s first full-time improv theatre, the future seems bright. “This year, especially, there’s been a real optimism and understanding of what British improv is,” enthuses Hoopla’s Roe.

And that is? Well, says Roe, it’s not about simply emulating an American or European model. From the melding of clowning and physical theatre with our own narrative-based theatrical tradition, “it’s a melting pot of everything”. As British artists learn, share and explore new ideas, what Roe terms “the Wild West” of the burgeoning UK improv scene will hopefully continue to forge new frontiers.

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, September 24 to November 29 (to win tickets to the show courtesy of The Stage visit bit.ly/comp-showstopper)

The Nursery’s autumn season is at the Edric Theatre, Borough Road, London, from October 2 to December 5

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