While London’s expense puts off many artists, Canadian director Stephen Davidson tells Nick Awde that Edinburgh is a melting pot of improv talent
Improv thrives on international collaboration, says Canadian performer and director Stephen Davidson: “It’s a language that’s spoken all over the world. The core skills are always the same: agreement, listening, world-creation, emotional literacy and being in the moment.”
“I can perform a show with an improviser from any country in the world just as well as I can with another Londoner, which isn’t always true of more traditional theatre and traditionally trained actors as the vocabulary is so specific,” he adds.
Based in London, Davidson works with theatre company the Nursery and is an author of two books on the subject: Play Like an Ally and Improvising Gender.
“I do a lot of work around diversity and inclusion in improv (and in theatre generally). I’m transgender, and use my own experience and research to talk about privilege and entitlement in the performance arts.”
At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he’s director of Love and Misinformation, an improvised play at Greenside inspired by Caryl Churchill. “She’s fantastic for [improv], because she’s a revolutionary. Her forms change and grow, she tries new things and she evolves. It also means that we can wear our ‘international’ skin in a loose and comfortable way.”
That skin is in the form of The Improvised Play, a UK ensemble of Brits and non-Brits that is also more than 50% LGBT+ and includes a number of neurodiverse people.
In fact, the cast for Love and Misinformation ended up being one of the most diverse groups Davidson believes he has seen. “I think it speaks to the power we can gain by being ‘other’. More than half the auditionees were white British men, but none of them had the skill set I wanted for this show.” Now, he adds, the ensemble “has really started to feel like a family”.
London is a promising setting to find international talent because it’s very much an aspirational city, especially in the European arts scene. It has one of the biggest improv scenes in Europe, and yet it’s in Europe that almost every week of the year there’s at least one major improv festival, attracting top talent from all over the world.
“London is simply too expensive to visit,” says Davidson. “I wish there were more funding available to attract international artists, because I do think we’re too reliant on our own traditions.”
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe on the other hand redresses the balance, since it attracts so many improv shows (theatre and comedy) that they make up the equivalent of a festival in their own right. At the same time, Edinburgh is a showcase for the UK’s homegrown international work, though that work often risks being overshadowed by international productions that originate in other countries.
But that’s an interesting problem to have, says Davidson. “We as an audience are easily led to exoticise or pigeonhole international work, and this is especially true at the Edinburgh Fringe because the frenzied and oversaturated marketing style means that you need to be able to pitch the unique thing about your show in a couple of seconds or a single line.”
The UK’s homegrown international work is therefore an ideal thing to bring to Edinburgh. “A lot of shows that come in from other countries reflect the culture of that country very well, but in a heterogeneous way. I feel that international work originating in a place like London is uniquely able to reflect the melting pot of cultures that the city is.”