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Austentatious’ Graham Dickson: ‘Improv is my life and improv changed my life’

Graham Dickson. Photo: The Other Richard Graham Dickson. Photo: The Other Richard

Graham Dickson is a performer in Austentatious, the improvised comedy play inspired by Jane Austen, as well as artistic director and co-founder of London improv school the Free Association. He tells Roda Musa about how improvisation changed his life…

How did you get involved with Austentatious?

I discovered improv when I lived in New York for a year and I got hooked. I came back to London and there were few people doing improv. There were a few little groups and one of the people I met was Amy Cooke-Hodgson. She invited me to meet four of the guys who had been part of [comedy troupe] the Oxford Imps, and they had already talked about wanting to do a long-form improv show based around Jane Austen. Using Austen as a starting point, we had our first meeting about it and that was the start.

Why did you choose to focus on Austen?

Amy and Rachel [Parris, founding member] were big fans, and Andy [Hunter Murray] and Joseph [Morpurgo, both cast members of Austentatious] knew a lot about Austen, having studied English literature. I did not have much interest in Austen at the time. I mainly wanted to be in a group of good people doing improv. We had no idea it would be as successful as it is. Even after doing the show for a year, we were still discussing moving on to a different genre. Then the show became so popular and it struck a cord with audiences and there were so many keen Austen fans. The reason Austen was such a good fit was because there was already so much comedic potential in her work; in the worlds and characters she creates. It lends itself well to what we do. It is a very accessible genre.

What does improv mean to you?

Improv is my whole life and it completely changed my life. I run an improv school in London. I spend my life teaching it and doing shows – I owe everything to improv, it made me more confident. It solves a lot of issues for me, particularly with acting but also in life in general – that is what a lot of people would discover about improv. People get obsessed with it because they realise how useful it is. More than anything it is so much fun. When you’re learning and doing improv you’re spending all your time laughing – that is something anybody would enjoy. It teaches you useful and transferable skills. It teaches you to listen well and to work in a team. It teaches you to be positive, accept offers and build on them. It teaches you to say yes. It is the joy of failing and starting again.

Improvised Austen show to run in the West End

Does improv get the recognition it deserves in mainstream theatre?

In this country it is finally getting more popular. For people who have been doing it for a while, we’ve seen it grow. When we started doing Austentatious, there were few people doing improv and there weren’t many improv schools – fast-forward seven years and there are hundreds of people doing improv in this country and multiple schools. The community is rapidly growing and actors are starting to see how valuable it is.

Read our review of the 2014 production of Austentatious

CV: Graham Dickson

Formal training: Acting for film at New York Film Academy (2005-2006); Improvised comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York (2006); MA acting for film, TV and radio at East 15 Acting School (2006-2007)
First professional role: She Stoops to Conquer, Hoxton Hall (2010)
Agent: PBJ Management

Austentatious will be showing at the Piccadilly Theatre in London for three dates: December 5, January 23 and February 13

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