The last few years have seen a massive upsurge of improv companies and performances in the UK.
For many years in London it was pretty much the Comedy Store Players or nothing. Now there are improv shows every night of the week at the Miller, the Nursery and beyond. Bristol has its own dedicated Improv Theatre, Nottingham is developing one, and improv festivals are popping up in London, Bristol, Belfast, Edinburgh and Birmingham.
Most actors will have experience of using improvisation techniques in the rehearsal room, to develop a character or explore a backstory.
But this is very different from improv as a performance art form. When creating theatre live on stage, the improvisers are not only actors – they are also writers, directors and editors, working as a tight team to create, shape and complete a theatrical experience for the audience in real time.
There are no retakes. And that is why learning to improvise for performance is a whole different skill set.
You’ve probably heard of some of the basic tenets of improv: the ‘Yes, and’ technique, listening intently, noticing and using everything, making your partner look good, and so on.
These are phrases that are easy to say, but take a lot of time and practice to absorb, hone and perfect. This is why the best companies train together and stay together, often for years, and why there has been such a boom in improv classes and workshops in recent times.
Among these are the Showstoppers, a group that improvises musical theatre, Austentatious, which conjures stories from nothing in the style of Jane Austen, and London’s The Maydays. They are all breaking boundaries and pulling in crowds.
The two skills, acting and improvising, are complementary. Learning to improvise improves a performer’s listening on stage, increases their understanding of what drives a good scene, helps heighten emotion and raises the stakes. It definitely makes actors better at what they do.
And the very best improvisers are inevitably also good actors, able to slip into a wide range of characters as needed, and inhabit them with an inner life instantly. As a side benefit, improv also makes you a better writer, a better director, and, dare I say, a better person, as the habit of positive support of others seeps into your everyday life.
And while London offers the most opportunities to learn and to perform, the improv phenomenon has spread rapidly across the country. In my home town of Birmingham the improv scene has grown from a tiny seedling 10 years ago, and blossomed to the point where a plethora of performing companies, workshops and drop-ins are available most nights of the week, and there are plenty of performances to see.
In the US, improv is a known channel for performers to move into mainstream comedy, often via shows such as Saturday Night Live. Many TV and film stars have a background in improv. These include Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, Tina Fay and Robin Williams, to name but a few.
Here in the UK, the reason for growth is less clear, but the more people who are exposed to it, through successful companies playing major venues, the more we want to give it a try, and so the art form self-perpetuates. And where can it get to? Ideally, we will reach a far wider audience through TV, film, video and virtual and augmented reality, an exciting area that some improvisers are just starting to experiment with.