Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Venues to perform improv in and shows that need improvisers in.

Got an impro show? Here's some places to perform it.
Are an improviser? Here's some more groups/nights that might want you to perform with them.
I don't have all contact details but they should pop up on google.
This is an ever changing fluctuating list so please let me know if I've missed any. 

Tuesdays: The Miller, London Bridge. Two different impro groups a night. Programmed by Steve Roe from Hoopla ( in association with Jon Monkhouse ( Next year it will generally be one show that's been directed/produced by Hoopla/Steve combined with one guest group. We're trying to support new shows, with most new shows getting at least one showing at Miller Tuesdays, so there is much variety as possible.

Wednesdays: The Miller, London Bridge. Two different groups a night. Programmed by Jon Monkhouse ( in association with Hoopla.

Thursdays: Grand Theft Impro, The Wheatsheaf, they have guest performers that tend to be from the very experienced section of improvisers.

Sundays: Crack Comedy Improv Sundays with two different groups every single Sunday. Programmed by Luisa Omielan (

Sundays: Wilmington Arms. Every Sunday with experienced Harold Players working together. Might be doing some jams too. Gareth seems to be coordinating this, sorry don't have his full contact details to hand.  

Every other Thursday: Fingers on Buzzards, The Horse. Sometimes has guest performers, Matt Andrews is the chapt.
RH and Friends: The RH Experience Shows, with added different performers each time.

Hoopla Friday Night Impro Party: Open to all improv jam, turn up and perform, first Friday of the month, starting this Friday at The Miller.

The Horse - really good venue, free to hire if you're bringing in an audience, lots of impro groups performing ad hoc or regular shows here now.

The Inflatables - Great short form show that sometimes has guest cast. Andrew Gentilli is your man.

Fat Kitten - don't think they are looking for cast at the moment but it's a crime to talk about impro in London and not mention them. James Ross runs awesome nights with them and other comedy acts including some mega big stuff.

Battle Acts - They do verses shows in Brixton and may be interested in some other teams to play against.

Catch 23 - Cool format directed by Paul Foxcroft that has different teams performing.

The Wheatsheaf, Rathbone Place - cheap to hire, good for ad hoc impro shows but probably won't do more regular shows than GTI.

The Round Table, Leicester Square - really small venue, Hoopla used to perform every Tuesday here, free to hire, right next to Leicester Square Station. Not great for big shows but fun atmospheric place to put on a cheeky test show.

Leicester Square Theatre - massive venue and also smaller cabaret venue. Heard good things about their marketing ability at bringing in their own audience, but heard it can be a bit pricey.

Canal Cafe Theatre, Hen & Chickens, The Pleasance, Camden Etc - haven't really worked with them but they've all had various workshops there.

Crunchy Frog Collective - - best website for staying up to date with impro casting calls etc.

Casting Call Pro - another good casting website. If you're looking to build up acting experience this is a good one.


New exercise on being altered by small offers

Came up with a new exercise at our Monday night class this week. It was part of a 'Listening Workshop'. 

I'd already done lots of listening exercises, similar to those mentioned in a previous blog ( when I got onto the topic of active listening. 

It's not about just being on stage 'listening' and 'seeing' but doing nothing. That can create boring scenes that don't go anywhere, as two actors wait for the other to do something thinking that that's supportive. 

It's true that listening and seeing are the first requirements of improvisation - otherwise how can you know what the other person is doing and improvise with them?

But on top of listening and seeing people must be ALTERED by what the other person does and take ACTION. It's when we are altered, emotionally, intellectually, physically by the other person's offers that we get a connection. 

Everyone can react to big offers. Actually in fact even that's probably not true, we've probably all seen scenes like this:

- You're Brother has been shot on the front line
- I don't have a brother / do you want a cup of tea / good I didn't like him

The second actor is doing anything they can to not be altered by the news. 

Also we've probably all seen scenes where someone was shot but didn't die (booo) etc etc. 

So anyway,  we therefore came up with an exercise where one person makes the SMALLEST possible offers they can, and the other is ALTERED in a big way by everything they do. 

I don't normally name check people in blogs, but I got Nick Oram to do this and he was so awesome at it I just had to mention it. 

So me and Nick were on stage. And I just casually moved my right hand in front of my by about 5 centimeters. He immediately went into panic and jumped away from me and shouted 'no! don't press it'. My little offer of 'moving my hand' had been turned into 'pressing a button to release a nuclear bomb' by his reactions alone.

We carried on with more, and funnily enough even if he tried to be over the top they didn't actually look over the top, as it just made the scene have higher stakes. I felt super supported as I could do even the slightest move and it had a big effect on Nick. We also tried it where he didn't react at all, and this resulted in me waving my arms like mad and being too 'big', and I felt like a bit of a dick. So when the other actor is not being altered, you tend to over do things and feel self-concious, as if you're not affecting the other people on stage how can you affect the audience?

We continued this game with the whole group, where one by one someone had to push an imaginary button very subtly, and then the whole group would react with the same reaction at once. This was crazy fun. I found it important to mention that they should be reacting to the build up to pushing the button, not just the action. 

So you're being altered by the other actor all of the time, not just the big deliberate offers, but the accidental offers, the build up, the casual. Don't wait for an offer, act as if it has already happened. Make something they did important to you. Be altered. 

Workshops in London Monday, Thursday, Saturday
Workshops around the UK starting in 2012

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How to use improv to write sketch comedy

Yeahhhhh! Finally cracked it. I've run this workshop a few times before but never felt like it reached it's full potential, but this Saturday there were some amazing sketches popping up one after another - blam blam blam! Here's a collection of things that we found helpful:

Explorer, Artist, Judge, Warrior

This is more of a concept than a technique, it comes from Roger von Oech's 'A whack on the side of the head' and is for any creative project. You basically have to take each of those roles as you go through the process. As applied to sketch comedy using improv and other techniques:

Explorer: Goes into the world. Reads about subjects. Absorbs information. Writes lists of things. Doesn't worry about what's funny and what's possible. Explore a subject before you know what's funny about it.

Artist: Plays with the information from the explorer, plays games, mucks around, haves fun, turns things on their head. Takes it to new dimension. Doesn't worry about what's funny and what's possible. Play with a subject before you know what's funny about it.

Judge: Picks out the funny bits, best bits. Decides what is going forward. Decides what could be done with being played with more. Any clown can tell you what's not working, the more experienced people will be able to spot what is working and build that up instead.

Warrior: Making it happen. Driving it through to a finished product. Getting scripts, props, actors, venues, audiences etc.

In reality they actually overlap more than that, but that's the general idea. The process freezes up when people accidentally act in one role too early - as in judging their first thoughts before they've done any exploring, or trying to be funny before they've actually explored a subject to be funny with, or being a warrior with a project that hasn't actually got any content yet.

So explore, play play play, spot what works, build that up, play play play, record, refine, rehearse, produce, perform, re-evaluate.

Writing Techniques

We employed a few different writing techniques throughout the day, even though the workshop was predominantly about the improv and using scripts as the inspiration for performance rather than the be all and end all.

Write a Sketch in 10 Minutes - did this right at the start of the day. No warm up, no guidelines, no help. I think writing is held under some kind of mystical reverence sometimes so I like to get rid of this right at the start and just get people doing it no matter what. Fastest way to learn is to do. Some people were in judge mode, even though it's an impossibly difficult task, and were then surprised that actually really good stuff came out. There's a hidden gem in all writing when you are improvising from it, and actually this technique produced one of the funniest sketches of the day. Do NOT judge or critisize these pieces, that's not the point of the exercise.

Break The Rules
- write down at the top of the page a well known situation, occupation or location. Underneath write down all the rules that make up that thing. Social rules, legal rules, unsaid rules, etiquette, professional rules, whatever the concept means to you. What's the essence of that thing? What is the normality for that thing? Be obvious and write out loads, the more obvious the better. Now take the rules and write down in a line the breaking of each rule one be one. What's the opposite of that thing? How can that truth be reversed? Now go through the broken rules and exagerate and extrapolate, and then write down a sketch based on this.

Who What Where Relationship Attitude Objective Situation
- making sure your sketches and characters have these things

Repeating and Escalating - start with a subtle pattern of behaviour, repeat and escalate

Reversal - what usually happens in this situation? What's the normal process? Reverse this, make a sketch out of it. For instance fireman usually get called out to put out fires with water that comes out of their hoses. Reversing generating a sketch about arsonists that get called out and have fire coming out of hoses.

- ridicule someone famous who deserves it!

Switching - switch a well defined character to a different situation in life but keep the same behaviour from their normal situation. For example two doctors doing the washing up with the same care as an operation "spoon. Spoon. Sponge. Sponge. I need 50mg more fairy washing up liquid." You can also just switch the patterns of behaviour across characters. 

Exaggerating - Exagerate a well known character, situation, relationship etc. 

Role Reversal - take well known groups of characters and switch their normal roles. For instance parents start acting as children. Sitcoms do this all the time.

Improvising from the Scripts

We learnt this from The Penny Dreadfuls when they came to do a workshop. It feels like it shouldn't work but it actually works really well. Once some scripts are written it's tempting to sit down and go through them and re-write, but actually at this stage this is putting you into Judge mode way too early and it's better to just keep playing. The writing techniques are Explorer and a bit of artist, the improviser in charge is full Artist and loads more stuff comes out. Also surely it's best to see the sketch live on stage earlier rather than later? We can then play with real actors and laughter rather than intellectulising it.

So, actors get into pairs. One runs over to the piles of scripts and picks up one sketch that's been writen by someone else. DO NOT pick them or judge them or choose them, just pick one at random otherwise you slip into judge mood.

They then learn the lines without talking, don't even decide who is going to do what part, don't talk about the sketch, just learn the lines.

Then they go on stage and with 100% commitment just launch into the sketch. They probably don't know who will play who, or the lines, but by going for it with commitment the sketch idea jumps to life. Random ad hoc lines happen, characters form and suddenly we have a real thing we can play with! You can then later re-write, add bits, and play with it but the important thing is PLAY PLAY PLAY don't think think think. When you do see it pick up on what's working what is funny and expand that, picking up on what isn't working is easy and meaningless. So pick up on the bits that take off, what's behind those bits, is there a deeper game or concept, expand that stuff.

Game of the Scene

This was by far the most helpful and fun bit. I do whole day workshops on game of the scene but we just gate crashed it into an hour, it produced some awesome stuff.

1. Director gives the actor the situation so they don't have to worry about that. Where they are, who they are, what they're doing, locations, occupations etc.
2. Actors play that as dead obvious and normal as they can, just do the normal situation.
3. Stop after 4 lines or so. It's tempting to do more but with experience the game always presents itself accidentally within about 4 lines or so, and if you go past that in this exercise the actors end up putting little fake games in and it gets mushy.
4. Get the audience to state what already happened in the scene, be obvious. They'll tend to intellectulaise and come up with theories straight away, but really get them to just be obvious and stick to the facts. It's amazing that even with just 4 lines most people won't actually remember what got said.
5. Get them to then express this as a game:
    - What was the first unusual thing that happened?
    - What are the rules of interaction and behaviour that have popped up in this scene?
    - What repeats and escalates?
    - What do they want?
    - How are these games and rules connected?
    - If this person does this, what does the other person do, and vise versa?
6. Get the actors to do the scene playing the defined game hard, and let the game escalate.
7. Ask the audience what was working for them, simplify the game, and do it again.
8. Repeat. Play. Have fun.
9. Record and refine etc.

The ones that worked best were when:

    - The game was interactive and connected between the characters. One effected the other to do something, which made the other do something else. If the game was just in one direction it didn't feel as alive.
    - The game could be summed up and explained in one simple line. Simplifying became an important skill. Too many games and too much explanation and it becomes mushy, one simple line done well and expanded made captivating stuff.

Going to do more of it now, more workshops like it, and also use it in a YouTube sketch project I've got going on.

Workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday in London.
Additional workshops around the UK.
Improv Comedy Club every Tuesday and Wednesday in London.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Reality Workshop Notes

This is one of my new favourite exercises. I seem to always start a blog like that, which I suppose makes sense because if they weren't my current favourites they wouldn't make it onto the blog. 

So last night's Monday workshop was on reality. The idea being that having the mantra "it's real, it's real, it's real" in improvisation and treating everything on stage as if it's real, and believing that it's real, is helpful to improvisers for a few reasons:

1. If you believe it's real, the audience are more likely to believe it. In fact the audience aren't really going to suspend their disbelief unless you do first. 

2. If you are in the real moment you don't have to 'act' or 'perform' as much as you will respond naturally and spontaneously. If you really believe you are in a pub having a quiet drink and a masked gun man walks in and shouts you won't have to act shocked, you just will be. 

3. Believing it's real quite often takes care of the narrative. We found that the natural realistic reaction often provided the next step in the narrative, and really only a couple of narrative beats/tilts from the director were needed each scene.  For instance when someone kicked off in a coffee shop the owner phoned the police, a good narrative move and also very real. 

4. Treating everything like it's real makes the performer pay more attention to the other actors and listen more, as we need to know everything about them.  

5. It stops performers going too weird too soon. If you are creating a reality together it will stop the random self destructive offers or gags that get laughs at the expense of the established reality.

Also treating like it's real doesn't have to mean boring. However boring the audience in the first scene is sometimes a good mantra to have as a performer (Keith Johnstone writes about this). But you don't have to base all scenes in a kitchen to be real, you can still find the reality in the situation of acting two aliens on planet Xarg constructing an inter galactic death ray. As Sanford Meisner said it's about "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances".

I found that starting the workshop with a large amount of trust exercises (the chair game) was really helpful as it made the performers respectful of each others offers. 

Then the major reality exercise:

1. Volunteer performer goes on stage alone. 
2. They explain to the class a place they routinely go to every day/week, showing us where things are on the stage (furniture) and explaining who they other people are in the scene (names, character traits, what they do). 
3. Director asks them further questions and clarifies, and puts out items of furniture on stage. In this first case it was a coffee shop the actor went to most days.
4. Director then casts people from the rest of the group to be in the coffee shop, eg workers, dog in the corner, people sat around on lap tops. 
5. Actor then comes into their real world and we play it straight, real, without adding any story. It's just the normal every day life. 
6. Director corrects if people are taking focus away from the protagonist, or if they are over acting or over storytelling. We're looking for something that wouldn't look out of place in the real world. 
7. Next day in the coffee shop. Director then whispers a 'tilt' to one of the actors. In this case one of the coffee shop workers was going to ask the actor out on a date. This made a lovely scene, where because they were all treating it like it was real it had all the cuteness and awkwardness you'd usually find in this situation. 
8. Repeat for further scenes. 

With everyone believing it was real only a couple of narrative beats/tilts were needed to generate long captivating pieces. 

Well done all. 

Hoopla London workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday. 

Additional workshops around the UK.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Solo Improvisation Workshop Notes

Really fun workshop this one, with a healthy mix of improvisers, stand ups and actors. Some really cool stuff came out of it. 

The main tips that arose were when improvising with an audience were:

1. You are never really alone, the audience and room are always providing offers even when they are silent. 
2. Commit. You are either improvising by yourself and the audience or you're not, so you might as well go for it. 
3. Play. Keep playing, all the time, even if you think it's not going well just keep playing. 
4. Have no expectations. Don't expect anything, then you'll be happy for any slight response. 
5. The audience isn't there to cheer you up and give you energy, you are there to cheer them up and give them energy. You are the idiot in the room. 

A big topic that came up from the stand ups and I really enjoyed taking on was how to work with a silent crowd, as they said this was even worse than a booing/heckling crowd. 

We first tried this out playing the game 185 - where the performer has to improvise jokes in the format 185 somethings walk into a bar...punchline. 

After doing it to applause I got some of the performers to do it and then receive enforced silence from the audience. It was AWKWARD!!! So we played with the awkwardness. At first we tried having the performer have an over enthusiastic response to their joke, which was contagious and sort of worked. But some of them pointed out that that would be a bit fake to do all the time. So we went deeper and found that core to that was PLAY. It didn't really matter what response the performer gave to the silence, as long as they were playing with it. Suddenly it was impossible for the audience to keep silent and cold, as the performers stayed cheerful and kept playing. 

It's not pushing, or prodding, or forcing, it's playing. Playing can be physical (someone started doing a backward roll), verbal, intellectual, emotional, anything really. 

Audiences have lots of minor moments of silence but if the performer accidentally treats one of these moments as permanent and stops playing then these moments spread and become and cold. By constant fluctuating play the performer remains alive and eventually so does the crowd. The performer has to be the life force in the room. 

Some useful solo impro games:

185 - Improvise jokes in the format "185 somethings walk into a bar...punchline" Clap or boo them. 

Big Mouth - Run out in front of the audience and talking as quickly as possible compliment as many of them as possible using poetry, metaphor, exageration. 

All Characters - Improvise scenes where you play all characters. It's useful if the characters touch each other, and make eye contact. 

One Character - Improvise scene where you play one character and the other characters are invisible to audience. Helpful if they touch you.

Fact, Fact, It's Like, I Feel, I Want, Do - Good semi-structure for getting content from an audience, even if they are silent and not responding at first. Good if it's down with big mouth like compliments. Name a fact about the person that is undeniably true (don't get trapped into opinion at first, save that for later, it's good to ground in hard fact to draw people in), name the fact again, extrapolate some it's likes/metaphors etc, say how that makes you feel, say what you want to do with that person, do it. 

Example of this that came out of the workshop:

Wow you have really big muscles, you've got really big muscles, it's like you've got the body I've always wanted, I'm really jealous, I want your body, (starts climbing into the audience member's t-shirt) I'm going to get into your body, my hand is your hand etc. 

It was very silly. 

Hoopla workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday in London, with additional workshops around the UK.


Monday, 7 November 2011

List of most comedy fringe festivals ordered by start date

Friend of mine asked for them, I happened to have a list, so thought it might be useful for all.

Exeter Comedy Festival    January
Leicester Comedy Festival    February
Sheffield Student Comedy Festival    February
Adelaide Fringe    February
Laughter Lines Comedy Festival, Leeds    March
Udderbelly Festival    April
Liverpool Festival    April
Bath Comedy Festival    April
Chicago Improv Festival    April
Bury Fringe    May
Brighton Fringe    May
Brighton Festival    May
Salisubury Arts Festival    May
Norwich Fringe Festival    May
Norfolk and Norwich Festival    May
Freerange Comedy Festival, Cumbria    May
Bath Fringe    May
Stratford upon Avon Fringe    May
St. Alban's Festival    June
National Student Drama Festival, Sheffield    June
Oxford Fringe    June
Exeter Fringe    June
Pulse Festival, Ipswich    June
Ludlow Festival    June
Glastonbury    July
Newbury Comedy Festival    July
Latitude Festival    July
Montreal Just for Laughs    July
Petworth Festival    July
Harrogate International Festival, North Yorkshire    July
Winchester Hat Fair    July
Kings Lynn Festival    July
Buxton Fringe    July
Buxton Festival     July
Stockton Weekender    August
Leicester Fringe    August
Worcester Festival    August
Edinburgh Fringe    August
Calgary Fringe    August
Camden Fringe    August
Leeds Fringe    August
Didsbury Arts Festival    September
Nottingham Comedy Festival    September
Dublin Theatre Festival    September
Vancouver International Improv Festival    September
Windsor Fringe    September
Jules Munns, Nursery    October
Brighton Comedy Festival    October
Harrogate Comedy Festival, North Yorkshire    October
Brighton Comedy Fringe    October
Belfast Festival    October
Reading Comedy Festival    October
Sheffield Comedy Festival    October
Birmingham Comedy Festival    October
Newport Comedy Festival    October
Melbourne Fringe    October
Cheltenham Comedy Festival    November

Improvised Comedy Shows and Classes

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A brief history of rough theatre for improvisers

In the 16th century bands of Commedia dell'Arte actors traveled Europe, performing in market places, outdoor festivals and carnivals. Their show was fun, fast and noisy and incorporated mask, music, singing, acting, acrobatics, improvisation, script, satire, impressions and comedy. The audience shouted out, interacted and were part of the show. If they didn't feel part of the show they just left. The topics, themes and characters were current.

Shakespeare then wrote rowdy plays featuring love, death, comedy, tragedy, clowns. He even used some Commedia scenarios. The audience would boo, hiss and clap as the show went along. They would talk during the performance (it's only recently that this became unusual), food and drink would be passed around. The 'groundlings' would pay a penny to stand in front, and would sometimes even heckle the actors. Again many of his themes, characters and targets were current. Moments of comedy would follow moments of tragedy, and there might even be a little dance at the end. It was smelly, rowdy, and fun. 

In the 17th century Restoration comedy appeared, following a weird banning of all theatre by puritans. When theatre was allowed back it was rebellious, naughty and comedy. Everyone from aristocrats to servants would go and watch. 
After some censorship from Victorians there was another rebellion, this time with Music Hall. Walking around London now it's hard to imagine what a major thing these were. They were everywhere, not just in some allocated 'TheatreLand' of the West End but they were across the whole town, in the suburbs and more. And they were massive. Huge halls full of people getting pissed and having a good time. Watching various acts - singing, comedy, sketches, juggling, people bouncing balls with precision. There was no fourth wall, the audience could laugh and boo to their heart's content. The same thing was happening in America with Vaudeville. Charlie Chaplin started in Music Hall, heavily influenced by his own form of improvisation and taking improvisation into the movies, where he would make up the entire script as he went along filming.

Also in America the carnivals were touring around all over the place, offering a mix of music, rides, freak shows, strip acts and various wonders of the world. With this theatre the people of the town would come down and walk around the strip, watching snippets of acts, before deciding what to pay and see. If it wasn't any good for the audience, nobody came to see it, simple as that. And your potential audience was right there walking on the sawdust floor outside your tent. (Read memoirs of sword swallower for all that).

Peter Brook's book The Empty Space defines all this as Rough Theatre - "Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that's not in a theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theatre in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns: the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall."

Sound familiar improvisers?

David Shepherd, founder of Compass Players that went on to be Second City, had an ongoing dream of a rowdy working class theatre with all the crowd up on stage. At the same time Keith Johnstone was inspired to create theatre that had the same heat of wrestling.

When Film and TV came out it almost immediately killed of the Rough Theatre, with Music Halls and Vaudeville dying within a few years and just some of the stars making the transition. The audience for Rough Theatre are now captivated by The X Factor, watching in small units rather than the mass communities of Music Halls. 

But now people are getting fed up of TV and Film. The mass channels means that entertainment is no longer centralized, and is going back to the decentralized and maybe even local model of before.

But in the meantime what has happened to the Rough Theatre of before?

For some reason we've severely classified stuff and separated our entertainment by genres. We have impro nights, stand up gigs, rock gigs, sketch gigs. 

Shouldn't it all just be together? The Rough Theatre of old thrived on multi-skilled people working together to add variety. 

Sometimes I wonder if we, David Shepherd and Kevin Johnstone think we want impro to take off, but deep down it's actually a more archetypal Rough Theatre that we long for - more of a feeling than a product. A kind of of direct human reaction to the removal of something that's been with us for generations. Is it a coincidence for instance that impro first took off at about the same time TV was becoming widespread, in the exact same countries that were the first to get TV?

Perhaps impro isn’t taking off because it’s called impro. Why classify something in terms of the process rather than the benefit? So why don’t we just do it, and embrace the essence of impro into other things, other forms, work to create a greater whole. Bands, dancing, stand up, impro, sketch, mask, impressions, ridicule, cabaret, spec acts, circus, all united in one aim - the human reaction.

Back in the day it was entertainment, to get people enjoying themselves.

Theatre to me isn’t the glossy program, expensive small tub of ice cream, and sitting in neat rows looking at a film set. For me it’s cheap spotlits plugged into extension leads, primark black double bed sheets used as back drops, beer in GLASSES with tables to put them on, and people turning up late after work.

It's time to decentralise entertainment, and make it something connected to and born out of life, and encouraging life, rather than a distraction from it. Claim entertainment for ourselves.

Improvisation Classes Monday, Thursday, Saturday
Improvisation Shows Tuesday, Wednesday