Friday, 30 March 2012

The Secret Of Improv: Be in a Good Mood

OK! I admit it! For the past two weeks/months/years I've been taking improv way to seriously. 

I've also been spending way too much on facebook and twitter, reading about improv. In fact sometimes it feels like improv these days lives on facebook rather that on a stage. 

For a while I've even been turning up to teach workshops in a bad mood, which is an impro sin for which I should be locked in a room that is slowly filling up with custard. 

It's not a very serious endeavour, it's just for fun. 

However this week has been a turning point and I'm now in a really good mood about impro, and everything. 

Music Box were back rehearsing together this week with some really exciting new cast members. This cheered me up no end. We had a piano, drums, an accordian, bassist, guitar and more. Many thanks to Maria for being an impro ray of light. Also getting to play with Andrew Gentilli again on a regular basis is going to be highly amusing.

Then on Thursday I ran on workshop with one objective - for everyone to have as much fun as possible. Watching Edgar and Rhys together doing a really stoopid pair of characters was the funniest thing ever.

When you're just having fun and playing with it most of the stuff happens naturally. I can't believe I was taking it seriously at all. It's like watching a dog 'trying' to be a dog - just be a dog dammit! So new objective, having as much fun with impro as possible, wooooo!

Impro in London has gone from no improv comedy clubs to lots, and there are now shows almost every day of the week. That's awesome. Impro in the UK is about to go into mega drive. Like that bit in Spaceballs with Rik Moranis.  

So the new Hoopla rules of impro:

Be in a good mood
Have fun
Don't take it too seriously 

I'm also about to go on a full-time clown course with Mick Barnfather for two weeks, so that should help things along. 

Fun times!


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Improvising believable relationships using stuff from real life

These notes came out of last Monday's Hoopla workshop on Relationships. 

Characters on stage go from two separate people in separate worlds to a relationship when they have emotional connection, history, feelings, status between each other, knowledge of each other, behaviour, games when they are affected by each other.  'Brothers' is just a word on stage, it's everything else that makes it a relationship.

I was lucky enough to be taught by John Cremer when I started impro (my favourite ever teacher of anything) and he used to stop scenes sometimes and say something like:

"You've got two people on stage, an elephant, five nuclear weapons, a radar, a big red button and a gun. What's the most interesting thing on stage?" 

The answer was always The Relationship between the two people. It's the only actual real thing on stage, all the other stuff is made up, but we can have a real emotional connection and relationship between the two people on stage.

At the start of the workshop we went around the group and everyone talked about a positive relationship they had in their life and what made it a relationship, what were they like together, what were the factors that made it a relationship. 

In this exercise I was at first surprised by the lack of depth in my own answer and some others. I was presumably talking about someone I'd known for ages but couldn't think what to say. 

Then I realised I'd blocked myself right from the start, as I was originally going to talk about Edgar (who I started Hoopla with) but blocked myself as it was 'too much'. We went to school together from when we were 4 years old, got drunk together for the first time when we were 14, pursued the same girls, went through every break up we've ever experienced, sat on walls at parties talking about what life is all about, got beaten up together, argued over a lack of water on a back packing trip in Australia. 

It was impossible to explain in a couple of lines, because the relationship is part of who I am and has been there for my life. The same with any major relationship in my life. There is so much depth that I found it impossible to sum up. 

When we meet someone new in life (like going out with someone) the major conversation for years can be the two of you talking about the relationships we have with Mothers, Fathers, Friends etc and over time the other person builds up an image and feeling of what each relationship is like. But the other people might have built up a different image of the relationships, as relationships aren't tangible set in stone things, they are entirely relative and depend on the perception of the viewer.

So the challenge of the workshop became could we have as much depth on stage, with an improviser we've just met,  as we have with real people in our lives. 

Scripted actors can spend days building up the back story of their character and their relationships, borrowing bits from their own life, changing the imaginary circumstances. But as improvisers we have a split second to define a relationship, we have to be instant method actors.

Relationship Presents

Similar to the well known impro exercise of giving presents to each other, except this time you give a relationship and build on it. Play it in pairs as an exercise. One improviser gives the other a relationship as a gift (they actually mime the gift) and they then pass it between them adding details to the relationship. At this point in the exercise they are talking about the relationship, rather than being in it as such. It's more fact based and history based than emotion based for now. For instance:

A: We're brothers
B: We've been going to the same school together for 12 years
A: We're twin brothers
B: We both like canoeing
A: You're better at canoeing than me
B: We're canoe rivals

Relationship Presents With Feelings

We then repeated the exercise except this time we added lines about how the offers made us feel, and how we felt about each other. For instance:

A: We're brothers
B: We're twin brothers
A: You're better at canoeing at me
B: That makes me feel smug
A: That makes me hate you
B: That makes me sad, but I can't help competing
A: I'm really competitive too, we've been seeing the same girl
B: We compete over everything

So now we have facts and history that we give, but also emotional connection and relationship. 'Twin Brothers' is a label. Behaviour and emotional connection is what gives the relationship.

Using Lines From Real Life

This came about when I realised I use of my own real life in impro shows but had never thought to actually teach that. I've found grabbing things from real life can suddenly make scenes matter more and give them greater depth. You're not planning the whole scene, as the circumstances will change pretty rapidly, but it can give you an emotional drive and reality right at the start. 

For instance if I find myself in a scene where I have to split up with someone, then I'll often start by using something from a real splitting up that happened. If I have to do a scene where I meet my Grandmother, I might as well treat her at the start like my real Grandmother. It adds reality, and also adds emotional content without having to think it up. You never have to tell anyone where this stuff comes from, and after a few offers it will be far removed from the original reality anyway. 

So we did some scenes where an obvious relationship name was given, and the actors then used lines from real life at the start of the scene to help generate a real relationship. We first did this in pairs as an exercise, then in scenes in front of the audience. 

Scenarios included:

A teenage Grandson coming to visit his Grandfather
Husband and wife of 25 years having breakfast together
Older cousin coming to visit younger cousin

The relationships became real when they had status between each other, when the characters were affected by each other, when they had attitudes to each other, when they had history, when they had behaviour. With the behaviour particular breakthroughs came when a character behaved a certain way and the other one picked up on it as something they always did. For instance "Grandpa you're always nitpicking about everything, how long is the water boiled for, how long am I here for, what grades did I get" and "you're always trying to take away my power, our therapist spoke about this, making the tea is my job, don't take away my power!"

The last scenario in this exercise was a different - British division of NASA. This doesn't imply a relationship from our own lives, so the challenge for the actors was to still build a true relationship in an unusual situation. They came upon the relationship of boss and reluctant employee, and so were able to channel their own experiences of bosses and employees. It was awesome! We had a teenage Astronaut who didn't want to go into space because it was hard work, and a NASA boss who didn't want to send him but had to because they were understaffed.

Unusual Cirmcumstances

We then gave a series of scene challenges, using suggestions that are notoriously difficult to improvise in. I personally think they are difficult to improvise in because they have no implied relationship and quite often feature people who didn't previously know each other. It's quite hard to improvise scenes between two characters who don't know each other and have no connection or relationship. Unfortunately these are also the kind of suggestions that audiences are likely to give, as they think they are helping the actors by keeping them safe by giving them safe places where nothing happens. These kind of common suggestions include:

Bus stop
Train station
Garden Centre
Pet Shop
Post Office (notice you don't get bank suggested as much, because it implies bank robberies, which is exciting while Post Office implies queues and complaints)

So we now attacked each suggestion one by one but with the point of focus for each improviser on having a relationship with the other person. They weren't strangers in the supermarket, they knew each other, they had history. I found having improvisers going on with the aim of 'naming and building a relationship' brought about loads of awesome stuff automatically. Suddenly everything on stage actually mattered. 

For instance in the tube train scene an improviser stood on stage and grabbed hold of the overhead bar, which is a great way to start. The train stopped at a station, the doors opened, and another improviser walked on. I've seen tube train scenes time and time again where they would have just stood there not looking at each other, and another improviser enters, and another, someone farts and blah blah blah blah. 

This time though it was awesome. 

The entering improviser pushed his way through an imaginary crowd (awesome mime) and then put himself right up in the armpit of the other improviser, looked him in the eye and said 'hello Ted'. He was then defined as Ted's stalker. But going deeper they had a relationship, he'd been stalking him for weeks, Ted had seen him on his road this morning, stood outside his house, and they worked together. "What do you want?" "A kiss". 

At every single line of the tube train scene they were now trying to build the deepest connection and relationship they could, make things more important.  

Lots of love,


Improv Classes and Shows

Monday, 26 March 2012

Environment and Object Work Notes

These are notes from a Monday workshop a couple of weeks ago. We were doing various exercises to help improvisers build believable environments and objects in scenes. Here they are:

Passing the object

Everyone sat in a circle. One person mimes an object, and passes it on the next. The idea is that the objects don't change too much as they go round the circle. If it's a larger group you can add multiple objects from different points in the circle. 

Encourage people to give objects width, thickness, weight. If you're holding a pen there is usually a gap between your finger and thumb to hold the pen. A gun isn't a finger pointing forwards, that's an impression of a gun, a gun is heavy and is held. A phone isn't a thumb stuck into the ear and a little finger sticking out, that's an impression of a phone. 

It's a style choice, whether you are doing impressions of objects or making them real. 

Environment Build

Name an environment, for instance an office. 
First actor goes up and adds one object to the space. Giving it width and weight, and using it. 
Next actor up uses that object, and adds a whole new object. For instance they use the photocopier and then add in a swivel chair. 
Keep going with all the actors. Each time up they have to use all the objects that have been there before, and then add something new. 

This is very helpful to stop people walking into objects that have been set by other improvisers. Encourage them to respect the space and other people's objects, and be precise with where things are picked up and put down. 

You can make someone else's object real by using it, picking it up, leaning on it, walking around it. 

Real Life Practice

Every time you do something with real objects in real life you can immediately step to the side and repeat the action in thin air. For instance you wash up a plate, and immediately put the plate down, step back from the sink, and repeat the motions in thin air. 

This teaches people the 'pop' of our muscles as we pick up and put things down, the weight and width of things. 

Naming The Object

I can't believe I'd never thought of doing this until I saw Paul Foxcroft doing it in a show. He picked up a phone mid-scene and just said 'phone'. It didn't break reality and signalled to cast and audience clearly what the object was, and we laughed at the obviousness. It was really helpful and made sure that all objects he used were also used and incorporated by other people. 

I've now started doing this in our shows and find it really helpful. 

So we repeated the Environment Build above except this time we named each object out loud. 

Being the Objects

A different style, also helpful and really really fun. This time when I named the environment the actors came on one by one, named an object out loud, and then became the objects. The last actor on then had to use all the objects, especially using them together. It's very rewarding when an improviser on stage uses other people who are being objects. 

Encourage improvisers to connect together when forming objects, they can be small bits of a greater whole. And encourage them to be obvious and not hesitate with entering. 

For instance the offer of 'bakery' was given and one actor cam on stage as a bun, two actors built an oven around him, another actor became a plug, and another actor became an extractor fan. As the bun gently span around being cooked he gradually expanded. When the last actor opened the door of the over the bun burst out. 

This style works really well in shows. Last Music Box two improvisers ran on stage at the start of a scene set in Tesco Online head office as computers, said they were computers, and were then able to voice the emails of the staff there. 

This also lead to six people being a transformer in a workshop, moving seamlessly from truck to robot. Awesome work!

Lots of love,


Improv Classes and Shows

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Meisner For Improvisers

I was running a "It's Real It's Real" workshop on Monday at The Rag Factory, about how to improvise real natural scenes with a genuine connection between the performers. I thought I was going to use a little bit of The Meisner Technique in the workshop, but I ended up running the whole session on it as it seemed so effective. 

People spend years studying The Meisner Technique, so this was more a brief introduction in a couple of hours but I was still really surprised how effective it was. 

The Meisner technique was developed by Sanford Meisner in New York. For the purpose of this workshop I introduced the following concepts from his book:

  • Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances
  • Repetition
  • Calling emotions
  • Specific Activity
  • Emotional Preparations


Actors in pairs. They stand opposite each other. One mirrors the other one. They mirror movements, face, emotion, stance, everything. Remind them to also mirror feet and legs, so they become aware of the whole body. Ask them to mirror as accurately and precisely as possible. Also ask them to mirror the things the person does accidentally, not just deliberately. 
I've found it's really important in impro to treat everything as an offer, there is no difference between what the person does deliberately and what they do accidentally. It's all there present on stage so we work with all of it, all of the person. 

Repetition - 1 Physical Thing On The Person

Two actors stood opposite each other. One says something that is undeniably true and real about the other one. They repeat it back. They say one thing undeniably true about the other one, they repeat it. Repeat it again and again back and forward, with only one physical thing per person. 

At first pick up on physical things on the person, objects, like items of clothing, jewelry, etc, as it's less personal and easier to start with. For instance:

A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt  
A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: You're wearing a watch
A: I'm wearing a watch 
B: You're wearing a watch
A: I'm wearing a watch  
B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt 
A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt
A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
B: You're wearing a watch
A: I'm wearing a watch 

They change between 'you're' and 'I'm'.

Some important points:

  • Don't think it up or plan what to say, just repeat. 
  • Don't act. Just repeat.
  • Don't have an opinion, just facts. eg instead of "it's a nice t-shirt", "it's a black t-shirt", nice is your opinion. 
  • Given the choice go for the complimentary, but actually this shouldn't make any difference due to facts above. 
  • You might feel emotions generated in the exercises, let them happen and be mildly interested in them. Don't feel the need to act them. 
  • Don't act. 
  • Don't act. 
  • If in doubt, repeat repeat repeat and keep repeating. 
As the repetitions go backwards and forwards a connection develops between the two actors where they feel aware of each other. Their dialogue is taken up with repetition of something that is undeniably true about the other person, leaving them to focus fully and connect with someone. It's actually quite rare these days for people to fully focused on someone and making eye contact and connection, and even in this first exercise the effect is quite powerful. 

My partner and I in this exercise found ourselves going through various stages of giggling, smiling, trance like staring, seriousness and melancholy. Overall we were left with the impression that we liked each other and were connected to someone good in life. 

Repetition - Multiple Physical Things On The Person

Next step was the same as above but with multiple physical things, so we could pick up on different physical things on the person. At this stage it is still physical things on the person, rather than the actual person. 

Again, if in doubt repeat repeat repeat. We shouldn't be looking for things to notice or make up about the other person, just repeating. We're aiming for a state where as we notice something about the person we immediately say it without judgement or hesitation. It brings us into the present moment where we are fully aware and connected. 

For instance:

Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt
Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You're wearing adidas trainers

Actor A: I'm wearing adidas trainers
Actor B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt
Actor A: I'm wearing adidas trainers
Actor B: You're wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: I'm wearing a blue shirt
Actor B: You're wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt

Again, don't act. Just repeat. Don't think. Just repeat. Let any connections or emotions you feel pop up and pay mild attention to them, don't fake it. 

Repetition - Physical Things About the Other Person

The same as above but this time we can also pick up on physical things the person is actually doing as well as what they are wearing. For instance smiling, laughing, frowning, scratching, shaking, standing, bobbing. 

It's not what they just did, or what they are about to do, it's what they are doing right now. If they smiled, but as we talk they are not smiling, then they are not smiling. We don't say 'you were smiling', we say 'you are smiling'. 

Again if in doubt repeat repeat repeat, and you can still repeat the physical clothing and other things that are undeniably true. By returning to repetitions of truthful things grounds the entire connection in reality. 

For instance:

Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt

Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You're pointing at me

Actor A: I'm pointing at you
Actor B: You're pointing at me

Actor A: I'm pointing at you
Actor B: You're pointing at me
Actor A: You're frowning
Actor B: I'm frowning
Actor A: You're frowning
Actor B: You're wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: I'm wearing a blue shirt
Actor B: You're wearing a blue shirt
Actor A: You're smiling
Actor B: I'm smiling

Even though this exercise seems abstract it's already really helpful for impro. Just picking up on what the other person is physically doing has number of benefits:

  • It brings the caller into the present moment. 
  • It brings the other actor into the present moment. 
  • It brings the audience into the present moment. 
  • It gives a strong offer like "you're smiling".
  • It's impossible to block. 
  • It makes something of anything. 
  • It brings the scene into a more truthful reality, as the physical thing is true we start to believe the imaginary. 
 This kind of improvising is really moment by moment. An improviser can go to hug another improviser in a scene, and even if the other improviser tries to block them by turning around and walking away all the attempted hugger as to do is say "you're turning around and walking away from me" and they have brought their partner back into the scene, back into the moment, and made it look deliberate. 

Meisner improvisers aren't planning, they are seeing in the moment. 

Repetition - Emotional Calls and Repetitions on the other Person

Same as before but this time you can also make emotional calls on the other person. For instance "you are sad", "you are happy", "you feel awkward" .

It's not you might be, you seem, you's YOU ARE, YOU FEEL. This is a major step for a lot of people. We're now looking at someone and making an instantaneous observation about how they are feeling. 

Don't worry about getting it wrong. If you call them the wrong emotion they'll probably react anyway, and then you'll get them with something else. 

Don't act. Don't act. Don't act. Just observe and repeat. You might find you're own mood and emotion and connection to the other person changing, then let it but don't force it or act. Just stay focussed on the other person and repeat repeat repeat. 

Don't think, just go back to repetitions. You can go back to clothing, physical things etc whenever. 

Keep it present. Not you were happy, it's what they are right now. Eventually this leads to incredible connections where people are completely aware of how the other person. 

For example:

Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: I'm wearing a black t-shirt

Actor A: You're wearing a black t-shirt
Actor B: You're bored
Actor A: I'm bored
Actor B: You're bored

Actor A: I'm bored
Actor B: You're bored
Actor A: You're cheeky
Actor B: I'm cheeky

Actor A: You're laughing
Actor B: I'm laughing
Actor A: You're laughing
Actor B: You're smiling

Actor A: I'm smiling
Actor B: You're happy
Actor A: I'm happy
Actor B: You're happy

Actor A: You're pissed off
Actor B: I'm pissed off
Actor A: You're scratching you're head
Actor B: I'm scratching my head

It's not a call on that person in general in their whole life. We aren't saying they are bored all the time. We are saying that in that moment they are bored/sad/happy. 

This is incredibly helpful for impro. By picking up on genuine emotions in scenes, how people are actually feeling, we are bring impro into reality and grounding it in something believable. 

We can have real feelings on stage and act on them. There doesn't have to be a difference between how we feel and how our character feels, we can bring all of ourselves into it. 

For instance I look at another improviser on stage and feel like I really want to kiss them, as in I want to kiss the actual improviser. This doesn't mean there's something going on in the rest of our lives, it's just that moment. In that moment we feel something, and we can bring that directly into the scene. Interestingly enough any scene.  We could be two crew members on the Star Ship Enterprise, and if we're honest and true any dialogue resulting from the emotional call will work:

Actor A: I want to kiss you.
Actor B: You want to kiss me. 
Actor A: You're embarressed. 
Actor B: You're embarressed. 
Actor A: I'm embarressed. 
Actor B: You shouldn't have said that.
Actor A: I shouldn't have said that. 
Actor B: Go back to the radar. 
Actor A: I'm monitoring the radar.
Actor B: You're still looking at me.
Actor A: I'm still looking at you. 
Actor A: You love me.
Actor B: I love you. 

In this situation an imaginary circumstance has popped up. We have put in the imaginary circumstance that they are two crew members on the star ship Enterprise, expressed by the lines mentioning the radar. There is no actual radar in the room, but all the other lines are picking up real emotions and physical movements, so the scene is based in so much truth that even the star ship enterprise becomes believable, and we have a love story in space.

Emotional Repetitions with an Imaginary Circumstance

Two improvisers started the repetition exercise as above, but after a few lines I threw them an imaginary circumstance (suggestion/situation/location). They then continued with the repetitions with the awareness of the imaginary circumstance. They didn't have to mention the imaginary circumstance much, just treat it like it's real and ground as much as possible into reality of emotions and physicality. 

Again, don't act, just repeat. 

For instance there was a lovely scene with a couple bumping into each other behind the church just before their wedding:

Groom: You're wearing a white dress (imaginary circumstance)
Bride: I'm wearing a white dress
Groom: You're wearing a white dress
Bride: I'm wearing a white dress
Groom: You're wearing a white dress
Bride: You're wearing a space invaders t-shirt

Groom: I'm wearing a space invaders t-shirt
Bride: You're laughing

Groom: I'm laughing
Bride: You've mucked this up

Groom: I've mucked this up
Bride: You've mucked this up

Groom: I feel awful
Bride: You feel awful

Groom: I feel awful
Bride: You don't want to get married

Groom: I want to get married
Bride: You don't want to get married

Groom: I want to get married
Bride: You're determined
Groom: I'm determined to get married
Bride: You love me
Groom: I love you
Bride: You love me
Groom: I love you
Bride: I love you
Groom: I love you

It's hard to put into words how real this scene looked. By the end of the scene they were believably totally in love with each other, and a hush of complete attention had descended over the audience. I'm writing in the 'I love you' lines after the workshop, as actually the 'I want to get married' lines were repeated more but as they were repeated the feeling of LOVE was increased between the two characters and appeared to glow from the stage. Pure love in the moment seems almost so strong that I think if they had said it people would have started crying.

Specific Activity

We then continued with the exercise with one actor starting with a specific activity and the other joining them, and then going into repetition. 

A specific activity helps ground the improviser into the present moment and also create the imaginary circumstance. 

It helps that the improviser knows why they are doing the specific activity, why it is important to them, and why it is time critical. These circumstances might change following offers from their scene partner, but it puts some life into it at the start. 

For instance an improviser first 'made sandwiches' in a kind of doing an impression way. We then asked him to repeat but this time knowing why he was doing it and why it was important. He was transformed, and the action became believable and captivating. When asked it turned out that his preparation for why he was making sandwiches was simply "I want to eat them", but that was enough. The difference between an improviser just making sandwiches and making sandwiches they actually want to eat is vast. 

Emotional Preparation

When the improviser approaching the person doing the specific activity builds up an emotion inside before they enter the stage and do the repetition exercise. It doesn't what emotion, and they can use anything from their life or imagination to generate the emotion. The don't have to act the emotion, just feel it. It brings life into the start of the scene. 

Music Box

I then had a Music Box show the following night, so decided to go into it with objective - Meisner it. I found it amazingly helpful and it seemed to go down well. Interestingly enough the audience don't seem to notice the Meisner lines. They just pop up and ground it in reality, and can be very subtle, but they helped me stay in the moment throughout the show and stay connected to the other actors. Meisner lines from the show I remember, although they don't make sense out of context:

"You're really cheerful"
"You look like a zombie"
"Your hands are stiff"
"I love you, I miss you"
"I'm a bean"
"I can see myself reflecting in your eyes"

I don't usually think impro is that helpful in real life, but I think Meisner is. Looking at someone you like or love and telling them honestly in the moment how you feel about them, that is something there could be more of in the world. 

Lots of love,

Hoopla Steve

Improv Classes Mondays, Thursday and Sundays in London



Thursday, 8 March 2012

Spontaneity including Man with the Clipboard Metaphor!

These are some notes from the Monday workshop at The Rag Factory a couple of weeks ago. 

Spontaneity pops up as one of the overall points in impro with everything else we do, but it's good to do a workshop solely on it every now and again. 

In 'real life' not being spontaneous is quite often a good strategy. It keeps us safe, it stops us getting into trouble, it stops us from saying the wrong thing. We learn to look before we leap, think first then act, and make the best decisions. Keith Johnstone tends to write about this as if it's an awful thing, but I don't think you have to change how you live your 'real life' just to make up some stuff in 'stage life'. When on stage improvising, being spontaneous becomes a very good idea. When negotiating a mortgage with your bank, being spontaneous is not such a good idea. You can have control over both types of behaviour, it's you afterall.

With improvisers on stage we seem to appreciate people who don't worry about danger (of the scene, we don't want to see actual physical danger), who get into trouble, who say the wrong thing, who look before they leap, who act first and think later (if at all), who just go with the first decision not the best decision. You can always go back to another way of behaving in real life, or be free to choose how you want to behave, but on stage it's fun to drop defences, open up and be spontaneous. 

When getting people to be spontaneous in a workshop, or if you're directing a show, the first thing to do is create the right environment. An environment of safety, trust and support without judgement where people can feel secure and happy with being whoever they want to be without fear of retribution. John Cremer writes loads about this in is awesome book. Any threat to this environment and people will tend to snap back to the 'real world' method of behaviour where they are forced to defend themselves, judge themselves, edit themselves. The stage has to be a safe place.

I could spend 2 hours teaching people how to be spontaneous, or spend 2 minutes setting the right environment and they will just be spontaneous automatically. 

Man With The Clipboard

This extended metaphor came out of  workshop ages ago but it keeps coming back to me, so here it is in its full madness: 

There's a massive party going on on a beach in the Caribbean. There are hundreds of gorgeous of people in swimsuits splashing around, flirting, drinking cocktails and playing steel drums. There's music playing, the sea is warm, the sun is out, everything is good. But there's a little man with a clipboard running around saying things like "it's 2:30pm, time for a game to Twister everybody! Stop doing that it's Twister time now. We're playing Twister now!!!!" The general consensus at the beach party is why doesn't this little man chill the fuck out and stop trying to control everything. 

Your man with a clipboard (inner judge/editor/ whatever you want to call it, I'm not a psychologist) seems to be very good at organising things and getting you places, making to do lists and getting things done BUT this man with a clipboard is fucking rubbish at making up comedy on the spot. But the trouble is this man with the clipboard thinks he's bloody amazing at making up comedy on the spot! So at the exact moment a party on a beach starts to happen he pops up and starts to try and control everything. 

He pops up to protect you, to save you, to help you. The second you feel any pressure, unsafe, or unsure, there he is. But he's rubbish at being funny. There's already a party on a beach going on, he just needs to get out of the way. 

The good news is that he's really easy to distract. He likes small repeatable logical tasks and seems to think they are really important. Everyone else on the beach let's him think they are really important, so they can get on with having a party on a beach. 

Give him a Rubik's cube and he's set. He'll happily play with that and suddenly everyone on the beach will start humping and he'll be all like "whatever man, I've got a Rubik's cube here, this is clearly the most important thing on the beach." Vikings will invade, dragons go water-skiing, Mr. Blobby makes cocktails, and he won't try and stop them because he's got all his attention on a Rubik's cube. 

More good news is that a load of impro exercises seem to work by giving your man with the clipboard something to concentrate on, so that he stops trying to be funny and organise stuff and stop stuff and your beach party can come out. You've got all you need in your subconscious, there's so much in there waiting to come out. There's even the collective subconscious, which is a whole world of cool stuff. When you're improvising it can feel like at first that the Rubik's cube is important, and at first it is as it's that which let's you get out of the way. But eventually you realise there is a world of stuff going on. Basically, everything. 

Bad news is that sometimes the man with the clipboard gets bored of the Rubik's Cube. Maybe he finishes it, or it becomes too easy, or too difficult. He looks up and sees a dragon and a Viking on his beach playing volleyball with three nuns and a camel and he suddenly stands bolt upright and shouts "STOPPPP! It's time to play Twister! NO! NO! NO! NO!"

Improvisers can be using the same performance techniques for months/years and then suddenly BLAM they are stuck on stage stuck in their heads thinking "she's said something now, everyone is looking at me, so I should say something". Their man with the clipboard has caught up with their techniques and taking over again. 

The good news again though is that there is no end of different techniques and exercises to get through this. There is no right or wrong one, it's whatever one works for you in that time. It's a constantly changing fluid thing. 

Sometimes it's just going line by line, adding a detail to what's just been said, or trying to name everything in the environment, or just saying the first thing that comes to your head, or going from character, or throwing yourself into a physical action before you know why, or having an emotional sound and response to everything that's said, or only talking when you touch, or being as serious as possible, or limiting your own words, or doing an A-Z game, or listing a load of random words, or doing great object work, opening your hand and seeing what's there, throwing yourself into the unknown.

They all help to make great scenes and stories, and they all can help distract the man (or woman) with the clipboard.

My own person man with a clipboard story was before I got into impro. I wasn't really going anywhere with jobs/career/life and then one week I started to learn to windsurf. I didn't want to be a windsurfer as such, but the opportunity had popped up to do it for free. So for seven hours a day seven days a week my man with a clipboard was completely engrossed in learning about windsurfing, and making me climb back on and pull the sail out the water every time I fell off. At the end of the week I suddenly walked back onto the beach and declared to everyone there "I know who I am and what I'm doing" and then fell onto the sand in a fit of giggles. There had clearly been something else going on all week I wasn't even conscious of. Everyone cheered, even though they didn't even really know me. 

I should probably go windsurfing again.


Very Random Genre Notes

There is an earlier blog post that covers our Saturday workshops in more detail, so these are very random additional notes. 

Yet again Genre workshops never fail to amaze me. People totally new to impro end up improvising entire stories very rapidly when doing a genre. It's like a decent genre supplies some ready made lego blocks to play with in impro, and gets a group mind and understanding activated. 

So here are the random notes, based on asking the workshop crowd what they would want to see in each genre, what the obvious thing to put in was, and what seemed to work well in the scenes (as always, turn up the volume on what's going well when directing!)


The Folly of Mankind
Taking something that exists now - a social situation, class, politics, technology, human nature, evolution and extrapolating it out over time and exagerating it
Advanced technology (they had some fun making up lots of new technology and gizmos)
Time Travel
Mind Control
Space Travel
Buttons Levers Lights
Alien Things
Scottish Engineers
Parallel Universe
Universe not dissimilar to ours
Live long and prosper

I know a lot of that stuff sounds really obvious, but that's the point. If an audience ask for Sci Fi and they don't end up with things like Space, Aliens, Time Travel etc they will be disappointed. Putting on the additional bit that good Sci-Fi tends to reflect something in our own society seemed to go down well too. A couple of them pointed out that Sci-Fi is sometimes not seen as a genre at all, which I agree. Starship Troopers is actually a War Film that happens to be set in space, Star Wars (the original) is more like a Western in places (Han Solo is even dressed almost exactly like a cowboy),  Star Trek quite often goes political, Alien is a Horror etc etc. 

Little known fact about me by the way is that I totally believe in aliens, and think that they are widespread across the Universe. There's even increasing evidence and theory for alien microbes existing on Mars, the atmosphere of Venue, and some moons around Jupiter and Saturn. They are all writing blogs as we speak about their alien impro workshops.


I got in trouble do doing this! Ooops! For some reason we could tuck into any other genre but Shakespeare seemed to be more sacred. I'm not an expert on Shakespeare so I just do my interpretation of it. 

Girls dressed as Boys
Mistaken Identity
Taking down the upper classes

I've got a theory that the use of rhythm and verse in Shakespeare actually helps to write it, as it can actually stop you thinking too much eventually and stuff pours out of you. I also love the way Shakespeare was so current, it used to really target the people at the top of society right there and then and investigate them and take them down. Nobody seems to do that so bravely now, apart from maybe Charlie Brooker in Black Mirror. 

French New Wave

This was a fascinating one, as most of the class had no idea what it was including me so we kept playing and playing with it and eventually seemed to create a style of its own. It also served to highlight the hugely different styles within impro. Impro is a catch all term but actually there can be so many different things going on within it - clowning, dance, naturalism, panto, buffoon, melodrama. Sometimes I feel the gaps between impro groups/theories/workshops is just a lack of understanding that all people are trying to do is produce a different style, and naming the style can help people work together. 

Emotional Genre - predominantly exploring patterns within various relationships
Limited and simple locations - giving focus to relationships
Tension between generations and class
Discussions of logic, philosophy
Cocky Young Man archetype
Older wiser man archetype
Strangers meet


This is notoriously difficult as a genre but they nailed it. Many thanks to Matt Andrews for some awesome ideas on this one. One thing that popped up was that it was entirely game of the scene based. When a game stopped working another one had to be set up. Games had to be mercilessly escalated and escalated. 

Multiple Rooms
Set in one stately home
Mistaken identity
People walking in and out
Raise the stakes
Spot the game, play it
Gradually more frantic
Timing timing timing

Matt mentioned that Kelsey Grammer wanted to write a Farce, it was notoriously difficult so they put it off, but eventually he convinced TV bosses and the result was Frasier. 

I make it look really simple/2-D above but seeing it on stage it became apparent that the actors had to be really 'on it' and pick up on everything. Also the importance of timing. 

1930s Gangster Films

Mobsters vs Mobsters
Italian Mother serving lasagne
The Hit
Shoot Out
Double Crossing/Squeal/Grass
Trying to get out the mob

Another classic case of being obvious. One scene ended up with the characters finding a balance and resolution, which would often be great in impro but this time the audience seemed disappointed. We asked them what they wanted and it turned out that with this genre they wanted blood. We repeated the ending with a big shoot out instead where everyone died, and the audience cheered. 

Silent Movie

Comedy Violence
Prat Falls
Two low status people having a high status battle with each other, one bossing around the other
Face the audience
Commedia Dell Arte
React to the audience
Be confused 

This was a great example of how different genres are. At firs the scene was getting a reaction from the audience as the actors were still acting within the limits of naturalism. Once they fully embraced the ridiculousness of slapstick they were funny, and we were all in hysterics. Similar to Farce I didn't realise how much this demanded of the actors - they had to fully commit to every move, reaction and play it big. 

Buddy Cop Movie

Good Cop/Bad Cop
Little in common
Hint to the home life of Good Cop
They have a history together
One is a maverick
Following the rules vs No Rules
Love/Hate relationship
Everything you believe it, I don't 
Bonding together working on a case they have to


Teenagers in a relationship going on a prom
Normal everyday life in American town
A thing/monster comes and threatens it
What is it??

If the thing/monster is a metaphor for a problem born out of their relationship, or reflecting a problem in the town or society in general, then this quite often cross into 'Sci Fi'. When it's just a random thing, it's a B-Movie. 

There were some more we did like Horror, Western, Mafia Film and more but I've lost the notes for them dammit. 

So there go, random genre notes.

Lots of love,


Improv classes Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays in London
Different classes around the UK on Sundays