Sunday, 15 February 2015

Things I learnt from the UCB 101 week

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email: 

I was lucky enough to do the UCB 101 course in London this week. Many thanks to Shem and Carleen and everyone else from C3? who made it happen. It must have been a lot of work, so thank you!

This is about my own personal experience, rather than a list of all the exercises.

I had Anthony Atamanuik as a teacher, who was excellent. I was in fact slightly star struck as I've watched his Death by Roo Roo video ( so many times I think half the view count is from me. Last year I felt like a 1950s wannabe musician learning about rock n roll by listening to beat up old records smuggled in from America and then played on pirate radio, except the records were Death by Roo Roo videos.

I didn't think I'd like having a strict syllabus in a course but actually I quite enjoyed it, as Anthony still had a personal take on it and we had enough time to get his own experience. So I thought it worked out as a nice balance.

So here's the main things I got from the workshop and want to keep forever:

Be true
Be honest
Be real
Use your own life experiences
Use your own thoughts and points of view
Do and say what you would actually do and say if you were in that situation
Be a real person on stage
Be yourself

All of this is summed up by the phrase "play at the top of your intelligence".

Time and time again Anthony would point times when a character wouldn't behave like that in real life. We sometimes go into invention or thinking things up, whereas it's actually easiest and best just to see people be real on stage.

The best way to improvise is also the easiest to improvise.

Have basic agreement with the reality presented, say yes to what comes along, just respond as if it's real.  

If we treat everything on stage as if it is real, a lot of great improv then happens really naturally, as you don't have to think anything up.  

I have a habit of overdoing characters. It might be from years of performing impro in crowded noisy pubs, competing for attention with noisy kitchens next door. I've also down lots of Clowning which often amps up characters to BIG. But the course made me realise that just knowing that you are character, without feeling the need to over show it, is often enough. 

My favourite exercise was also the most simple - The Park Bench of Truth. Two people sit on a park bench in front of the audience, as themselves, and talk honestly about whatever comes up, their own point of view and their own life experiences. As Anthony said, "a conversation, you remember those?" 

I played it with Sacha and we had a lovely conversation about tooth ache, ageing, life, death, fears of hospitals, young vs old. I felt very connected to him, so much so that when break came we didn't move and just carried on playing the game without an audience. 

UCB here seems known for one main thing (Game of the Scene, and more technique) but actually whenever I've done anything with them I've been really impressed that most of the course is more about being real to the scene, treating what's on stage as if it's real, behaving realistically as you would in that situation, and using our own life experiences and points of view. The Game of the Scene is fun, but more important is the reality of the scene and the relationships in the first place.

I also found weirdly enough strong connections between UCB and Keith Johnstone, which are often seen as opposites. When UCB teachers talk about playing at the top of your intelligence, and being real and true, I think that's what Keith Johnstone is also getting at when he says be obvious, be boring, don't try to be funny. Being obvious and playing within the circle of expectation (another Keith Johnstone term) actually feels the same as playing at the top of your intelligence. Also the circle of expectation feels like a similar thing to UCB's "if this is true what else is true". So there you go, all improv and impro are friends after all!

Overall both schools of thought want real humans on stage rather than robots pretending to be humans. 

This also made me realise a big lovely thing that impro does. We all walk around life with thoughts, feelings and opinions in our head that we sometimes feel like we can't let out. Impro gives us permission to let this all out, be fully human, and be strongly connected to each other and the audience. That's got to be a good thing right?

In a world where technology puts up a lot of barriers, going right back to two people in eye contact sharing what's in their heads right here and now is a very beautiful thing.

As Anthony said, have a conversation.

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email:

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Interview with Victoria Howden about Playback Theatre

Playback theatre is a unique, original and invigorating form on improv theatre centred around life stories. An audience member tells a story and the actors turn it into a scene on the spot. It builds communities, brings people together and gives you a chance to see you story come to life in a creative and imaginative way. 

When I was first getting into impro I was also going along to Playback Theatre classes and found them amazing at finding the truth and honesty in a scene. I've often wondered why there wasn't a stronger link between the improv scene and Playback Theatre, so when I met Victoria Howden from the new Playback Theatre company Plays of our Lives I was keen to support them and find out more. We're getting her in for a workshop on Saturday 14th February, and our interview is below. I hope this is the start of more crossovers between impro and Playback Theatre.


How did you get into Playback Theatre? 
I was looking desperately for a theatre project when someone suggested Playback theatre to me. I didn't even know what it was but I wrote to all the Playback theatre companies in Israel (where I was living at the time) and one replied and told me to come and see a show. I was blown away right from the start , I could't understand how the actors hear a story and turn into theatre without rehearsing. The facilitator asked for a story from childhood , I don't know what came over me but I put my hand up and told a hard story from my childhood. The way the actors played it back completely changed my life , they gave me strength and made me see other sides to my story. It was at that moment that I decided that is what I want to do. The theatre's director told me they where not looking for actors , I didn't care , I knew I was going to be part of that group , I took their playback theatre course and 2 days after we finished the Director called me and asked me to join the group.
I was with the ensemble for 3 years , heard some amazing stories and have had the privilege of helping people along the way.

How is Playback different to impro?
The main difference is that Playback is based on true stories , which the actors must stick to, while in impro you can start with an idea and go anywhere with it. In playback you are true to a story, we improvise with guidelines .

Doe Playback Theatre and impro help each other? 
I think it most definitely can and I believe that if you take the sensitivity, active listening and staying true to a story from playback and the sense of freedom and playfulness from impro you have yourself an amazing thing.

What's your big dream for Playback Theatre in England? 
My dream is to make it as popular here as it is in Israel, my dream is give people here from all strokes of life a place where they can come and share stories , see their life stories come to life and by doing that bring people closer together. My dream is that in a few years there will be 50 playback groups in the UK that go into the communities and bring people together because we are all made up of our stories. How amazing would that be?

What can Playback Theatre offer the audience that nothing else does? 

It offers them a chance to be heard, seen and their stories validated, it is a unique collaboration between the actors and the audience that exists only in Playback. It gives the tellers a chance to laugh at themselves, to have closure and see them selves as we the actors see them.

What does Playback Theatre offer the actor that nothing else does? 
Playback actors are not just improvisers , we are also listeners, the teller has given us a gift, their story and we have to treat it with great care. Playback offers the actors  the ability to read between the lines, listen actively to the teller and to the other actors, find the freedom and stay true to a story at the same time.

What kind of stories do people tell?
I have heard so many stories over the years: Two kids playing in the sand dunes outside their house found a baby in a box , they wanted to know now 20 years later what happened to him , of course we don't know but we could give them a reunion. A little girl who had pet cockroaches and we made a roach musical, people telling about people they have lost, trips gone wrong and many many more. Any story is welcome whether happy or sad , big or small, happened today or 50 years ago.

Victoria Howden and Jane Beavis from Plays of our Lives are running a one day workshop with us on Playback Theatre on Saturday 14th February:

Plays of our Lives facebook page: