I first started doing improv while studying Drama at the University of Kent, joining a short-form group called 'Play it by Ear'. I had such an amazing time with the group but it's not like I was super into improv or anything. I was more into the wider world of comedy and appreciated the stage time I was getting as well as the fun I'd have in rehearsals with my buddies.
During the third year of my course, there was a module that allowed students to use their own performance practice as a research subject. The prospect of putting study time and University resources towards something that we were really developing a passion for felt perfect so we signed up as a group. We had started getting really passionate about seemed like an amazing opportunity. Time that we would normally spend in lectures on subjects we were mildly interested in could now be spent attending improv classes and watching more experienced improv groups. When one of our members showed us a DVD of the Upright Citizen Brigade's 'ASSSSCAT' show, I was blown away. The UCB performers seemed so effortlessly funny while being amazing committed actors. I started reading everything improv related I could find in the uni library, practicing every opportunity I could and looking for performance opportunities outside of the comfortable bubble we had created for ourselves at the student run comedy club.
It seemed to happen overnight but I had become a fully fledged improv nerd.
What does improv training help you with in the real world?
I used to suffer from stage fright massively, I'd feel so nervous in front of large groups of people. Taking Drama in Secondary school really helped with this but starting improv took me to the next level. It was an amazing fun thing I did with my friends and once I started feeling comfortable and safe on stage, the confidence began showing in the real world too. Afterall, if I can get in front of an audience and do a forty minute comedy show in which we have no idea what's going to happen second to second and make it work, it does put any other social interactions into perspective.
What advice would you give to people wanting to get into improv?
You don't have to be funny, clever or quick to do improv. These can be strings in your bow but they're not all that important. If you can get into that mindset it takes the pressure off. I don't think many experienced improv groups go on stage and say to each other "Okay everyone, let's make sure we're super clever tonight! Do it quickly too! Oh, and don't forget to be funny". If they don't set those lofty heights, why should anyone else? One of the improvisers in my beginners class the other day started a scene with the line "I like books", it completely took the class by surprise and they laughed. The rest of the scene that followed was great and interestingly:
1. It didn't seem like the improvisers were trying to be funny, it really did just end up that way.
2. Even though the scene was about books, the improvisers didn't get lost in trying to show much they knew about literature, it ended up just being a fun context to play in.
3. The lines delivered were just responses to the previous line, there weren't quick quips and the scene remained at what you might consider a regular conversational speed.
The longer I do improv, the more I see that anyone can do it. You've just got to get out of your own way first.
Liam teaches the Beginners courses at Hoopla and is part of improv troupes The Science of Living Things and Fright Club. www.hooplaimpro.com.
You can also follow his blog about improv at www.liambrennan.co.uk/blog/