A brief history of rough theatre for improvisers

A brief history of rough theatre

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 spotlights 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.


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