Variety is the spice of improv
I’ve learnt a lot performing in Story Kitchen recently, the new London TheatreSports show directed by Faye Brann. Faye is doing a great job of encouraging us to have variety in our improvisation, and across the whole show and evening. In fact variety is her main note after shows, and it creates a really fun evening.
If we’ve just done a funny scene we’re encouraged to do a more serious emotionally truthful scene. If we’ve just done a quiet scene then we do a musical scene. If we’ve just done a long scene then we do a one minute wonder. If we’ve just done a straight scene then we do a game or two.
Variety of scenes, styles, characters, emotions, time and themes makes it really fun and exciting to perform in and hopefully fun and vibrant to the audience.
I also saw this at another night I was at recently, Sam Rhodes Comedy Explosion in Denmark Street. It used to be said (and I don’t know why) that you couldn’t have stand up and improv on the same night. However Sam’s night does this really well, with a first half of great stand ups and sketch groups, and then a second half of improv. The variety gives the evening a real feel good factor and makes it really interesting to watch. There are totally different acts performing successfully together on the same bill, held together with Sam’s love of the night.
When booking shows for our nights at The Miller I try and get variety over the whole evening, with some short-form early on to get everyone warmed up and then long-form later in the evening with maybe some shorter character or cabaret acts in between to jazz things up a bit.
Sometimes I think a bonus big weird visual thing is really helpful for a night to make it memorable. I often think how would people to describe the night to their colleagues. For instance:
“What did you last night?”
“I went to a comedy night.”
“How was it?”
“Good, lots of stand ups.”
“How was it?”
“Oh my god, halfway through the night some bloke started playing the accordion in a paddling pool of jellyfish for no reason.”
“Whaaaaa? Where is it again?”
Within a long-form format the cast can also build in their own variety as the show goes on. If there’s just been a talking heads scene there can be a big physical movement scene. If we’ve just had funny go serious. We can play with variety of emotion, tempo, characters and more. Opening scenes of Harolds are especially good places to add some variety to the show.
This is also happens with good narrative long-form, we can play with a variety of quiet moments, loud moments, love, death, drama, big clown characters, realistic characters and more. If the audience have just seen tragedy it’s nice to give them a bit of comic relief afterwards.
As Keith Johnstone said, without variety it’s just soup followed by soup followed by soup.
The nice thing about thinking of a show in terms of variety is that the cast aren’t in competition with each other. If there’s just been a really big funny scene they don’t have to think “how can I top that” as they shouldn’t be topping that at all, they should be providing something different.
Variety is even beginning to describe the whole London improv scene to me.
About five years ago there seems to be a crisis of identity within the London improv scene. A lot of cities around the world seemed to have a very strong angle on what their improv scene was about, while London seemed to be doing a bit of everything and at the time I think there was a feeling that was somehow wrong.
But what’s actually happened is London seems to have accepted that variety is our improv scene. We have strong connections to America, Canada, Keith Johnstone and also the physical theatre, commedia and clown traditions of Europe and also our strong tradition of classical theatre with some of the best drama schools in the world. I’ve also got the feeling that Music Hall Theatre has an influence on improv, and we may have actually found the same kind of audience.
So what we have now is a lovely melting pot of everything, in fact we’re spoilt for choice. I think this can be at first confusing for the performer, as there isn’t a direct clear path of what we should be doing, but eventually it’s liberating as we realise we can actually do anything and we’re at the Wild West of improv.
What I’m most interested in at the moment is what happens when you squish all these styles together? Like take the game of the scenes funny from UCB and squish it into the longer stories of improvised plays of Keith Johnstone with the relationships of IO plus the bonus fun characters of Mask and Clown with a dabble of physical theatre from Europe and shake it about a bit. It’s time I started making a new show!