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and as per usual we’re too busy doing it to write about it.

Except we’re not. Today is Monday, the 23rd March and we’re in the middle of a minor (read your history books for the major ones) plague.

We’re in semi-lockdown, everyone is (supposed to be) off the streets. A situation resembling martial law, and in all likelihood going to get worse. For a super-cold. It’s a chilling reminder of how fragile all this is. The most technologically advanced civilisation the world has ever known, capable of what people just a few centuries ago would have considered miracles, and here we are, flattened by a super-cold.

What does this mean for our little group? In the great scheme of things bugger all. People are dying out there. People who’ve shown us support, who’ve backed us and given us space in their bars and pubs could see their livelihoods go to the wall. It is frustrating to see the progress we’d made stalled – we’d doubled the size of the group since Christmas, we were developing the Jam nights – but compared to what people we like and respect are going through our setbacks are trivial.

We haven’t gone away though, and the downtime and the lock in are giving us the chance to get the reading pile down. There’s a new trend in online activity which is interesting. It may well be that when all of this finally goes away we’re left with – I was about to say a changed world. That would be a very silly thing to say. The world is already changed, but our little corner of it is changed too. New opportunities are opening for live performance. Elsewhere people are talking about what a boom in going out there’ll be when the all clear sounds. I wonder. I mean you don’t want to see everyone morphing into Molocks (it is Molocks right, those weird underground people in HG Wells’ The Time Traveller?) but we’re evolving tools to take what we’re doing into people’s homes. I’ve attended gigs from the comfort of my own underpants, right here in this very room.

So there’s a changing landscape. More opportunities for reaching into people’s homes via online media. More opportunities for engaging with people long before they set foot in a class or attend a show.

Interesting.

Elections

Last night… we should have seen last night coming. I have personally gone from living in the heart of a major city to living on the edge of a middling one. Cities both though, and that has defined my viewpoint.

Still, should have seen last night coming.

What does it mean for us? In the short term we can expect people to be cautious. No-one really knows what’s coming. Are you going to need thirty quid to visit your GP? Will you still be in a job next week? Are your rent protections going to be torn up?

No-one knows, and that makes people cautious. Cautious people don’t spend. We expect to see people saving. Less willing to take risks, which is bad news for what is for most people an unknown performance form.

The audience will need more nurturing, more reassuring. More opportunities to reassure itself and its friends.

For the rest… who knows, maybe the current tory government will pull its masks off and reveal – to our surprise! – that they are compassionate people who see the value of developing and protecting all the people of this country. Or maybe it’ll be business as usual.

Sounding cynical. These posts are for developing a creative business. I’ll do saving the country somewhere else. The young are going to be busy, unstable and skint. Welcome to our new playing field.

Selling improv.

This, I apologise in advance, is going to be one of those train of thought things.

We do improv. We do all sorts of improv. We do applied improv, we do improv for confidence building, for communication skills, all sorts of things. And one of those forms is performance. Both long and short form performance. It is good to do shows. If you’re going to do performance improv then at some point it’s going to be downright strange if you don’t do shows. It is good to get an audience for those shows.

There are places where improv has been running for decades – sixty years in some of those places – and an audience has had time to grow and develop. Then there’s us. We’re in Bradford. We are the first improv group in Bradford (that I’m aware of). Currently we are the only improv group in Bradford. There is no audience to inherit. There is no product knowledge. We are selling improv to people who don’t know what improv is. Now this is not unique to Bradford, pretty much everywhere has this issue. Which is why we see a lot of people trying to piggy back onto other performance forms, usually comedy.

(At this point I’m going to mention that yes, I am aware of the strain of thought in improv that improv is a branch of comedy and should always strive to be funny. In my own humble opinion (which happens to be correct) improv isn’t a branch of comedy. Improv is a branch of improv. Thinking of it as a branch of comedy is a dead end. Anyway, moving on)

The problem with advertising improv as “comedy improv” is that there’s already a comedy industry. Which doesn’t appreciate us trying to piggyback onto and take its audience. Who can blame it? They’ve worked for years to build that audience. They have an established relationship. What the flip are we doing trying to take that? There’s a term in social media for when you enter an existing audience – join a group – to try to recruit for your own group. They call it “dirty harvesting”. It doesn’t make you popular. Let’s not dirty harvest.

So what do we do then? If we’re not going after the comedy audience, and there isn’t an improv audience to tap into then what? I’ve seen people trying to leverage “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, but in the UK “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, much as we in the improv community hold it in awe and affection, was a bit of cheap filler that filled a gap before The Word started, and it was The Word that got all the attention. In 1988. It would run until 1999, but WLIIA is 31 years old and has not been seen on British broadcast television for twenty years. It was cancelled because of poor viewing figures. It is very unwise to assume that a potential audience is going to be familiar with it, and if they are familiar with it there’s no guarantee that their impression is positive.

People I see are trying themed improv. I’m seeing Harry Potter themed groups. I have to confess I wonder what this is. Is presenting improv as an act of collaborative fanfic…. well for a start you’ve specialised the act so you’ve specialised the audience. Are there really that many Harry Potter fans out there? I suppose there must be, people who know what they’re doing are doing it. A quick look at Google shows they’re all over the place, so clearly clever people think there’s a market.

So themed improv. But that really only suits longform doesn’t it? I saw Austentatious, a Jane Austen longform performed by some very clever people. It sold out a national tour. It’s back for another one. It is very, very clever.

Ok. So themed longform is an option. If you can find a cast passionate about a theme.

Shortform. Games. This is the one people are used to. The one they did on Whose Line is it Anyway. The one pretty much all improvisers start on. There’s a bit of snobbery attached – a lot of people look down on shortform. I’m not one of them, shortform is fantastically useful, especially for filling a short slot. It’s fast, it’s flexible, it can be very funny. It’s just a bit samey (which we should address in another post) and a bugger to sell. So we keep calling it comedy. But there already is comedy. So we shouldn’t call it comedy. Improv should have its own audience. And that cuts to the heart of why people are using their precious free time to go and see an improv show. What’s the payoff? Another another post. Keep to the subject.

If we can’t say improv then we have to say something. There has to be something that we can offer the audience that they’ve actually heard of. If you have a rich and diverse audience available to you that’s heard of improv and is actively seeking it out then you have my twisted and bitter envy, you really do, but you’re not out of the woods yet. There’s a churn to audiences. Audiences naturally shrink. People move, or get commitments or change tastes. Audiences constantly need to be replaced. By new people, people who aren’t already in the audience. People who don’t necessarily know what they’re buying. People who are new to the product.

How do we sell to them?

We’re going to experiment. We will start a show. We will seek to develop an audience for that show. One constraint of the experiment is that we won’t use the word “comedy”. We’re using shortform, so we can expect bits of it to be funny, but we don’t want to piggyback on another performance form. And we won’t confine the marketing to improv fans. A marketing that appeals to existing customers isn’t really a marketing. Up here in Bradford it’s no marketing at all; extend the catchment as far as Leeds and out of a combined population of around three million you’re talking about at most fifty people. That’s not a viable audience base, and reaching what is effectively an audience of your friends is not a success story.

So what do we call this show of ours? How do we present it? I’m going to interleave it with acts the audience is familiar with and does understand. In fact I am going to throw the door wide open. The whole point of improv is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It is spontaneous, it is unpredictable. So let’s improv the whole bloody night. This is immediately a lie – I have a timeline for the evening and it has slots and I am already talking to people about filling those slots, but I am putting no limits on what can turn up. It can be anything and I hope it is, and in there will be improv too. And that will be a variety night. If you don’t like the improv then fine, there’s a musician or a poet or even a juggler coming.

It’s a variety night. Of course it’s a variety night. That’s what improv is, it’s not comedy, it’s not drama, it’s not opera it’s not dance. It’s a variety act. Anything can happen. I hope it does. If the experiment works, if it brings new people in, increases the audience for improv then you can thank me later. If it doesn’t we’ll try something else.

Bradford Jam

We’ve neglected the website

Which is not good. I can see from the Google thing that people are visiting and here we are looking all abandoned. We’re working hard, all doing stuff. On the plus side we have some talented actors and performers. On the downside they’ve all been away doing stuff (I’ve been in shows myself). But we haven’t gone away.

We’ll keep the website updated. Promise.

Improv and conflict.

We’ve been asked if improv can help with conflict management.

Yes, yes it can. Because improv makes you stop and listen. It makes you listen to what the other person is actually saying. It makes you see from their viewpoint. Someone who is being listened to, someone whose viewpoint is being taken into account, is less likely to be aggressive, less likely to be obstructional, less likely to spend time and energy making your life and public image unpleasant.

So yes, the skills learned in improv can be used in conflict management.

Authenticity and us. Riffing on a youtube vid

I like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ8FCVZ4MSE&fbclid=IwAR1LSeYQTYUI7WXhKdsxDn2ZQI55qGZKEfevtwsqE72I7wJWqsaqrBBX_MQ

So many people think that Whose Line Is It Anyway was groundbreaking for its time. Except it wasn’t of course, it was pubprov. Short form games amost all adapted from Spolin’s training games, played for quick laughs, and it created a creative ghetto that improv hadn’t been in before and still struggles to break out of today. Improv began with sketches. When Del Close called out “we should have a name for this thing” and Bill Matthieu called out “Harold” they were talking about an alternating of the short scenes they’d been doing at Second City and games. Now for so many people it’s just the games.

So why do I like that Youtube video? For maybe the wrong reasons. Because of (for me) the clear demonstration that when improv gets too formal, too corporate, it loses its charm. Check out the Vegas show. Those are expensive suits, and nice ties but the play is gone. The effect is deadening. The show failed. Now I’m not dissing suits here, the British Whose Line Is It Anyway survived Tony Slattery’s and John Sessions’ very sharp dressing. However the early American WLIIAs have a sense of camaraderie, of play between friends, which give them enormous charm. The Vegas show doesn’t have that.

The early shows feel authentic. They feel like we’re watching a bunch of genuine friends play in a safe relaxed environment. And they’re charming. People can relax and make utter buffoons of themselves and it’s all ok. The rules are made up and the points don’t matter.

Perfect improv.

Improvising is not performing

Technically pretty much anything can be improvised. Beethoven was famous for improvising on the piano. In this post we’ll use ‘improvising’ to mean theatrical improv. What we do. Which some of us take on stage. So some of us perform improv. But improv is not performing.

In an improvisation exercise it doesn’t matter if you can be seen by someone sitting twenty feet away. In a group session it doesn’t matter if you can be heard by someone sitting fifty feet away. It doesn’t matter.

It does matter if you’re performing. Add an audience and it does matter if you can be seen, if you can be heard. It matters if your accents are recognisable, your characters vivid; it matters that your scenes have flow and purpose.

Without an audience none of that matters at all.

So it’s useful to remind ourselves of what does matter in improv itself. It’s a subjective question, thank you for asking me for my opinion and since you insist:

My opinion (drumroll please):

It matters that you walk away from a class with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. That you have worked your imagination. That you have worked together, to the benefit of each other. Improv (and I will repeat this ad nauseam) is not a game for egos. Be generous, be insanely generous. Walk into an exercise knowing that everyone’s got your back and you’ve got theirs’ or why in Hell’s name are you doing it?

It matters that you practice (and eventually achieve) imaginative flow, because that imaginative flow can then be taken and used in every aspect of your life. There are people in improv classes who will never step foot on a stage and don’t want to. But they will communicate every day. They will problem solve every day, and improv can help with that. So can performance skills, if you need to communicate with someone fifty feet away. But they’re not the same thing.

The Tuesday Group at the Ante Festival

There’s a two day arts festival at the Kirkgate Centre in Shipley on the 4th and 5th of May.

We’ll be there! We’ll be running a beginners’ intro session at (or around) 12 noon, then we’ll be looking at some of the social uses of improv, focusing on a South American technique called “Rainbow of Desire”. This is a very quick and easy way of knocking a short play together that explores a way in which you’re being ripped off or put down, and looking at ways of pushing back. The audience writes it, so if you don’t want to be in it you can help write it. Or just watch it, the choice is entirely yours.

Either way, should be a lot of fun. See you there we hope.

Journey. A few thoughts.

We’ve been doing some remarkable stuff in longform recently. I have sat there watching the performance group working with the hairs on the back of my neck prickling and my mouth dry.

I’ve also been in pieces that have just… stalled. Gone nowhere.

This is fine, this is cool. We’re in the practice room. If we’re not getting stuff wrong we’re wasting it, but why does one piece grab and hold the attention, while another bores? What engages? What doesn’t? What matters? What doesn’t?

In shortform, the improv most people who are used to improv are used to, nothing is really supposed to matter. We play silly games. If they work it’s funny. If they fail it’s still funny. Essentially you’re watching the performer walk a low wire; if they make it to the other side then we all cheer. If they don’t then in reality no harm’s been done. Shortform has its uses. We use it. You can knock a show together in minutes with shortform. You can jump in and fill half an hour with virtually no notice. And it doesn’t really matter if it goes wrong. Brilliant stuff.

Longform isn’t quite so forgiving. Longform is starting to take us out into the wilder waters of theatre. To hand in longform you need (I will say) a sense of scene and flow. What we call “beat”. In longform improv you need to act. If you’re going to put a sketch or short play on the stage then you’re going to have to be able to keep up with the demands of that.

The longforms I’ve been held by have had an internal purpose. They’ve had a journey. We’ve begun with recognisable human beings who haven’t by any stretch been the performers themselves. I am very pleased to see that members of the performance group have not only committed to character, but have committed to unpleasant ones. Then we’ve gone somewhere. Something has happened. Those characters have changed.

In a sense (I should stress that this is my current opinion, it could change overnight) longform is a conversation. Shortform is a gag, a joke. I tell you a joke, you (hopefully) laugh, the job is done. We don’t sit there for the next thirty minutes picking the joke apart.

With longform that’s exactly what you do do. You present your opening, then the next block of time (and longforms can last for hours) is spent expanding and exploring that opening. Discussing it. Exploring and expanding it. Challenging it.

Longform improv is a conversation, with your fellow performers and with the audience. It is improv as theatre. It follows the same development path as conventional theatre. We are as obliged as any narrative artist to obey the laws of story. And just as obliged to break them.

Blocking. (Making Things Happen #1)

“You block when you want to stay in control.”
(Johnstone, 1999: p101)

Blocking, in the end, is saying no. Your partner makes a suggestion. You say no. That’s pretty much it.

“Hey, we’re in an airplane!”
“No we’re not.”

Righty ho then. Good scene.

There’s a couple of things here. The first and uppermost has to be trust. Putting an idea out there is a risk. It’s an act of courage. If you read the Tuesday Group class rules you’ll see that one of the number one ways you can get yourself removed from a class is to sneer at other people. Not because we’re all fragile cupcakes, but because we know from hard experience that that crushes creativity. People shut down, their enthusiasm turns to anger and you’ve lost the group.

So why would people do it? A lot of people do seem to take a sense of accomplishment from spotting the problem. I’m afraid there are people who take pleasure in putting other people down. It’s a status thing for them I suspect. If I can make you back down I’ve won. Something.

Another is the fear of endings. People seem to dislike endings.

And another is the compulsion to be the cleverest thing in the room. If you meet a pixie on your travels who asks if they can come home with you then why not take the pixie home? A lot of students don’t think that that’s clever enough. They seem to think it won’t impress, so they tie themselves in knots trying to think of something clever.

Just take the damned pixie home.

Keith has an exercise where two people block each other. It’s not enough to ignore, you have to actively shoot the other person’s ideas down. It is fascinating to watch the mood of the exercise shift from joyful to resentful. It’s a bad idea to end that one without feedback and rebalancing.

Notes for Ged:

Both Block (two worlds). Players both inhabit different worlds
First to block loses
Remove the blocks
Block Tick – first to block gets replaced
“Sounds good to me” limit one actor’s responses to positive acceptances
One blocks / one accepts
Accept but make negative offers
It’s Tuesday – over accept offers.
“The Eyes” – 2 person drawing exercise. Koppett does this with a letter at a time caption.