We met at university in The Oxford Imps, one of the most well-established improv troupes in the UK, where we learned the comedy ropes and spent some time eying each other up suspiciously to check we weren’t horrible bastards.
That’s a debate that the improv world is still very much having, and there isn’t a simple answer. It’s probably fair to say that it can be taught more than, for example, stand-up. You certainly improve as an improviser through doing classes, taking workshops, learning from directors, and perhaps even reading books, which is kind of anathema to stand-up. ‘Improvisation’ encompasses a lot of different things though. Some people passionately advocate emotive, theatrical improv work, whereas others staunchly plug the comedy aspects of improv. It is also generally a team art, so a very creative and supportive improviser might serve to balance a more comedically inspired companion. We see what we do as comedy, above all else, and I think that the more you go in that direction the harder it is to teach – humour is an intangible beast.
Laziness, insecurity and thrill-seeking I think. You could rock up and audition for the Imps without having prepared anything (as opposed to getting involved with a student sketch group or attempting stand-up), and you get immediate affirmation. Worried about whether the stuff you think up is funny? The audience will let you know immediately. If you’re good, they laugh – simple.
Partly exposure and partly improving quality. It’s a relatively new art form, so it’s taken time for people to hear about it, to understand what it is, and for it to get good. A few years ago audiences just wouldn’t get it – there is still a temptation to try and look for signs of cleverly-disguised scripting. Part of the problem was in how improv was presented – it tended to look quite studenty and be pretty hopeless at branding. Now performers are cottoning onto the fact that it needs to be packaged in a way that audiences can get on board with, that hooks them in. Austentatious do an improvised Jane Austen novel. Great, everyone’s got that from the minute they walk in. They know what stories are, they know how they work, and they can (just about) grasp the concept of one being made up on the spot. Traditional improv formats like The Harold, or short-form games feel a little bit off-putting to the layman, at least unless they are repackaged more eye-catchingly. There’s also just loads of really top quality stuff about now. Before people might catch one bad student show and file improv in the ‘cringy self-indulgent zaniness’ folder of their mental rolodex. Now improv troupes are packing theatres and winning awards, and improvisers (although still usually not in that capacity) are on TV and radio all the time.
It might sound like a breeze, but the fringe is actually pretty knackering, and doing lots of shows a day can take its toll. We also just wanted the chance to concentrate on one show, put all our group energies into that and into making it as good as it can be. Until last year we were always on the free fringe, and there is an extra responsibility that comes with doing a paid show in a top venue. We want to make sure it really does improv proud – it might be the first improvised show the audience have seen, after all. Most of us are in other shows at the fringe as well, doing stand-up, musical improv, short-form, so we’re pretty busy all round.
Several of us first came with the Oxford Imps, but Dougie and Chris had already been with school plays and student sketch shows. We’ve all been every year for quite a long time now – it’s an amazing world that it is hard to live without. A new year starts in September, rather than January 1st, so it really re-arranges your whole life.
I don’t think you ever expect it to be quite as big as it is, but the best thing about coming for the first time as a performer is how you really feel part of the life blood of it all, a contributor to this vibrant living organism. You feel pretty important really. All the comics at the fringe feel more important in August than at any other time, I think. You are top of the world for a month, because this new amazing world has been haphazardly created in which the comedian is lord.
The best thing is probably the chance you get to be exposed to so many amazing shows. For many of us the Fringe was the first time we really got to see much live comedy and theatre, and you suddenly realise there are all these possibilities out there that you never had any inkling of before – it must be how that Brazilian indigenous tribesman felt when Sting took him round the world in the 80s. It’s also a lot of fun.
There is a morbid fascination with monitoring the health of the fringe. Has it got more commercial? Are the shows getting worse? Are prices going up? Are visitor numbers going down? I’m not sure we’ve noticed much difference in the last 7 or so years. Oh, venues come and go, crappy comedians sometimes win the top award and the corporate dollar finds another additional inch of the city to ruthlessly brand each summer, but there are always mind-blowingly creative shows that appear out of nowhere, and a tonne of people rocking up for things to see. It seems in decent nick to us.
We probably aim to see a show a day. Sometimes we’ll cram three or four in, and other days we’ll skive off, but about 25 sounds right. It would seem a bit heinous not to take advantage of all the art knocking about up there.
There have been so many, some no doubt forgotten, so answering that is pretty tough. Daniel Kitson’s It's Always Right Now Until It's Later, Tim Key’s The Slutcracker, Jonny Sweet with Let's All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something For Once), Hans Teeuwen in 2009, and Josie Long’s All of the Planet's Wonders are some that come to mind. There’s also loads of stuff that might not be your favourite show ever but that will blow your mind just by being a bit mental. Sirqus Alfon, Vitamin, Neil Hamburger – you should try and see as much plain weird stuff as possible. Broaden those horizons, guys.
Don’t expect to cook. You’ll go up intending to, but soon give up. Try and eat healthily anyway though. Get tips from friends/acquaintances/strangers on the street who look interesting. Word of mouth is how you find out about the really great shows.
Photo courtesy of John Cairns