Improvising our future

London Essays – Issue 9: Play

Improvising our future

A fast-growing genre enables Londoners to connect.

By Jules Munns and Rosie Ferguson

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

— Incorrectly attributed to Plato

Improvisation is a community of play. It brings people together and gives them a sense of belonging, satisfaction, and growth. The games we play in improv disrupt expected social responses, and allow relative strangers to play on a deep level extremely quickly. A ten-year veteran and a beginner can play together successfully and productively. Often, you may not even notice which is which.

A meal can be improvised, a Sunday afternoon can be improvised – as can a budget, or how to bring up children. Improvisation as an art form refers to exercises and structures in which you create stories, characters, scenes and whole shows, without planning what’s going to happen. Improv is often (but not always) practised in a theatrical environment – although many of the core exercises and ideas are accessible and applicable to anyone, even if they have never stepped onto a stage and never intend to. It is a truly democratic and accessible artform, to practise as well as to watch. Improv is punk theatre.

Learning to improvise won’t give you the secret of funny, or the elixir of charisma. (Sadly, these don’t exist.) But it will bring the ability to be comfortable with and react to what is happening right now, whatever that may be, in the knowledge that when something unexpected happens, the answer is not to panic, but to simply stay present in, and live with, that experience; to appreciate that those new stimuli are in fact opportunities. Who wants to live a life in which everything goes exactly to plan? That’s not living – and acknowledging that is the essence of play. Improv makes great theatre, but it also makes for a great way to live. When you are improvising there is no time to check your email, worry about remortgaging your flat, or fret over the many unread emails in your inbox. This is the escape that many Londoners crave.

The benefits of improv, however, are not restricted to offering a little time out from the practical and the stressful. There is much more going on here than a bit of fun. As with meditation, the more you improvise, the less of a clear distinction there is between that activity and life outside it. In the end, nothing falls outside the practice: the ability to be genuinely present, playful and receptive to what you experience allows you to let go of expected responses and simply notice what is. This form of acceptance and pliability makes us and others happier, healthier and more productive. Improv is like group meditation with some laughter thrown in.

Demand for improv is growing

Ten years ago the improv scene in London was very small; there were the Comedy Store Players, of course, with all our heroes from Whose Line is it Anyway? Beyond that, there were a few active teams and a few classes here and there. It was the start of a community, but a community that was small and scattered.

Today, through a combination of visiting international teachers and those Londoners who have devoted their lives to the form, the community is growing at an exponential rate. On any night of the week, you have a choice of classes, jams and shows right across town, in a variety of styles and at all levels. There is musical improv, narrative improv, genre improv, dramatic improv, and experimental improv. Schools such as Hoopla, the Free Association and The Nursery have classes and shows daily. Performers are being trained and are making their own discoveries; new shows and formats are popping up all over town. Whereas even five or six years ago the whole community knew each other well, now it is common to go to an improv show or class and not know anyone on the stage. This is fantastic progress. We are starting to be noticed on the world scene, with UK shows such as the Maydays, Ten Thousand Million Love Stories, the Showstoppers and Do Not Adjust Your Stage staples on the European festival scene, and more and more world-class companies and performers visiting London.

One of the biggest shifts is that it’s not only the performance community but also audiences that are growing. No longer are improvisers playing simply for other improvisers upstairs in a pub. They are in the West End performing to (and wowing) mainstream theatre audiences, who sometimes don’t quite believe that what they’re seeing is made up on the spot! The Showstoppers won an Olivier award for their full- length improvised musicals, and Austentatious have won a Chortle award for their improvised Jane Austen novels, complete with period costumes and stage set.

Other improvisers are usually in the audience. Like sportspeople watching each other’s matches, improvisers love to learn from watching each other perform. And people who love watching the shows very often, out of curiosity, try a class and get hooked. The separation between those who do and those who watch is arbitrary, since the forms and varieties of improv will allow anyone, with the right guidance, to get onstage and create something wonderful. There are of course structural differences between shows and classes, but they share a delighted, anarchic and participatory energy. There is less separation between artist and audience member than in many art forms. We delight in watching people going through an experience we recognise. And we delight in applying what we have learned earlier that week in a class or rehearsal.

Improv is not just on the up, it is already up

In June,The Nursery, a charity that promotes and produces improv theatre and comedy, opened The Nursery Theatre Broadgate in collaboration with British Land, Broadgate Estates and Theatre Delicatessen. Since then we have put on all kinds of shows, with players both experienced and new. We offer a weekly jam for newer players, an international festival, new shows commissioned every season, and regular shows on topics ranging from love stories to improvised Shakespeare, gothic fairy tales to an improvised concept album. And we have a stable, committed community.

This brilliant use of “meanwhile space” brings accessible performances and workshops right into the heart of the City, and audiences are flocking in. Currently, however, the building is only secure until 2019, when it is scheduled to be redeveloped and returned to its previous use as an office. Other opportunities may well arise, but there are negative effects – financially, practically and psychologically – to packing up and moving to a new place every few years. In order to build improv into the fabric of London we need more stability. Just as the Comedy Store became a home for, and champion of, the alternative stand-up scene in the eighties, The Nursery wants to educate and inspire the public about improv as something in which to participate and to watch.

London as a world-class improv city

London is a theatre city, and has always produced some of the best theatre in the world. The same is now true of improv. But why do most Londoners still not know what it is?

London has the opportunity to become a World-Class Improv City to rival New York and Chicago. This would bring multiple benefits:

1. Building new communities

Improv teaches you to trust yourself and your playmates and to relish chaos – and, once that happens, it doesn’t take long to realise you have a new community of friends. Improv is one of the few activities in London in which teachers play alongside journalists, and actresses make up stories with coders. The playing field is levelled: the long-term unemployed and investment bankers play on the same team. This is London at its best, and it is as beneficial to the individual as it is to social cohesion.

2. Refreshing our arts and comedy scene

Much of the work we teach at The Nursery is based in American improvisation, and the theatres and traditions of Chicago and New York have nurtured performers and writers that have gone on to create award-winning shows and films – including smash hits like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. All kinds of performers cite improv as fundamental to their training and growth. Stephen Colbert, Aziz Ansari, Bill Murray, and Tina Fey all started in improv. This has also been the case in London, with comedians including Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence and, more recently, Pippa Evans and Joe Morpurgo coming from improv backgrounds. We often like to wonder which students in Nursery classes will one day have their own sitcoms.

3. Developing our workforce

As automation and robotisation threaten more and more jobs, with robot cars, chefs and even carers on the way, humans will have both the opportunity and the obligation to work on more complex, fluid tasks. In the era of the multi-job career and the information worker, reacting to new situations confidently and without panic is a skill that will only become higher in demand. This is not only what improvisers are trained to do, but what they delight in. Improv as a training tool in a professional environment is something that can only grow.

Sounds great! How do we get more of this?

So what’s the next step? What does improv need in London? Where does it go next? Looking to the more developed American experience, it is clear that what the London community needs is space. Improv classes are being held in halls and primary schools, above pubs and in youth centres. The Nursery is lucky in that it has a five‑room rehearsal suite in London Bridge, and a theatre near Liverpool Street, but both are meanwhile-use spaces.

London needs permanent improvisation theatres and training centres: buildings that say IMPROV in big letters above the door, and which legitimise the artform as something to do after work, to go and watch at the weekend, and as a way of fostering and training the artists and workers of tomorrow. Such visibility and stability would help Londoners play harder, and allow these institutions to take their work out to communities and locations that are less exposed to London’s vibrant arts sector.

The Mayor’s Office could support this growing artform by recognising and celebrating the contribution improv makes to London – by making sure we get a billing at festivals and events; by encouraging increased use of meanwhile spaces for creativity; and by making sure that central London continues to be a place where artists and performers can afford to run theatres and attend shows.

We would urge London’s theatre audiences to step out of their comfort zone and support an improv theatre. There are all sorts of styles and formats, and we challenge anyone not to find something they enjoy. We would also encourage companies to give improv a try in their organisation. They will find that it sharpens the minds of employees, builds confidence in individuals and teams, and helps staff and the business harness the power of play.