Improv and the Curious Worm

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By Jules Munns, Artistic Director

By Jules Munns, Artistic Director

It’s been a hell of a year for improv in London. I mean, an amazing year. Being stuck right in the middle of it, sometimes you can’t see the wood for the tress, but quite apart from anything else, London now has three regular improv venues going each week! Let’s stop for a moment and think about just how far that means we have come. Six or seven years ago, this was the kind of scene that we dreamed of and wished for. The number of classes and shows, and the professionalism of them is, especially when you look back at where we were, extraordinary. There’s a tendency to compare to Chicago, or New York, with their three-shows-a-night, but they have been going for decades longer than us. Let’s all take a moment to give ourselves a pat on the back and say ‘Hey, all the work paid off!”. All those gigs to five people and long train rides to gigs to five people and rehearsals in inhospitable rooms with five people and classes that ran with five people, they all paid off. The London scene is varied, strong and growing. With the Showstoppers in the West End, FA in Vice Magazine and a feature in the Stage all about improv, shows selling out regularly at the Miller, The Edric and the Arts Space in Haggerston and all the wonderful classes and shows run by C3?, Duck, Duck Goose and others we are an art form on the bounce. Well done everybody.

Thinking back to those good old days (which were less than a decade ago, to be fair), it used to be that everybody knew everybody in improv. I used to pride myself on it. I used to get surprised when there was a performer I didn’t know, and doubly surprised if they were any good! And let me tell you I am not nostalgic for those days. Now I regularly teach classes full of improvisers of experience, subtlety and great who are completely new to me, and see groups at gigs who are great, and whom I have never heard of. More is good, better is good. Let’s keep growing, keep spreading and keep bringing more and more people into the fold. We’re a cheery, loving community of all kinds of people, and hurrah for that.

But there’s a danger. As more and more people come into the scene and get addicted to the sweet nectar of making it up, there is a greater danger of divides. You start doing a class, you love doing it, you see your teacher’s show, you see more shows at the same venue, you go regularly and work your way through the levels. Doing and seeing only one style of improvisation can lead to an improvisational echo chamber, hearing and seeing only a single style, thinking that one style is the one way. Not because you want to, simply because it is all you have known and seen.  To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. I should be clear, I don’t think is happening at the moment, but I think there is a danger. If improv tribes become more separate, the work could become self-referential and stagnant and less interesting. That would start by boring us and eventually by boring and alienating our audiences.

There’s a simple solution to this, and one that is very much in the spirit of improv. We need to stay curious. It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but there is no single way to do improv.  We need to see, absorb, steal and cross-pollinate. We need to keep seeing shows, and not just the shows you know you love, but also the shows you think you’ll hate. The shows that are weird, or if your show is weird, the show that is normal and conventional. And we need to encourage others to do the same. You don’t have to love everything; in fact, it would be strange if you did. But the more you know, the more you understand and the richer your work becomes. Some techniques and styles work for some shows and not for others, some appeal to some audience members and not to others. Getting too far into a single style can make you blind to another, so we need to watch as much as we can and get as close as we can to the naive eyes of a new audience member.

So go see a show you didn’t expect to see, or one you think you’ll hate, or one that’s the opposite of everything you do. I mean, I’d love it if you did it at the Edric, but anywhere is good. Let’s get out of the horseradish and keep fresh, inspired and open-minded and here’s to the next six or seven years.

Jules is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery. He performs with the Maydays, Sitting in a Tin Can, Ten Thousand Million Love Stories and Impromptu Shakespeare. He programmes and teaches many Nursery classes. 

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