When I started improvising, there were not really any regular shows in London. Spontaneity shop were doing occasional theatresports shows, the FA and Monkey Toast had yet to arrive and Hoopla was not much more than a drop in class in Balham. There was Grand Theft Impro every week at the Wheatsheaf, but that and the Showstoppers (still at the Kings Head in Islington) was about all I could find (apologies to those shows I didn’t find). I knew that I loved improvising, but I didn’t really know how to get better, or what my options were. I had a sense that there was something inspiring and wonderful there, but I still barely knew what improv was, let alone how I could get good at it.
Not that I wasn’t working at it. I was rehearsing twice a week and gigging pretty regularly (for a noob). We were getting better, but slowly, haltingly, and with a lot of false starts. You should have seen when we tried to do improvised plays. It was not fun for anyone.
Now, I am a huge believer in working hard on your improv, choosing something to improve and coming back to it week after week until it works. Or it doesn’t work and you realise the new thing to work on. You don’t go to the gym once and call yourself fit, and you certainly don’t just run a scientific experiment once.
Festivals can feel like the opposite to this. A messy, random clash of widely differing styles, companies and people, all in the same room, making things up in completely different ways. Some mixer shows work great, and some just, well, don’t. These unplanned and unplannable combinations are, in a way, what festivals just inherently ARE.
And there is a lot to be learned from the random and unplanned collision of assumptions and approaches. The little sparks as one style or community knocks up against another and combine, recombine and evolve ideas is a very productive thing. When PGraph came to London, their shows and style inspired the student improv company that has now become the Bristol Improv Theatre and put a spark to the fire that became Nursery Originals. Festivals have often been the times for me when I have jumped forward in understanding as an improviser. Not in ways that I could easily describe in a blog (I wish!), and often not in ways which are immediately applicable. They are moments of glimpsing something outside of your normal sphere, a hint of the lands beyond the hill, of insight, or inspiration.
What happens to me at festivals is this: I see a new style, show or set of improvisers and I remember again how much I love doing this, that there are as many styles as there are players and there is always, no matter how clearly and precisely you have mastered your own style, another skills to be learned and avenue to be explored.
This dual motion, combining singular concentration and repeated work with the occasional jolt of new inspiration, seems to me the best way to improve your improv (and indeed, you life). Work hard on the are of improv that you have chosen, don’t assume it works because it went right once, or that it doesn’t work because it failed once. Really understand what you are doing, then work on a new tiny thing, then throw it all aside and enthusiastically and open-heartedly do something completely different when it comes along, often at a festival. The least you will learn is that you were doing a the right thing (for you) in the first place.
And that’s why I love festivals. Sure, I love the drinking, the new friends and the invitations to other festivals. I love getting to play to packed houses and traveling to cities that I would never have expected to end up in. But most I love that moment of ‘aha, that’s improv too!’, that little nugget of new understanding I can take back with me. Normally in a tote bag, with a t shirt.
Slapdash 2016 runs from the 17th to the 23rd October. See slapdashfestival.co.uk for details.
Photo Credit: Olivier Valente (www.oliviervalente.com)