I’ve seen quite a lot of improv. It’s no surprise, given that my husband and most of his friends are improvisers. I have watched a passionate ghost hump a chair across a room, a talking traffic light decide the fate of a robot romance, and a cast of twenty conduct a spiritual sex-ceremony based on the stages of the moon but also roundabouts in Milton Keynes. It has ranged from the sublime to the goddam unbearable – shows so hilarious my sides would hurt walking home afterwards, to performances so grindingly awkward that I’d feel I had aged thirty years in the space of half an hour.
Always, the common thread has been humour. What laughs can be pulled from an audience. It could be a moment of sparkling physical comedy, a sublimely syncopated spontaneous dance routine, or on the other end of the spectrum, fart jokes. And who doesn’t like a laugh? Endorphins are good for you! People love stand-up – perhaps improv could steal the Friday night live-entertainment slot?!
Humour is indeed, great. But the scenes that have rested in my mind over the past half a decade of watching the cream of London’s improv are the ones that have gingerly let go of the life-jacket of laughter, and found their way to a more honest connection with life. Our experiences aren’t all good. Relationships wither and die. Friends fall in and out of favour.
Traditional theatre captures the richer patina of life but in the act of writing, something of the natural flow and simplicity of conversation is lost, and conversations start to feel more like conjoined monologues.
The Nursery Original’s run of [emotion] play was conceived as a way to bridge the gap. Find a way of communicating the joy and sorrow of life, with the natural eloquence of improvisation. Taking the audience on a journey through history, but viewed through the entire emotional spectrum, not just the rose-tinted lenses of humour.
With performers who didn’t trust each other, it could have backfired terribly. How would audiences used to comedy react to scenes of death in battle, the end of love, slavery and liberation, religious debate, political corruption, and the struggle of women to negotiate minefields of sexuality, emancipation and privilege?
Having seen the first and last shows of the run, I can say that audiences and performers alike are ready for this next step of improvised theatre. The talented cast worked intuitively together, capturing the complex power dynamics of gender and class throughout the ages from proto-christian evangelists explaining the concept of God to Celtic seers, Victorian feminist playwrights discovering love for the first time, to Durham miners disillusioned with the rise and fall of New Labour. It could have been dry, to have one eye on history and one on relationships, but instead it was sensitive and deeply moving.
Not a scene passed that I didn’t want to see to its conclusion. Little vignettes of characters stumbling their way through epic societal change; war, disease and triumph tied together in five minute slots. Some funny, some heartbreaking. All of them realised with skill, honesty and humanity.
With [emotion] play having finished it’s sell-out run at the Edric theatre, I feel a little bit bereft. I want more of this sort of improv, more of the tang of sadness mixed in with life’s joys. I hope that [emotion] play doesn’t end there. I hope the lessons learned from it and the cast brought together by it go on, across the country and across other nights, showing what people can do when they’re inspired by each other, and how places change because of the people passing through them. Because frankly, more people need to see this. And I want more!