My lips twitched as I read the invitation. “The Nursery’s sternest ringmistress Heather Urquhart requests the pleasure of having you as a member of her company for a celebration of our nation’s finest scribe, Ms Jilly Cooper.” Surely that couldn’t be my name written in dark red ink, at the top of the gold-edged card? But it was. Striving to control myself, I felt my cheeks blush a rush crimson at the prospect of evenings spent stroking the taut flesh of horses in their prime, straining against sexual contradictions I had thought long since abandoned and quaffing unlimited Bolinger. My misgivings were plenty: embracing these forbidden pleasures was one thing, but to do so in front of an audience? Accompanied by a group of notoriously depraved adults of whose morals I had no firm guarantee? A stream of doubt assailed my conscience, but, alas, to no avail. Powerless to resist, I felt my hand move unbidden to write the words of acceptance I knew my very soul craved beyond measure. “I’m in.”
I asked the cast of the latest Nursery Original ‘Unbridled’ to give me their thoughts on the process so far. The Paragraph above was written by cast member Fred Deakin. It wouldn’t fit anywhere else in this Blog, but I thought it was an apt introduction and might give readers an idea of the tone of our show, before reading further. For the whole cast, I kept the question deliberately open so I could see what themes were coming up for the whole ensemble. Here’s what I noticed.
As a director, I want our rehearsal process to be fun so I was delighted to see these comments:
‘I usually leave rehearsal exhausted from laughing!’
‘without a doubt one of the funniest improv experiences of my life (- if not the funniest!)’
‘a riot at rehearsals’
‘we’ve been laughing our way through rehearsals, enjoying every single minute’
‘After every rehearsal my cheeks hurt from laughing!’
‘a laugh laden log flume of a ride. You may get metaphorically splashed with water but you’re laughing so hard it just adds to the ridiculousness.’
Not that funny should be the measure of everything, but when you’re giving up your free evenings and travelling from places like Brighton and Norwich, I’d hoped we would enjoy ourselves. This show is for the most part comedy but I feel this way when working on things like horrors or tragedies too as there is a lightness to improv that I like to hold even when we’re working our butts off or exploring the darker side of life.
Cast member Jinni Lyons says, ‘When I saw the casting call for Unbridled, it was as though someone had finally designed a show for me – having been mocked repeatedly over the years for being ‘posh’ (mainly because I shop at Waitrose – their crumpets are disgusting, but their ethical standards and support for their farmers are top-notch), now I could let my accent run free. But then I remembered all the sexy bits (wink wink) that came (nudge nudge) with the Jilly Cooper territory. Could I push my own boundaries with a cast I didn’t know? I was a bit scared and nervous which obviously meant I had to do it. Two weeks into the rehearsal process, I had my hand on the bum of Jon, whom I had only met three times, and vice versa, for the photo shoot, and it was FINE. All due to the support that Heather had given us (just like Waitrose) to only do what we feel comfortable with, but most of all, to embrace the utterly daft nature of all the sexy bits. Sex is funny. And it’s even funnier in a posh accent.’
This ties in with laughter, but yes we’ve worked hard to make sure the erotic is ridiculous and have had repeated chats about people’s comfort levels and boundaries. More on that later.
These are a huge theme of the show and lend themselves well to an improv show. As cast member Kathy Manson says ‘It’s great to be able to be so melodramatic, the bigger the better. Jilly Cooper’s books are all about over-the-top emotion, saucy scenes and dramatic slaps, which is so fun to play. You can fall in love in a minute in Unbridled, or loathe someone on sight.’
Brittany Pays adds ‘This world is so ridiculous and exaggerated that between the slaps, sexual tension and horses, relationships can build, blossom and perish so easily because we have to react and care. Nothing about the world of Jilly Cooper is chill, it’s either love or hate’
For improv, we get to these kinds of scenes so rarely that I’ve really tried to give the cast permission to ‘go big or go home’ and play those moments without apology. There are so many big moments to play too. Not just story and emotion but characters, the class system and more. As Jules Morrish puts it ‘Getting to do improv inspired by unapologetically larger-than-life, absurdly bombastic characters and their all-seeing, all-knowing animals; set in a world full of scandal and drama is fantastic’
A Different Era
We are in 2019 (2018 when we started) and as Jules says ‘having a reason to read Riders in 2019 has been very entertaining and interesting’.
Cast member Jon Nguyen elegantly puts it ‘We soon discovered that our playful memory of the source material and the darker parts of the novels did not quite match up. To deny there are uncomfortable moments would not be right but we’ve tried to confront and tackle those issues of sexism, class divide and gender inequality in creative ways. From mucking around with status and playing opposite gender it allowed us to have melodramatic slaps and passionate out of breath seductions, all with the right level of tongue in cheek humour.’
Humour, communication and continued discussion has been our friend here. We’ve tried to have an angle on what we can and if anything doesn’t sit right, it doesn’t go in the show.
I love being directed or coached in improv myself and this has given me a great passion when I get the chance to do it myself. Cast member Bella Forbes kindly says I have a ‘can-do attitude and constructive methods of directing meaning that all rehearsals are imbued with positive energy. Her endless ideas, exercises and games are what makes ‘Unbridled’ such fun to be part of!
It’s lovely to read these kinds of comments from the cast. As well as joy, I want improv to feel easy (even with having rehearsal discipline and working out the tough bits). For me, breaking things down to their composite parts and drilling those skills is key. In this process we’ve had mini-workshops on Double-barrelled names, show jumping (thanks Bella), narration, realistic animals and orgasms to mime (yes I did say that) amongst others.
Working in Genre
‘Doing a show inspired by a specific literary genre has given rehearsals an added “book club” element, which I’ve really enjoyed as it’s used a different part of my brain. Says Jules.
I experienced this when we first started working on the Maydays ‘Happily Never After’ which is inspired in the main by the world of Tim Burton films. Knowing the world you are drawing from can provide a creative restriction that can allow improv to flourish. Like Britt adds ‘I don’t have that much experience working in genre improv, but I’m loving being in the world of Jilly Cooper. This world is so ridiculous and exaggerated that between the slaps, sexual tension and horses, relationships can build, blossom and perish so easily because we have to react and care. Nothing about the world of Jilly Cooper is chill, it’s either love or hate.
Nobody wants to watch improvisers pretending to have sex on stage but as cast member Leander Vyvey observes ‘some hilariously brilliant ways of ‘getting sexual’ were introduced in our scenes – without getting physical at all. ‘
Tension is a great way of showing chemistry and I’ve been encouraging the cast to slow right down and also talk about what makes them feel uncomfortable.
‘From the get-go rehearsals have felt like a safe, happy, collaborative and supportive place, even when the subject matter has got saucy! Says Jules.
I’ve made it my mission to make sure the boundaries chat is not a one time conversation AND that people’s given boundaries can be different from one show or rehearsal to the next.
Originals and Community
Before I stop rambling, I just wanted to give a shout out to the Nursery Originals project as a whole headed up by Chris Mead. Of the experience of being in an original, Jules says ‘The team are a group of people I’ve not performed with before – some I’ve not even met before – it’s opened up a whole new part of the improv community to me. They’re all great people so it’s a joy learning and playing with them, and it’s always nice to make new improv friends. The group feels like a good mix of different types of people.’
This is exactly what us artistic directors of The Nursery want being in shows to feel like and be about. You can read more about Nursery Originals here and I do hope you get involved as a cast member, director or audient!
If all this hasn’t convinced you, cast member Lesley Wilson’s string of adjectives should ‘Unbridled is the zingiest, naughtiest, hilarious, rumbustious, wealthiest, bawdiest, mischevious, hedonistic, animalistic, innuendoistic romp’ and as Leander says on behalf of all of us ‘I hope we’ll be able to share this sense of joy in our shows as much as we did during rehearsals.’
See you at the shows and Tally-Ho!
Unbridled is on every Saturday until the end of Feb 2019 – Book Tickets Here