I was recently back in Osho Leela for The Maydays annual residential workshop festival. Being tucked away in the English countryside with 70 other improvisers is a joy for the soul! I managed to corner Rhiannon Vivian of The Maydays in Brighton and Steve Roe of Hoopla in London for an interview in-between a workshop and a showcase. They share a common linkage via Music Box: The Improvised Comedy Musical and of course Hoopla and The Maydays have relationships.
Hello guys, thanks for agreeing to an interview. Lets start at the start, how did you get into Improv?
RV: My friend took me to see Grand Theft Impro and I loved the show so much that I wanted to do it. I had never seen any theatre or comedy before where I wanted to get up and join in and I felt jealous of the actors! I found out at the interval that the performers ran courses as Crunchy Frog
SR: I got into Improv through John Cremer in Brighton. I went to watch his show and it was very funny. I was trying to write sketch comedy at the time and watching The Maydays in action, they were much funnier improvised than anything I had ever written! It took me about 2 months to get the courage to ask John about classes and then another month to pluck up the courage to go along. I started first with the drop ins in Brighton and then I moved to London and started up my own stuff, Hoopla.
Who are your improv Influences?
SR: For me it has to be John Cremer because he was my first teacher and really got me into it. He also gave me lots of help in creating Hoopla which was really great of him given he was helping me set up something in London that he was already doing with The Maydays in Brighton. Anytime I find myself losing the plot with improv, I just do a class with John and I’m reminded that improv is fun again. He’s also incredibly patient too.
RV: That’s really really hard to answer! I have to say Steve though and not because he’s sat beside me here. I’ve done so much with him and a so many shows together and it’s always fun and brilliant. I think its Steve’s injection of a cheeky sense of play above anything else. Just have fun otherwise what’s the point! In the early days just having the liberty to just really play in the Hoopla workshops and that attitude became a big part of Music Box.
Who are your favourite improv troupes to watch that you aren’t involved with?
SR: I have a few for different reasons. In no particular order:
Austentatious: The Improvised Jane Austin Novel. It’s such a great show and they take the basics that we all know but do it really well. They build incredible platforms. You watch it and you say “That’s what improv is meant to be”. And you remember why you did it in the first place.
Baby Wants Candy also does that to me. When I watch them I see an explosion of fun, an orgasm of fun on stage! They break out of their shackles and enjoy themselves on stage.
Grand Theft Improv are awesome at scenes. Everyone should watch them to see what a self contained scene should look like. Platform and game. It’s so simple what they do and I mean that as a big compliment.
I also love The Mischief Theatre which used to be called The Scat Pack with Lights, Camera, Improvise because they really care passionately about what the audience wants and what people think of their shows, rather than just doing it for themselves. Because of that they’re very popular. They have really good production values too.
RV: I’ve got 3 that I love. Again in no particular order! Baby Wants Candy, Cook County Social Club from Chicago and Parallelogram-o-phonograph [PGraph] from Texas.
With Baby Wants Candy, they fed me my Edinburgh epiphany sort of by accident when I suddenly realised that I was forgetting to have fun. I was sat there watching them mess with each other in a really brilliant way. Like friends tickling each other or poking each other but knowing they have a story to get out or songs to get out. Watching that fun is infectious and you’re desperate to the same and have a piece of that. Like they say, if the audience see that you’re having the best fun ever, the best party, then they will want to join in. I love the band. They’re like The Muppets!
Cook County Social Club I love for similar reasons. Lots and lots of play. You can tell they’re mates too. They deliberately or not deliberately mess with each other too. In one show I saw, there was a scene on a bus and someone made a mistake which they took the piss out of but they decided that is would be their edit for the show. That was brilliant; they made the weird stuff count! Play and fun and awesomeness!
Parallelogram-o-phonograph are very theatrical and natural while also having lots of fun. They’re all really good friends. I like the attention they give to story and character. They’re also in costume too which is delightful in improv.
In recent interviews, I’ve had a lot of opinions offered on gender in comedy and improv. Given you both teach and feature in both male and female dominated shows, what are your views on gender in improv and the challenges it brings?
RV: There is always a debate somewhere on gender in comedy but I have never found it an issue in any way. There are loads of women in improv which is awesome. I have never noticed any divide. I’m friends with some very funny ladies. But weirdly on the other hand, if I happen to be in a group and it happens to me or just one other girl and a load of dudes, I don’t really notice. Growing up I loved comedy and all I wanted to do to be liked at school was to be make people laugh. However I used to play a lot of men and animals! I wonder if there was a conscious decision to play a ‘beautiful lady’ or a ‘sexy woman’? I find that slightly funny.
SR: Sometimes when teaching or hosting a jam, I find that men can misinterpret the concept of saying “yes and” as meaning they can be fascist**! Or sometimes when men get nervous, they can misinterpret that as meaning they can compensate for that by being overly aggressive or domineering on stage. I think that comes largely from a place of fear in men. Men are used to being an alpha male but when they come to an improv workshop and at first are not very good, they panic and overcompensate by trying to control on stage. The challenge I found with drop in workshops in the past, is that you may not have time to address that behaviour which is why I have tended to teach courses or longer workshops to get over that. But I have never met anyone who did it deliberately. Its improv so it’s more a subconscious thing. As a teacher you have to create the right environment, otherwise people won’t come back.
RV: Also I have a really funny family; a funny mum and a funny sister. Never in a million years would I consider that women can’t be funny.
SR: In general among improv teachers, many agree that women are naturally better at improv than men. However men will quite often think men are better! Men can take longer to get it though! [laughs] When there are a lot more men taking part than women, a weird status game pops up where many of the men will show off to the women there.
What 2 tips for improvisers would you leave on your headstone?
SR: That’s a funny question and I change my mind about it all the time. I used to think I had a problem with it but its just because improv is a rapidly changing thing that’s connected to the actors, that’s connected to the audience. We constantly change therefore the answer constantly changes I think. We live in a world in constant flux. What works so to speak… Even the word “works”, doesn’t even make any sense. Its whatever you want it to be. So I guess number 1 is whatever you want improv to be, that’s what it is. So do that. Second tip is just enjoy it. If you are not enjoying it, then find a way to enjoy it. I guess that’s the 2 factors that aren’t open to change.
RV: Genuinely try to make everyone laugh. The people on stage; yourself; your audience. And second, fuck each other up because it’s fun! It’s really fun to metaphorically tickle your teammates.
SR: I think, we have just come up with 4 anti-improv improv tips!
They’re ringing the bell now and the showcase is about the start. Before you go, can you tell me something about yourself that not many people know unrelated to improv?
RV: I can do a cartwheel on my elbows… But that’s in the book so I guess that doesn’t count.
SR: No it doesn’t count!
RV: Sometimes I walk around especially when listening to music pretending in my head I’m a secret spy on a secret mission. But I’ve just watched Nightwatch and Daywatch and I basically want to be part of their world!
SR: I buy all my clothes in bulk from the same place. So I only shop for clothes twice a year. So I end up re-buying all the same clothes. It’s quite a relief being done with trying to find my look thing. I’m an older bloke now!
RV: I would like to be related to The Addam’s Family.
SR: My long term aim is to set up an international space business. Revolutionise space propulsion.
RV: I want to be in folklore
SR: In folklore?
RV: Yes I would like to meet the 3 Little Pigs.
Oink Oink Thanks for your time guys!
** After the interview, Steve got in touch to elaborate further on this.
Basically most people when they are introduced to the concept of ‘yes and’ find it a joyfully liberating tool to build on each other’s ideas constructively. Which is great, and what it’s meant for.
However on rare occasions (and they are rare) people in fear can sometimes subconsciously use the fact that the other person is going ‘yes and’ them to just give them degrading or controlling offers. For this person they start to enjoy impro not because they get to say yes to everything, but because everyone has to yes to them.
Another thing that happens is sometimes men accidentally interpret a woman who is ‘yes anding’ as being submissive, and therefore attracted to them, and an impulse towards sexuality comes in that wasn’t actually the offer intended.
This is mainly with beginners, and mainly because it’s new to them and there’s a 100 things happening at once. So now what I do is just explain those things, flag it up, and give people other options of how to treat offers and how to improvise.
Rhiannon will also be teaching workshops with The Maydays at the festival. For more info, please click here.