Brussels is an unusual city. Its population swells on weekdays and you can be very often hard pressed to find a Belgian roaming the streets. Being the centre of the European Union, has resulted in the population possibly being one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Hotels are cheaper at the weekends than during the week. Throw into the mix a lack of legislated closing time for bars and it begins to sound like the makings of the ideal venue for the greatest party in the world.
But there is something else thats a little bit special going on in Brussels. Improv. Improv Barter to be precise.
Meet Dona Ursu. A Romanian national living in Brussels who is very passionate about improv. Dona came up with the idea of Improv Barter. Come teach and play with us and we will put you up and knit you a hat. Despite my head being unsuitable for most types of hats, there was something intriguing about having a hat specially made for you and its no secret, I’m addicted to improv!
I spent last weekend in Brussels for what was one of my top improv experiences to date. I had a privilege of performing Neil+1 as part of the ATC Improv Anniversary show. Saturday I coached Ghost Sheep in preparation for their long form debut of the Motel format. I spent Sunday running a long form Improv workshop. On the return flight home, both myself and co-performer Declan Ryan (Kill The Monster/Coastbusters Comedy) agreed it was very sad to be leaving such an addictive and welcoming atmosphere.
At this point I should introduce you to Kelly Agathos and the rest of the Ghost Sheep crew. Kelly is another improv addict, actor and one of the board of directors of The American Theatre Company in Brussels. (ATC) Kelly created ATC Improv through American Theatre Company. Ghost Sheep are the resident troupe of ATC Improv and were founded by Kelly less than a year ago. Putting together a performance troupe was one of Kelly’s goals when she founded ATC Improv and Ghost Sheep are now a significant part of it. The troupe came together through Kelly’s initiative following an intensive improv retreat in Ghent in Belgium which was hosted by Ryan Millar and Rod ben Zeev.
Put both Kelly and Dona in a room together with a blank piece of paper and something great will happen. It became pretty clear very quickly that both Dona and Kelly combine their efforts for the greater good. Which is the very essence of improv. Collaboration. Improv is a form of entertainment that in many countries, audiences aren’t too familiar with bar a fleeting memory of Whose Line Is It Anyway? With Improv growing in popularity, it takes hard working improvisers to bridge that gap for audiences. Improv isn’t the same form of entertainment as Stand Up, yet is often put in the same category despite the glaring differences, particularly in countries where the improv scene is small. Audiences outside the US don’t get know the difference between short form or long form nor do they probably care. Likewise, having brushed shoulders with Del Close or Keith Johnstone isn’t going to be something an audience will understand. Audiences in my opinion, don’t know how much they are going to enjoy improv. But I’m digressing slightly. Outside a huge marketing budget, the best way to raise the profile of improv is through collaboration with other improvisers. Improvisers share a common goal and collaboration off the stage is just as important as collaboration on the stage. If someone new to improv comes to see your show and they like it, it increases the likelihood of them coming to my show in the future. Dona and Kelly have shared projects and collaborative improv projects and recognise the importance of it. They have attracted top teachers to Brussels and the benefit to their improv skills as a result speaks volumes. What I find interesting is that there is currently a back log of teachers waiting to have a chance to go to the Brussels, even though there is no promise of professional payment. People are doing it for the love of improv and based on the feedback of other tutors. Something special is happening there and in the years to come I believe Brussels will become an improv hotspot in Europe.
Cut to a theatre in a the far side of town. Its Saturday night and there is a plethora of performances ahead. It was a full house, with additional seats brought in for the extra audience members. The audience consisted of people from all over Europe, it was like an audience with the EU parliament, only lots more fun! First up, Ghost Sheep, with their long form debut, ‘Motel‘. During the coaching session earlier that day, they showed significant ability and confidence. During the live show, they were a different group. Group mind kicked in and the narrative that emerged was skilled and wildly entertaining. Each performer complimented the other and they all played to and respected their strengths. J* will be proud.
Next up was myself with Neil+1. The ‘+1’ pulled from the audience was Marie-Estrela from Honduras. I was worried at first about any language barriers that would emerge (despite me having had +1’s in the past from Korea and Germany to name but a few foreign destinations!) however Marie-Estrela quickly put me at ease. She was incredibly engaging in the show, and often I just took a backseat and let her do her thing! Afterward when chatting I asked her if she really had no previous performing experience, theatre or otherwise. And to quote her; “I have never been on stage, but you gave me the freedom to do and say what I wanted. I felt comfortable and I loved it”. Yes! Another convert!
Ghost Sheeptook the stage next, first with some beginner improvisers taking the stage for the first time with some short form games before the main players took over. Halfway through the show, myself and Declan were invited on stage to join in. To add a twist to the show, we had agreed with the performers in advance that myself and Declan would select the games for that part of the show, and they would find out on stage. The results were fantastic, and the players were top!
The improv scene in Brussels is one to watch. Dona and Kelly are doing great things and if you have a chance to visit, do it. A huge thanks to Dona, Kelly, Poppy, Christiaan, David, Joanna, Simone with a special mention to Marco for the hospitality at the weekend. Its one to remember!