On The Spot: Improvised Theatre

Tom Barnes is a performer in London based improvised theatre company, Melting Pot. Here he describes the unique challenges of theatre where you make it up as you go along

Some one walks onto the stage.

That’s how most plays start. The difference with an improvised play is that you know nothing else about what will happen in advance.

This applies to both the actor and the audience. When I start a Melting Pot performance, I don’t know what is going to happen next. I may have a first line in my head (I may not); I always allow myself to be knocked off course by what else happens on stage.

All I know about our show beforehand is that it will be about two hours long and that it will have six actors in it. It will include, in some way, ideas taken from the audience, ideas that matter to them, that we shall do our best to explore. And that it will be exciting. Unrepeatable. Made in the heat of the moment. And isn’t that what you go to the theatre for?

When most people think of impro shows, they think of the sort of sketch-based stuff you get from the Comedy Store Players or Whose Line Is It Anyway? Clever people being clever (and often very funny). Occasionally, they may think of dramatic scripts devised through a process of improvisation. Mike Leigh works in this way, as does John Wright. But there’s way more to live improvised theatre than Whose Line and shows of its ilk might suggest. You can go to a deeper emotional place onstage because of the instantness: your inbuilt censor, the voice that tells you “You really shouldn’t do this”, doesn’t have time to stop you doing what you need to do to make this show dramatic.

In Melting Pot, we’ve dealt with (among other things) the issues of rape and child abuse, addiction, arranged marriage, the religious life, miscarriage at Christmas, global warming and global overcrowding: issues I may have veered away from if my conscious mind had had a choice. Audience suggestions have turned me into a sleazy rapist version of Sven Goran Eriksson, a performance that may have had lawyers fretting. Yet I’m told he was believable, chilling and funny (simultaneously). I have also been a lion, a herd of cows and a grandfather clock.

There are rules, of course: all impro has rules, and when you join any team or company, you need to learn (or discover) these rules. You bring your own experience to the group, and the group adapts and changes because you’re in it. If it doesn’t, it’s not doing its job properly.

And each show is different because the audience is different: they ask for different things, they respond in a different way. It is a real collaboration between the cast and the audience. When you have a musician or lights technician, they become part of the improvisation process as well.

“I have, at times, played a lion, a herd of cows and a grandfather clock.”

The shows are also funny: people like to laugh. I like to get laughs: I specialise in slightly crap people who can’t really get it together and, in our last show, I played a dead husband with a false beard (mimed) who rearranged flower-gardens (don’t ask).

But don’t take my word for it. London has a number of impro-based shows that are worth catching. As well as Melting Pot, Cartoon de Salvo, the team behind The Sunflower Plot and Meat and Two Veg are bringing their latest show, Hard Hearted Hannah And Other Stories to the Lyric Studio later in May. Here audience members choose from a playlist of songs from the American South and, from these choices, the company weave together an entirely new show each night.

Then there’s Fluxx which does a good dramatic impro drop-in class every Tuesday night; City Lit does a regular group; Logan Murray also runs excellent comedy impro workshops.

With impro, anything can happen, the performance belongs to you and the performers, it is unique, your evening is unwritten and your ideas may well spark off the show.

The Melting Pot plays on Thursday nights at Clerkenwell Theatre, London.

Hard Hearted Hannah and Other Stories plays from 15 May – 7 June 2008 at the Lyric Studio, London.

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