The comedic tides are turning in Ireland. While stand-up has long been the preferred method of delivery for the vast majority of our comics, it’s now improvisation that is starting to catch up with the global norm and create a new wave of artistic engagement for comedians, artists and Joe or Jo Punter alike. If you’re not familiar with improv it can be one of the most enjoyable ways to introduce yourself to comedy: when executed properly it can lead to wondrously abstract and bizarre scenarios that bring out the best in performers and allow the audience to participate and feel part of the action.
In the UK and the US improv has long formed a very distinct part of both comedy and theatre culture. You need only look at the cast of Saturday Night Live to see familiar faces that cut their teeth in improv groups around the country and were hailed as ‘the next big thing’. From Steve Carell to Robin Williams and Tina Fey, improv stars across the pond are recognisable and groups like Second City and iO form reliable talent pools for producers. Meanwhile in the UK long-form improvisation groups like Showstoppers and The Maydays take the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm each year with logic defying improvised musicals and skits based on the audience’s darkest secrets. So why is the Irish improv scene not overflowing with affable lunatics playing off each other’s whims?
While improv has been growing and evolving for decades both in the US and the UK, Ireland has seemed somewhat stagnant in the last ten years. While Dublin plays host to some staggeringly talented groups such as the Dublin Improv and The Craic Pack, the scene has remained a relatively closed shop until recently, with few new intakes for these well-recognised groups and a lack of diversity on offer. However, for would-be comedians and actors alike it can represent an excellent opportunity to train and make contacts within the industry.
I met with Danny Kehoe, the Dublin improv’s newest member with a meagre five years under his belt with the stalwart troupe. First and foremost an actor, Kehoe was an avid fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway? – a typical characteristic of most improv performers – and found that practising improv gave him an advantage in the field: “I always felt it gave me an edge because I would have well-formed characters that I’d already tried and tested on stage and that people had laughed at, so it always gave me back up going into auditions.”
Kehoe spent time training in Second City after joining the Dublin Improv and described how the standard ‘short-form’ structure that you see commonly in Ireland has been retired in favour of longer-form, more challenging scenarios. To this end Kehoe has started his own long-form group called The Cardinals, who will be performing weekly in the new Chancery Lane theatre featuring many well-known comedians and actors with a propensity towards the ridiculous. The nature of long-form lends itself better to actors rather than comedians, as Kehoe explains, “Long-form isn’t necessarily about being funny all the time, one minute you could be crying and the next minute you could be laughing.” As a result, comedians who are used to banging out the gags every 30 seconds can find it hard to adapt. However, the broad nature of long-form Improv, where you can create an entire 90-minute play based on a single word suggestion, can make for an enjoyably surreal viewing experience. Kehoe is keen to bring these newer formats to Irish stages and to foster a more ambitious Improv culture: “Dublin is unfortunately 20 to 30 years behind most other cities who have improv scenes. I have no doubt that it will grow here and I’m trying to help it grow.” That said, he himself admits that it can be hard to get started in the scene, with smaller groups finding it difficult to attract audiences.
Joseph Morpurgo is an Oxford improv graduate (with Oxford Imps and Grand Theft Improv) who has managed to transfer his improv charisma into a sell-out show. Having helped to create the award-winning show Austentatious, where his group Milk Monitors perform improvised Jane Austen novels at several residencies in London, Joseph’s first solo show Truthmouth was so successful at Edinburgh this year that he had to migrate to one of the larger sell-out venues in order to cater to demand. Austentatious represented a format that won over audiences and, as Joseph admits, had a ‘clear marketing hook’ that made it easy to connect with. The characters that appear in Truthmouth are hilariously twisted and absurd and, as Morpurgo explains, are “based around me finding images of people or things and then wilfully misinterpreting them, which I think comes from the same place as the improv mechanism of taking an arbitrary suggestion and then doing something inspired with it.” The formula has clearly worked, with Truthmouth receiving rave reviews and Austentatious now playing monthly at Leicester Square Theatre. The appetite for improv and comedy of a similarly incongruous nature is growing, in Dublin you need only look to our own Foil, Arms and Hog to see how performances that diverge from the stand-up norm are succeeding.
Meanwhile, in November, Ireland’s first ever Improv Festival opened its doors to 24 shows and workshops that attracted both comedy lovers from across the globe and well-known performers to the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square. Devised by Neil Curran, an improv performer and advocate, the festival helped to raise awareness and bring together different performers to create an eclectic and off-the-wall week finishing in a charity improv extravaganza featuring Irish celebrities. Curran is keen to foster the community that are taking an interest in improv, helping to create a culture of supporting each other’s shows to encourage the scene to flourish a bit more. The workshops on offer at the festival were taught by UK group The Maydays and ranged from a beginner’s workshop (which I had the opportunity to attend) as well as workshops that promised to mine the deepest and darkest parts of your personality. As Curran explained, this workshop uses the characters and situations that cause us so much grief in day-to-day life and forces us to face them and embody them: “You could spend years going to therapy and counselling to be given that gentle push to step outside your comfort zone but through Improv you can do that in a class… you can do it in ten minutes.”
Sure enough, within an hour of my beginner’s class I found myself acting out a shaking, screeching and spluttering tantrum in the interests of creating an ‘overreaction’ as part of an exercise. It felt strangely liberating to shout at a total stranger while trying to figure out why they had supposedly upset me so much. Later, while unsure of where I was going with a scene I found myself playing a very cheap nun, trying to haggle at the post office.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the improv scene is the values and skills it can instill in anyone ready to give it a whirl. While both Kehoe and Curran have worked extensively in Improv amongst other comedians and performers, they see some of the clearest benefits afforded to corporate companies who engage with the art form. As Curran puts it “The important thing is to take it away from the preconception of just being a comedy device. Improvisation as a tool is actually a huge industry around the world and is finally starting to catch up in Ireland.” Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter extolled the virtues of taking skills from improv into the boardroom earlier this year, while internet search engine Ask.com have created an in-house improv programme for employees after their Chief Technology and Product Officer read Tina Fey’s Bossypants.
Kehoe describes how breaking down the corporate hierarchy can lead to better communication and team building: “By the end of the day you really see a shift because using improv you get to be very vulnerable, relaxed, stupid and silly in front of people which takes people out of their usual work structure and puts them on the same level.” Meanwhile Curran found that practising Improv was beginning to change his own demeanour for the better: “As I was training I realised that I was changing, my confidence and my ability to interact with people was improving. I had this eureka moment where I realised that a lot of what I do on stage can be applied to life and applied to work and business. Then I started to change the way I thought about improv, I found less and less actors and comedians were coming to me looking to do improv and more people were coming and saying ‘I don’t want to do improv on stage, I just want to learn it as a skill.’”
With a huge response to the Improv Festival, the advent of new groups such as The Cardinals, and improv being used increasingly as a tool for those with an introverted disposition or for whole companies as team-building, the scene is finally becoming accessible in the capital. And limited not just to those interested in performing but for anyone looking to cast aside their daily lives and play a flirty speech therapist for 5 minutes. Curran is hopeful that this is the beginning of Ireland catching up with the rest of the improv world: “I invite improvisers from all over the world to come over and give workshops to plant those seeds and lay those roots so that as the scene matures people have the mentality of working together.” Meanwhile, if you fancy trying your hand at improv Curran runs six and twelve-week workshops for people of varying experience levels to push themselves out of their comfort zone and try something new. At the very least you’ll have a laugh.
Danny Kehoe and The Cardinals will play at Chancery Lane Theatre every Wednesday before Christmas at 8.30pm with more shows to be announced in the new year *www.facebook.com/thecardinalsimprov
Neil Curran runs workshops for businesses and those just looking to try out improv. Details are available at www.lowerthetone.com