INTERVIEW / SHOW OF THE WEEK: The KneeJerks, The Victoria, Birmingham

This weeks show of the week is a troupe based in Birmingham that perform a monthly show every third Wednesday of the Month at The Victoria. I spoke to Dan to find out more about The KneeJerks and the show on the 17th of this month,

Tell us about The KneeJerks! Who you all are and a little bit about yourselves?

There are six Kneejerks: me (Dan McKee), Suzie Evans, JP Houghton, Kate Knight, Jon Trevor and Daniele Harford.  In the past we have also had Jay Handley and Will Fox in our mix, as well as on-again/off-again imaginary member, Jas, but even then it was usually only six of us at any one time on stage.  Between us we’re a collection of teachers, actors, actuaries, and facilitators who all came together through a love of improv.

Specifically, we met training with Jon Trevor at Box of Frogs in Birmingham a few years ago.  Each of us came from very different places and levels of improv experience, but as we explored different aspects of improv through Box of Frogs we all wanted to do more long-form improvisation so began to practice together outside of Frogs and focus on that.

We experimented with different long-form formats and ideas and in the process began to really gel as a group, so decided that whatever it was we ended up doing as a format, we should do it together, as the Kneejerks.  Now we perform the third Wednesday of the month, every month, at The Victoria on John Bright Street in Birmingham.

How did you come up with the name of your troupe?

We literally just did a poll with each other on a private Facebook group.  We each suggested a bunch of names and voted on the ones we liked best.  I can’t even remember the other candidates now, but I always believe names are not that important.  I think as long as you’re good, and the name is not inherently awful and offensive, then whatever you’re called people will just accept it.  If they like you, they like the name: “who was that?”  “Oh, they’re called The Kneejerks.”  “Cool.  I guess I like The Kneejerks then!”

After spending many years in a variety of bands, and other improv groups, who spent way too long trying to pick out the perfect name for a project that, in the end, barely anyone ever even heard of, I just went into The Kneejerks happy to be called anything, and now I couldn’t imagine us being called anything else.  It’s even become its own language within the group – we call improvising together “Jerking”, as in: “are we Jerking tonight?”  Like our theme song says: we are The Kneejerks.

Tell us a little bit about the show you are performing on the 17th January?

The first half of the show we just get a single word from the audience and use that word to inspire about 40 minutes of scenes we call “Scenes of Consciousness”.  The first scene is inspired by that word from the audience, the next scene is inspired by something from the first, the third scene from something in the second, etc.  And these scenes can literally be about anything and everything.  They tend to go to a lot of wild and crazy places, but throughout the 40 minutes a few interesting characters emerge.

In the second half we present a “Spin Off” show from the first half and get the audience to choose which of those emerging characters they would like to see become the main star of Act II.  We then hear from our audience about their week and use their real-life stories as inspiration for our “Spin Off”, exploring the life of that chosen character.

It’s a format which is so loose that the show is always completely different each month, even though the format is the same.  And there really is no pre-ordained plan or structure beyond the three things we ask the audience for – it is completely free for us to just get inspired, use our imaginations, and roll with whatever happens.  Audiences have been loving it and we’ve had some really nice reviews.

What have been the highlights of the shows that you have performed previously?

Often in improv you really have to be there to get why things were so memorable or funny, but a recent highlight for me was getting to do the spin off love story of how my character, and a character played by Suzie, first met after just doing one scene together during the earlier “Scenes of Consciousness” as a couple preparing for suicide at a euthanasia clinic.  It was fun getting to go back and give these people purpose and hope when we all knew where their story had to end up.

I also enjoyed Daniele’s transformation into a Frankenstein’s monster-like creation in our last show and finding friendship and love from the person whose left leg she had been made with.  Kate then, as her creator, cut off her own leg out of jealousy and replaced her monster’s old leg with her own so she would regain the love of her creation – only, instead, she just bled to death and had to do the entire next scene as a corpse (which JP did very well with!)  I’m pretty sure all of those sentences mean nothing to those who didn’t see the shows, but to those who did, they mean everything.

You are based in Birmingham, what’s the improv scene like?

Birmingham has an awesome improv scene, and a testament to this is the Birmingham Improv Festival which will now be in its third year this October.  When we began as The Kneejerks, there was basically Box of Frogs, a group called Foghorn, who had originally come through Box of Frogs, and that was it!  Now, Box of Frogs has evolved, and birthed the Birmingham Improv Network, Foghorn are still around, but there’s also Fat Penguin, their house team, Bunkum Factory, Off Broad Street musical improv, Baron Sternlook, and a whole bunch of other great groups doing improv all around the city.  So much so we actually had to have a meeting of the five families this past summer to coordinate our calendars so that shows stopped clashing!

There’s also Freewheelers which pops up every month or so at Cherry Reds to allow people to try out new ideas.  In our early days we basically honed our craft on the Freewheelers stage.  Lee Dempsey, who runs it, was really great at just giving us the space to perform and try stuff out.

Nowadays in Birmingham you can go to a good quality improv show pretty much every week, if not several times a week. If you’re in Birmingham as a fan you have that every week and an amazing improv festival once a year, and if you’re a performer there are regular workshops, drop-ins, scratch nights like Freewheelers to try new stuff out, and all these amazing groups to watch and learn from.  And that’s just in Birmingham!  JP from The Kneejerks runs which is a great resource to keep up to date with all the improv goings on in the area.

If people want to get into improv there where can they go to train?

Fellow Kneejerk, Jon Trevor, is the best place to start.  He runs awesome beginners classes Thursday nights at the Blue Orange Theatre (the next batch begin Jan 18th), and then more advanced weekend workshops each month, also at the Blue Orange.  Check out the Blue Orange website for more information.

If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?

We are @TheKneejerksUK on Twitter and Facebook.  Follow and Like us and in return you will get all the latest Kneejerk information, pictures and gig details.

What do you think 2018 holds for the world of improv – what would you like to see happen in the next 12 months?

If it can be anything then I guess in the next 12 months I would somehow like the world of improv to cause the impeachment of Donald Trump and the reversal of Brexit.  More realistically, I guess I want 2018 to be the year that The Kneejerks audience continues to grow at The Victoria and we finally sell out of our limited edition t-shirts.  I would like The Kneejerks to become something people start travelling to Birmingham just to see.

Currently we don’t charge anything for our shows.  I would like that to continue, but for our fans to recognise our value in a variety of other novel and interesting ways…such as buying one of those aforementioned t-shirts, or demanding our theme-song become Christmas number one this year despite it not being available on any consumer platform.  I would like them to mount a successful social media campaign to all media providers to #GiveTheKneejerksTheirOwnTVShow, only for us to turn it down because we don’t really want a TV show, but then one of us to secretly sign a deal behind the rest of our backs and hire a team of ringers to play “The Kneejerks” on TV because nobody really knows what we look like and who we are, and for that then to become a national scandal in all the tabloids because our fans from The Victoria tweet pictures of the real Kneejerks and expose the whole thing.  Then, bizarrely, Donald Trump tries desperately to seek popular approval by getting on board the anti-fake-Kneejerks bandwagon but causes an accidental international incident when he clumsily tweets: “I agree with everybody who says those Birmingham six are huge losers who should be in jail right now for what they did to the people of the UK”.

The resulting outrage with Irish Americans is enough to finally end his presidency and he is, at last, kicked out of office in disgrace; his iPhone confiscated and his Twitter account shut down.  Meanwhile, the unease the tweet causes between UK/Irish relations is enough that the Prime Minister – whoever they are at this point in the year – decides the country is far too fragile right now to leave the EU and cause any more problems at the England/Ireland border.  Brexit is reversed, the country rejoices, and the Kneejerks triumphantly return to The Victoria for a series of reunion shows (though their new “We Are The Birmingham Six” t-shirt does not sell well at all.)

Finally – in three words, why should people come and see you at The Victoria? 

Best in Brum


Note: this is just Dan’s view, and does not represent the quick-fire views of the other five Kneejerks…

Favourite sitcom? – The Good Place

Favourite comedian? – Stewart Lee

Favourite short form game to play in improv? – Half Life

The last thing you liked on social media – A picture of the wrestler, Pete Dunne.

What would your autobiography be called? – Here Lies Dan McKee (and the whole thing would be made up)

What is your favourite joke? – My grandad Joe’s classic: “you know how many people are dead in that graveyard?  All of them.”

Improv group you would love to collaborate with? – the classic Upright Citizen’s Brigade line-up of Poehler, Walsh, Besser and Roberts, or any Sunday night Asssscat group at UCB New York.

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