This week Newcastle is home to a very special show and opening night – the improv scene in the North East is about to expand that little bit more with the beginning of a brand new regular show at The Alphabetti Theatre called – Let Us Make It Up To You. The show has been created by Open Heart Theatre and I caught up with Founder Alex Fradera to find out more.
Hello Open Heart Theatre! Tell us all about yourselves
We’re a theatre company passionate about improvisation high on emotion and honesty, where the players unlock their natural creativity and inspire their stage partners to soar to unexpected places. We want to put work onstage that’s heartfelt and open, and want those feelings to stay with our players and students as much as possible!
How did Open Heart Theatre form? Why did you choose Newcastle as your base?
Open Heart Theatre is a collab between myself and Will Steele, who’s born and bred here. We’ve been making theatre and improv together on and off over the last ten years, and always bemoaned how we’d get more done if we lived in the same city. Shortly after a successful trip teaching together in the US, I made plans to move back from Germany to the UK again, and we started a conversation that became an idea, that became a reality when I moved up to the North East.
The idea: develop shows (mainly improvised but also devised work), run workshops, coach and mentor new groups, experiment, tour, forge links with the wider improv scene, and have fun making art!
You have a big opening night at the Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle on the 20th of February with a show called ‘Let Us Make It Up To You’ – How exciting! Can you tell us a little bit about the evening?
We wanted to run a regular improv night at Alphabetti because it’s such a lovely venue. We joined forces with Owen Scrivens, a fantastic improviser recently returned back to the NE from Liverpool, after we met and found out we were thinking along similar lines. The amazing name is all down to Owen 🙂
It’s a mixed-bill monthly show presenting three acts: an out-of-towner, a guest group from the North East, and our house team. That’s The Hang, also the name of our form, which is at heart a series of conversational group scenes that inspire runs of higher-energy sketches (for the nerds, think an easygoing Decon with group base-scenes).
What acts do you have in store for people on the opening night?
Together with The Hang, we have two great guest acts on the 20th.
Our local guests are Spontaneous Wrecks, I’ve been a fan of them for years as people and performers, they focus on really playful short-form. They have a show on the first Wednesday of every month which is always themed. For our show, they are bringing a special format: “Picture This.” The angle is that the short form scenes are inspired by audience doodles and sketches. It sounds great.
From Nottingham’s MissImp collective we have The Clones, an improv duo made of two players I know and adore. The set will be a long-form with tons of sub-plots and a throng of characters. What I like about these guys is that they can embody really diverse, interesting people while still keeping a core of honesty in how they play, which makes the comedy even funnier and also allows for scenes to take unexpected directions. As they say: “You will laugh, you may cry… Who knows what’ll happen? They sure don’t.”
The North East is such a great place for the Improv Comedy scene – what will make your show unique to others that are around?
It has to be the variety – we’re the only mixed bill night around, as far as I can see. We’ll be mixing long- and short-form, of different styles and tones, groups from near and far. So there will be something surprising for even devoted improv fans – and it’s also a good bet for anyone curious about improv, because chances are high you’ll leave the night delighted by at least one act.
It also offers opportunities for performers – we can build a strong night around a headliner, and then offer other groups to try something different and risky, knowing that the shape of the show will be strong overall. And every act has a chance to grow their audience through exposure to people who didn’t come aiming to see them.
As you say, the scene already has some great shows – Wrecks for one, and then The Suggestibles who are really the founders of the Newcastle scene and are tremendously popular both through their regular shows and their Impro Panto, which takes improvisation to a really mainstream crowd every year. So seasoning this with variety – more groups, more styles – that’s what I think makes this worthwhile.
You’re also offering courses to people as well – tell us a little bit about the ones on offer and how people can get involved?
We have our core introductory course, Heartcore, which we find suits both absolute beginners and people returning to brush up their skills. We’re going to offer one more run before the summer, starting on the 4th April.
On top of this we’ll planning a ton of other courses. An intro to mask-work, and a rerun of our scenework course Heart to Heart are dead certs. And I am raring to run Heart Aches, based on ideas I developed over the last few years on victimhood and suffering. (It’s my favourite class to run, and been well received in places like Ljubljana, Warsaw, and Mainz.)
On your site you state that you offer a ‘distinctive course introducing our style of improvisation’ – what makes your style so unique?
A big factor is the improvised maskwork that Will and I have done for over a decade together. It provides a great philosophy: feed scenes with emotion and connectedness, be aware of the body, space, etc…with a big dose of playfulness and mucking around too. We haven’t actually used a mask in class yet, but it’s the spirit in all the work! Will is also a puppeteer and is just completing an intensive puppetry school in Edinburgh, which will no doubt bring new ideas in.
The other thing is how we’re influenced by the international scene. Me especially – I’ve lived in London and Germany, studied in USA and Canada, played and trained at festivals across Europe, and recently taught a term at a Dubai improv theatre. Being exposed to contradictory advice forces you to sift away the received wisdom to find what actually matters.
For instance, I had teachers that drill the Who What & Where at the start of a scene and great ones who deliberately ignore it – and this forced me to pay attention to what’s actually happening at the start of successful scenes, to really observe it, and now my foundations on teaching this are rock solid. I think any good teacher does this, has to become unique – otherwise you’re just speaking someone else’s words.
Let Us Make It Up To You has got shows in the up and coming months – what can audiences look forward to in the shows to come?
Much is still tbc – so if you’re interested, get in touch! Locally we’re hoping to organise spots with The Suggestibles and Durham’s Shellshock!, and get along newly formed groups too. Visitor-wise the next confirmed headliner is for May, where we will have Countdown to Doom! from London, who do a crazy atmospheric show, where the scenes are lit by torches as the world comes to an end. Plus they are proper funny.
The improv scene is ever expanding in the UK, what would you like to see happen to it in 2018, especially in the North East?
Oh wow, so much! More chances to play, for sure – which is why we’re also facilitating a jam night, Say What?, which will kick off on the 4th March. More experimental and short-run stuff, along the lines of the Hideout Theater mainstage model, which I love and The Nursery are reproducing to good effect. More crazy collaborative one-off nights, like a Halloween special where groups take members of other groups and play scenes to genuinely terrify them.
A big thing is to develop a touring network between different improv hubs so local teachers can share their insights, and overseas teachers don’t just hit London and bounce home again. A bunch of us have talked about that and I think this year we will really see that develop.
More involvement of people from diverse backgrounds in the scene. That involves a lot of things to address – issues of perception, of affordability, of time, of visibility, etc. But I think by tackling things step by step we can have a more interesting and vibrant artform, and solving the problems can actually be fun. At the improv festival I help run in Germany, last year we introduced a code of conduct to ensure people feel as safe as possible, and this year are looking at bursary schemes. So these sorts of things are on my mind for us here in the North East too.
If people want to find out more about you, what are your social media channels?
For the night:
And finally In three words, can you explain to us why people should come to your opening night at The Alphabetti Theatre on the 20th February?
All the improv.