Improv is not just a comedy art form, it can also have an effect or impact on a persons life. Everyone has a story to tell and today we talk to another Improviser as to how they got into it and what it has done for them. Today, we talk to Benjamin Hall of Fat Penguin Improv to find out all about his story.
How Improv Changed My Life – Benjamin Hall
When I was young I was happy, I used to enjoy playing and joking around and life was fun. I looked at adults and saw that lots of them were sad and I didn’t know why. When I became an adult my life suddenly got far less fun, I wasn’t allowed to play or joke about very often, but when I did I noticed that it made other people sad. They said I was childish and I should grow up. I noticed that lots of people were sad so I decided I wanted to learn how to make them happy. I worked as a strength coach and spent all of my time training mixed martial arts and other sports, sport has always made me happy. I joined the Army as a Medic and went to some of the worst places on the planet to help lots of very sad people. Halfway through my military career I decided I could make more people less sad as a therapist, so I retrained.
Therapists meet lots of very sad people and talk about lots of sad things. I looked at stand up comedians and thought ‘wow, those guys are happy, and they make other people happy, maybe I should do that’. So I did, for a bit, but it didn’t work. I could always people laugh in the pub and I enjoyed that, but it was very different on stage. I decided to try improv.
I remember watching ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ as a kid, I wasn’t that impressed with it at the time because I knew that as a 10 year old, I was already funnier than they were. I used to sit in my pyjamas and watch it with my parents thinking about how I would pick Greg Proop’s nose and put his boogies in his mouth if I was playing ‘arms through’, or how I would say something really funny with a hat on if I was playing ‘hats’. As a child I was allowed to think that, it made people laugh, kids can get away with it.
My first improv session was with Jon Trevor in Birmingham’s ‘Box of Frogs’ – I went along to a drop in session and saw everybody laughing and acting like children, I didn’t understand what was so funny and that made me sad, so I left halfway through the session. 6 months later I booked myself onto an intensive with the same group, this time I learned a few of the rules. Learning the rules means you start on a level playing field, that made it quite easy for me to win and prove I was the funniest.
I trained with Box of Frogs around twice a week for 2 years and performed with them once a month. I went and did a couple of Maydays weekend retreats and did a couple of weekend workshops with other groups. One day I went to Bristol and trained with Graham Dickson and Joe Morpurgo. The night before I watched them perform, they had fun, the audience laughed, everyone was happy and I decided that THIS was what I was going to do with the rest of my life. The main thing I noticed about their show was that they were both getting really big laughs, and I realised that made the whole show much better. Even though I thought I knew the rules at that point, I couldn’t work out how they did it. That made me sad.
I went and trained with the Free Association and with Monkey Toast in London. I was lucky enough to have some incredibly talented instructors such as Graham and Joe, Briony Redman, Paul Foxcroft, Jim Woods, Mike OT, Sheamus Maxwell. After that I decided to go to Chicago and I trained with Jessica Rogers, Craig Ulher, Tara DiFransisco, Ranse Rizzutto and Jason Shotts. Over the years I’ve also trained with Carleen McDermid, Bill Arnett, John Timothy, Armando Diaz and Will Hines, as well as training clown with Philipe Gaulier, Phil Burgess and Holly Stodart plus many others.
I always asked questions, I always made notes and always read over my notes. I thought a lot about improv and about how I could get better, which made me think about how bad I was, which made me sad. Every time I met a new instructor I realised how little I knew and how much more there was to learn, that also made me sad. Although, I could get on stage and make an audience laugh, and make my partner look good which did made me happy. I realised that ‘thinking’ made me judge the past or predict the future which could easily make me sad, but ‘doing’ things on instinct without thinking made me happy. Once you have learned a skill to the point of unconscious competence, you are free to stop judging and stop predicting, and just explore, be curious and play. When I was a kid I was almost always exploring and playing, and I was almost always happy. Now as an adult I have an excuse to play and explore everyday, I have a reason to be curious about things and everyday I am happy.
In Dec 2015 I set up Fat Penguin Improv as a tag on to a well established stand up comedy show. At first we ran daytime workshops with a showcase in the evening. After a while I started running a drop in which focused on long form. After 6 months we had a house team who performed our own version of an Armando with a guest stand up. As time went on I developed a level 1, then a level 2 and finally a level 3 intensive course. All of which are 9 weeks long with a showcase on the final week, I now run workshops most evenings as well as shows.
I didn’t get into improv for the money, but because there is money I am able to commit a lot of time to it and give it the attention it deserves to maintain the professional standard our company deserves. Improv has been my job for almost a year now, that makes me happy.
The biggest lesson I have learned from improv is that comedy is possible, and so is happiness. Your mind, like your body, is made up of parts which are universal, therefore predictable. We all have 10 fingers, when someone has more or less than 10 then it is not normal. We all have emotions, memories, planning, foresight, empathy and other cognitive processes in common, not the same, but similar and to an extent predictable. Because of evolution we all have more in common than separates us.
Learning to accept other people the way they are and not trying to change them, learning how to validate and support their ideas, learning about laughter as a universal evolutionary trait, learning to notice things which are unusual and understand why so that we can joke about with ideas in an inclusive way, learning to be curious and reject judgement, but above all learning to be fully present in my own life – has had a profound impact on my life.