It is duo’s month and so it is only right that we delve into the world of Twoprov this February. Over the next few weeks we are talking to a variation of improv acts up and down the country to find out the ins and outs of being part of a twoprov troupe. Today, I speak to a twoprov troupe that explore a couples relationship – I caught up with Rachel and Alex of Between Us to find out all about it.
Hello tell us all about who you all are and a little bit about yourselves?
We are Rachel E. Thorn and Alex Keen, and our show is Between Us. It’s the inside look at one couple’s relationship, the highs and lows of being in love. It’s narrative longform, played for drama rather than laughs, and often a very emotionally intense experience.
Alex co-founded Sturike Comedy in 2010 and runs the Sheffield Improv Jam with Bobby Anderson. Rachel co-created CSI: Crime Scene Improvisation. Both of us have taught at the British Improv Project, and we also run courses and workshops in narrative improv and dramatic improvisation.
What style of Improv do you do?
We both love doing comedic improv with other groups, but Between Us is definitely a drama first and funny second. The show takes place in the real world and we never shy away from genuine intimacy, vulnerability and intense emotion.
What sort of suggestions do you ask the audience for in your show?
We ask the audience to think of someone they know called Rachel or Alex, and to tell us an interesting fact about that Rachel or Alex. We use that fact as inspiration for one of the characters we play, and the story grows from there.
What is the best thing about being in a twoprov?
Rachel: The connection. It feels amazing and it’s what makes the show so engaging to watch.
Alex: Because we know each other and the show so well, we have the trust to be able to make really bold emotional choices.
What is the most challenging?
Rachel: The admin! We have to do it all. Like, all of it. There’s also only our two opinions in the room, and we generally think alike, so we have to proactively seek feedback and advice to check where we’re at with various decisions.
Alex: We’re both perfectionists, which means we often focus on what we can improve and forget to step back and take stock of what’s going well. We’ve been extremely lucky to know incredibly talented improvisers who are willing to tech for us and often have really insightful feedback, so we trust when they tell us we’ve delivered a good show.
What makes you different to other twoprov acts out there?
We perform improvised drama rather than comedy, which in our experience is quite unusual in the UK.
We also explore what it’s really like to be in love – so not what Richard Curtis would like us to think of as love, actually. This means that our show can be really bleak, or really dark, or wonderfully life-affirming and heart-warming.
What advice would you give for people thinking about starting a twoprov troupe themselves?
Rachel: Figure out what the two of you have between you that makes you click and mine that to create your show. In a larger troupe it’s great to have a variety of skills and styles so that your show is as varied and diverse as it can be, but that kind of diversity in performance is unlikely to happen with two of you. Instead focus on what you have got together, amplify that, run with that, and that will make your show the best it can be.
Alex: Rachel’s nailed it, I think. I’d add: be totally honest with each other about what kind of show you want to make, what you’re comfortable doing and what you think you need to work on. The more you trust and respect each other, the more fun you’ll have on stage.
What have been some of your specifically favourite scenes you have created so far in a show and why?
Rachel: I loved a show we did at Brighton Fringe where Alex had been undermining Rachel’s confidence and taking her for granted. Performer Rachel knew it was time for the climax point in the narrative arc, so I decided what the story needed was for character Rachel to be pregnant. It was only as I was telling Alex that I was pregnant that I realised that character Rachel had stopped taking the pill deliberately to snare Alex. Performer Rachel didn’t know something that character Rachel did know. That inhabiting of two different head spaces blows my mind(s).
Alex: At Buxton Fringe, Rachel played a teacher who had previously been an electrician. We found out why she’d switched jobs about forty minutes into the show, when she revealed that a mistake she’d made had led to a fire that had killed a young family. I was completely surprised by this in the moment, but afterwards an audience member commented on how clever we were to hint at it the whole way through! I loved being able to experience the show simultaneously as a performer and as a member of the audience.
What other twoprov groups are you a fan of and why?
Rachel: Back in my London days Upstairs Downton had a monthly show and I really enjoyed when Project 2 were our guest act. I also love Stu Mo’s Doctor Twoprov. He ran a great workshop at the British Improv Project on 2prov where we just had so much fun and really explored how many characters two performers can create. And I hear wonderful things about Beings.
Alex: I’ve not seen as many as I’d like, but TJ and Dave are just phenomenal. Watching their Vimeo show for the first time really gave me a new appreciation for how diverse improv can be.
Tell us about the sort of rehearsals you do to get ready for a show?
We do full runs of the show and then pick them apart, but we also spend just as much time talking about life. That time connecting with each other is part of the process. We used to set ourselves explicit challenges going into a rehearsal – “I’m going to play a more romantic character and you’re going to play a character who escalates conflict” – but we’ve found that being less specific, just talking about what we felt could improve after our last run, has a better impact.
Do you have any pre show rituals – if so what are they?
We love word-at-a-time story. It’s a great exercise in having something very clear in your own mind and then being ready to drop it and go with whatever the other person is thinking. We also close our eyes and move connected only at the wrist. Cariad Lloyd recommended that to us. It sounds mental but it feels lovely. Try it. You know you wanna.
What are your aims for your troupe in 2019?
Bring improv to some new audiences at Edinburgh Fringe. And find out what Buxton Fringe could be like when England aren’t doing far too well at the World Cup!
It’s the month of looooovveeeee so what things do you love about improv and why?
Rachel: I love being in flow state. Energised focus. Thanks to my CSI buddy Lee Apsey for pointing out to me that that experience has got a name (and a Wikipedia page).
Alex: I love how it develops your sense of empathy. Learning to really put all your attention on another person, noticing the significance of even tiny gestures and expressions, is a useful skill in improv and in real life. Playing characters who have vastly different philosophies to me at the top of my emotional intelligence has also made me more open-minded when dealing with differences of opinion away from the stage.
If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?
On Facebook and Twitter @betweenusimprov
In three words why should people come and see you perform.
Sometimes love hurts.
DUO QUICK FIRE SPECIAL
If you could be any famous duo from TV, Film or Music what would your twoprov be and why?
Rachel: Can I say Rhett and Scarlett? All the epic drama and emotions, just with no set and two Ikea chairs.
Alex: Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight by Richard Linklater.
Who creates the craziest improv characters?
Rachel: Alex often does a good job of creating a magnetic bad boy who drives my character to something extreme. But I’m not sure which of us is crazy when that happens.
Alex: With Between Us, we aim for very realistic, grounded characters, but anyone can go a bit crazy in an intense situation. I think my crazy characters tend to be more cold, calculating manipulators, whereas Rachel’s are often more outwardly aggressive. We’ve both played some utterly horrible people though!
What is your favourite thing about one another?
Rachel: Alex is totally present in whatever he’s doing. It makes him a great person to spend time with.
Alex: Rachel is great at working out what she wants and being strategic about getting there. It’s taken our show farther and faster than I would have hoped.
What is the thing that the other would go viral for?
Rachel: Alex would go viral for calling out some kind of disgusting ingrained cultural prejudice, using only the power of the written word to unload a can of woke whoopass.
Alex: Rachel has a lot of creative pursuits. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of her radio sketches or stories grabbed attention, probably for a witty line that proves unexpectedly insightful and gets quoted by Buzzfeed.
You have £50 in your pocket to buy the other a present – what would you get them and why?
Rachel: Alex and I both hate presents. Neither of us bought any of our relatives anything this Christmas. Thank god we both have lovely partners who keep us functioning properly in the real world. We would spend that money on travelling to an improv festival and seeing some awesome shows.
Alex: Yeah, I’d treat Rachel to a tank of petrol to take us to a gig.
If you had to release a duet – what would the song be and why?
Our song is Summer Of 69 by Bryan Adams, the duet version. We had a really intense moment with it beside a burger van in Brighton. But maybe you had to be there.
The toughest question of all – last rolo – would you keep it or give it to your twoprov buddy?
Rachel: One of the best things between us is that we’re totally straight and upfront with each other. If Alex told me he needed that last Rolo, that would be because he needed the goddamn Rolo, so I’d give it to him, no question.
Alex: I’ll happily give my last Rolo away. Rachel is great at bringing snacks when we’re travelling for a show, so I probably owe her a whole pack of Rolos at this point!
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