This year there is a brand new comedy festival on the scene that is dedicated to celebrating the world of Improv. In the North East of England, the brand new Newcastle Improv Festival is making its debut to the scene between the dates of the 27th July to the 4th August. There is lots of shows, courses and activities on offer and here at The Phoenix Remix we are super excited to be interviewing some of the acts that are appearing. Before anything else though, I sat down with the founders of the festival – Bev and Ian, to find out all about it.
Hello! Bev and Ian! Tells us all about yourselves?
We’re a couple, on and off-stage. We’ve been improvisers for 30 years. Started out in London in the 80s. Moved back to our hometown Newcastle in the early noughties. Set up the Suggestibles improv company here 15 years ago. We produce, perform and teach Improv in the Northeast, across the UK and abroad. Improv is our full-time career.
So, a brand-new festival!! How did the whole idea come about?
Oh, probably initially after a few too many glasses of wine, and ‘What Ifs? We’ve bandied it around for years, but mooted the idea to Ali Pritchard (Artistic Director at Alphabetti Theatre) last year, and his eyes lit up, so that put us on amber.
What inspired you to create a new festival?
A few things urged us to go for it. The emergence of Alphabetti as a cultural hotspot in the centre of town. We put on a load of shows anyway, and generally hang out there these days. It’s the first real ‘fringe theatre’ Newcastle has had. It’s the Suggestibles’ 15-year anniversary so we wanted to something special to celebrate, and the Newcastle improv scene is simmering with audiences and improvisers. We’re friends with improvisers from outside the region too, and close to other artists who are not necessarily ‘improvisers’ by trade, but our artistic paths crossover anyway. We wanted to join up the dots.
And you have some of the biggest comedy spots in Newcastle involved in hosting as well!
Bringing on board the venues was probably been the easiest part of putting the festival on, because we have great relationships with them already. The Cumberland Arms has been the Suggestibles’ home venue for 15 years. We’ve also been resident Stand Comedy Club since it opened 7-years ago. More recently, we’ve had monthly shows at Alphabetti Theatre and it’s exciting to see an audience for long-form grow as well as short-form there. We’ve delivered loads of children’s projects for Seven Stories, and in addition, Jurys Inn is around the corner from Alphabetti and home to School of Improv, so these are our five venue partners for the fest.
Tell us about some of the shows and activities you have in store?
From out of town, there’s Dragprov Revue – an awesome duo from Oxford, Suki Webster’s Guest Speaker show and Stella Duffy’s Improv for Writer’s Masterclass. Both Suki and Stella are also guesting in other shows, as is Pippa Evans who is leading a Masterclass, as too is Jason Perez (US Coach) with his Glasgow troupe Couch appearing on our ‘Long-form night’.
Locally, there’s Spontaneous Wrecks, Open Heart Theatre and School of Improv shows. The Suggestibles launch the festival and play host all-sorts. There’s plenty of short-form, musical improv and crossover events such as hip-hop, laughter yoga and a pop-up choir from Beccy Owen. There’s family-friendly daytime shows and workshops, a filmmaking challenge and late-night jams, the live pissed-up podcast and a disco! Have I missed anything?
How has the process been of setting up a brand-new festival?
When we decided to go for it, we said it had to be fun – for everyone, including ourselves. We remind ourselves of this every day. Cos it has been very challenging. It’s a relentless none-stop process of things to do. We applied for Arts Council funding but were turned down. To be expected in your first year I suppose, and it is ‘improv’ which to our knowledge has never been funded before. We almost didn’t bother applying because an ACE application is a massive task in itself and a minefield of competition. We felt little hope in succeeding (we were right) but personally I think there is a stigma against improv we wanted to crack. We failed. This time!
We have a gung-ho attitude. It is a personal risk for us, and I can’t deny it has caused stress, but one we still feel good about taking (most of the time). I keep a mental picture of the last day of the fest in my head that is one of joy, and that tends to counter the worry. Fingers crossed, so far, it’s looking good. In Bill and Ted style – “Do it and they will come!”
What’s been fantastic is the support from the artists we have on board, and the improv community we have up here spurring us on. The improv ethos of generosity and goodwill is there on and off stage, and as the festival gets closer, we have a wonderful bunch of volunteers piling in to help make it happen.
There are some fantastic classes on offer by some of the biggest improvisers too – tell us about that!
We just had to get Stella Duffy up to Newcastle to deliver her Improv for Writers Masterclass. I know many writers and they are generally quite shy. They wouldn’t come to a typical improv session, so this is perfect for them. Stella is one of our dearest friends (Oh, the heady days of being flatmates near the IGA in Kennington and the great wave of improv happening then, as it is now. That bond really lasts forever!)
Pippa Evans is also a good friend of Ian’s from ‘Court in the Act’ days and Sunday Assembly. She’s an advocate of ‘Connection’ and there was no hesitation when he asked her to come on her way up to Edinburgh Fringe Fest (plus it’s her birthday!) We did one call-out on social media for teachers from out of town. Jason Perez stood out with his unique ‘sensory deprivation’ session, bringing his Glasgow troupe Couch along to perform. These are three sessions we thought our local community would benefit from most (though it seems people are travelling) along with the fourth – Ian’s Musical Improv Masterclass. It’s a good mix of styles, people and ideas we think.
There is even a NiFty Disco – that sounds like a lot of fun!
We couldn’t have a festival without dancing, and Alphabetti has a glitterball, so it was a no brainer. And boy, can improvisers let rip on the dance floor!
And a four-hour film challenge screening?
The 4 Hour Film Challenge is our closing event. We’ve run this several times before in Newcastle and in Liverpool and Leeds, but not for a few years. It’s being reborn! It’s the most crazy, exciting and creative day imaginable. It says what it does on the tin. You’ve got 4 hours to make your film. At noon we give each of the 12 filmmaking teams a suggestion plus 2 of 24 pro-actors to work with (so about 50 people taking-part). And then they’re off – chasing around the city, racing to get back with their finished film by 4pm. Things can go well and things can go wrong, and that’s where the ingenuity and real creativity comes in. In the past we’ve had one team walk straight through another team’s shot and it’s been kept in to hugely entertaining effect. Another team lost their sound, so got the actors to dub it live. It’s a magic day!
There is also a lot of events for children and families as well! How different is it teaching or performing to children compared to adults?
Children are more used to playing games than adults. They generally understand the ‘game’ intuitively and they love to play them over and over again, no chat. The older they get, the more analytical they can become about it. Keeping the game alive for adults is important. And once we find that. Eureka! There’s much to be learned as a teacher working with all ages. But we’re all individuals – in a group, and that social or personal confidence (or lack of it) is similar with all ages. It’s key as a teacher to be aware of that, no matter what their age, background or walk of life.
When it comes to kids’ shows, I think it’s all about the casting. It really can be just a like a ‘normal’ show, but kids have different reference points to adults. When they shout out their suggestions of the hottest new cartoon, game or pop group, the actors need to be able to fly with that. So, people who are parents or spend a lot of time with children make great players I think. Children forget about the ‘cleverness’ of improv. They just want a good story to be told – preferable quickly!
We have to talk about the breakdancing lessons! Will there be an improv breakdance crossover in the future?!
Bad Taste Crue is a brilliant ‘hip-hop culture’ co-op based here (originally from Northern Ireland) and we’ve known their choreographer, Conor O’Kane for a while now. They’ve travelled the world, with their ‘battles’ and ‘education projects’. As far as the Favelas of Brazil!
Initially, we wanted to do a collaboration show with them, but without the funding this is one of the things we couldn’t afford – this year anyway (they are a big event!). We had a few jams with the Crue though and these were fantastic, so definitely on the cards for next year (if ACE is good to us). But they’re still involved in the workshops side. Conor is leading a couple of ‘breakdance’ workshops and Ken Masters, BTC’s Emcee, is delivering two ‘rap workshops’ all about the importance of knowledge in creative expression. And just like Improv for the first time, it will be a step outside your comfort zone, and special. They’re both really accomplished practitioners, and I can’t wait to go along myself!
For people who are new to improv will there be any way they can get involved too?
There’s lots of ways for people new to improv to get involved. We’ve got several taster workshops for beginners, for adults and for young people. Some are focused on comedy, and others on the underpinning skills of improv. Then there’s the multi-generational workshops specifically for ‘Families and Friends’ I’m looking forward to leading. There’re so many great fun warm-up games we play in class that bring people together and make us all laugh, whether you want to learn to improvise or not. The kind of stuff you could take away to play at home with the family at Xmas or at school with your pals.
How did you both get into improv?
It was domino effect. Went to a life-changing course in Camden led by Chris Johnston. Met people who led us to a Theatresports London Workshop. Found ourselves on stage at the Canal Café within a couple of weeks. 30 years ago.
And Finally, in three words – Why should people come to the festival?
Fun and Friendship
To buy tickets for the Newcastle Improv Festival then please click here