Newcastle Improv Festival – INTERVIEW – Stella Duffy – Improv For Writers Masterclass

It is festival season and that means that in the next month there is so many great comedy festivals to look forward to! This month we are looking at some of the great shows that you can see at the brand new event in the North East – The Newcastle Improv Festival. We have been lucky enough to interview some of the acts that are performing in the debut year which is set to start with a bang!  Today we talk to one of Newcastle’s finest short form groups.

Photographer Manchester

Stella Duffy – Improv For Writers Masterclass

Location:  Jurys Inn

Dates: 3rd August

Time: 10:00 – 17:00

Price: £60 Concession £54

Ticket Link:  Improv For Writers Masterclass

Hello Stella How did you get into improv?

In 1987, my friend Debbie was doing some Comedy Classes at the Domino Warehouse and she kept saying you must come to these classes. I had been an actor in New Zealand with a couple of theatre companies and one of the reasons that I came back to the UK was that I wanted to do more theatre here. I arrogantly thought I was not interested in comedy, so I thought  “I don’t need to do to your comedy classes because I want to be a ‘proper actor’” I went along once and then I realised what she was calling a comedy class.

Improvisation to me isn’t about the comedy its about the storytelling, I had been saying no to these ‘comedy classes’ when actually what they were was story classes. So, I went along to one of them with her and I completely loved it and I have been in love with improv because of the storytelling ever since.



How are you feeling about performing at the first ever Newcastle Improv Festival?

I am delighted and I am very happy to be a part of it.  Newcastle is one of my favourite parts of Britain it’s always sunny when I am there so everyone can look forward to that!

One of the things that is exciting to me is understanding a little more how different the [improv] communities are. Taking my work to places is much more about finding out about what they have and I find it immensely exciting to all the new stuff i discover.



You are joining the Suggestible for their show for one night, How did that come about and what are you looking forward to mist about it?

I said yes because I am a positive improviser and I like to say yes everything that Bev and Ian have asked me to do. We used to share a house years ago and they are very good friends. I love their work, I trust their work and I am really excited about them creating a festival.



You are a writer – how did you get into this?

 I am really interested in things around class, inclusion disparity, that sort of thing interests me enormously. I have 16 published novels – 16 are crime, 3 are historical and the rest are kind of contemporary realist state of the nation kind of things.

In modern crime writing it is all about looking at what is really going on, you know, the darker side of our culture where things can not be tidied up and that is often to do with poverty. I am also immensely interested in secrets and lies.

When I started improvising in Britain, the work was so much more about the storytelling then comedy. I think what I got from that was the possibility that I too could be a writer. I genuinely believe story wants to be told and they want us as their channel.



You are also doing an improv masterclass for writing at the festival. Tell us about that!

For fives year now I have been teaching writing with improvisation and I call it writing for improvisers and improvisers for writing because I think they are the same skills.

One of the things that really surprises writers is that improvisation is often and not always about the physical. People often perceive improvisation as bouncy and jumpy but it is also about the storytelling, where are we heading with these characters? Writers don’t always recognise that writing is a physical activity.

What’s really exciting for writers is that they have only perceived it as a sitting down not moving your body kind of activity. If i was to write right now, I would be moving my arms I would be moving my head when I think about a new line of dialogue. I often lift my head and try and get the tone right. I don’t think we pay attention enough to how physical the work is.

So when I teach writers, I use physical improv exercises and I often think that improvisers don’t pay attention enough to the story. It works so well and its so so good when you bring them together.



What other acts are you looking forward to seeing?

I am trying to do absolutely everything I can in the short time I have got. I am going to see as much as I can, I will join in all shows and all shows I will watch – i am not there to tidy my house. It’s not my home and will be staying somewhere nice. I will be there feeding on my own enjoyment as well as everyone else.


You Co-Direct Fun Palaces – it’s a great campaign – tell us all about it?

I read Joan Littlewood’s book where she talks about her decades of work with communities in the 30’s 40’s 50’s before she came to London. They had an idea of building, a Fun Palace, that housed everything from the arts to the sciences to all the communities interest. Of course it didn’t get built.

So to celebrate her life in 2014, I and a few other people suggested that we make mini Fun Palaces on a weekend in October and I didn’t expect 138 places to take part and so now I am a part time producer because of Fun Palaces.

What’s amazing is that it’s entirely based on improvisation – we have said yes and yes end all the way through. All my colleagues have worked with Improvable and Improv Theatre company so to us to the idea of saying yes and building on it really appeals to us and that’s why so many communities have joined in.

Over 433 communities last year, 450,000 people, 80-85% of it has been outside London. We support them finding venues. What is thrilling for me is seeing where it has lead to, it is really exciting stuff when communities start to have monthly get together to get to know one another. In a time when everyone talks about division, there is so much more we could be doing together.


What do you think is the Most Underrated style of improv and why?

I think it’s not about gags and comedy.  I find improvised and preformative storytelling really interesting, I think its a bit of a shame that improv particularly in Britain due to Whose Line IS It Anway? is a certain type.

I think it’s come to be something that is much more about gags then about story and that’s not anyone fault. When they made Whose Line,  they made hours and edited it down because they were doing making a TV comedy and when people see that they think that is improv. There are many people that are in that series who are good friends and that’s not how they normally improvise either they are big storytellers that are part of big long rambling shows it’s just that’s what they became known for.



What are the three things you are looking forward to most performing in Newcastle?

I like the hills and It’s always sunny for me so that river is completely stunning. Also the writer and poet Julia Darling was a friend and she was the first person to invite me to Newcastle to teach writing at Live Theatre. Everytime I am in Newcastle I remember Julia and that is just really delicious. Her work is really beautiful and was about Newcastle – it’s nice to remember someone.


And Finally in three words – Why should people come and see the show?

Playing Learning Exploring.

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