This month I chatted to over 30 female improvisers from all over the UK to celebrate the talent that we have – we also discuss some of the important debates surrounding this topic as well. Today I talk to an improviser that foind her way into improv through Acaprov! – Rhiannon Jenkins
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
I’m Rhiannon and 1) I’m missing part of my right thumb, from an infection I picked up at a monkey sanctuary 2) I’m related to Chicago May, AKA Mary Anne Duignan, AKA “Queen of Crooks” – a notorious criminal, prostitute, and all out legend (seriously, look her up!) 3) I am genuinely an incredible cook. I know that may surprise some people but for real. Come to my house – I’ll cook you up something INCREDIBLE. And that is not a euphemism.
How did you get into improv?
I fell sideways into improv from acting – I didn’t really know improv existed, outside of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” re-runs on Dave, and then I saw the auditions for Acaprov on (I think) Mandy, went and auditioned, got in, and then discovered improv from being in that group!
What inspired you to start improv?
Well, auditioning for / being in Acaprov! After I’d been with those guys for a couple of months, and being in and seeing other shows, I realised there was this whole world of performance skills that I didn’t really know anything about, so I then started taking some classes at the Free Association and Hoopla, joined some more teams, went to jams, and got properly stuck in! I’ve only being doing improv for about a year and a half, so it still all feels pretty new to me, and I still often feel like the baby improviser in a lot of the groups I’m in, but having a background in acting and singing means I can bring other skills to the table (I hope!).
What troupes are you are a part of?
Acaprov (the a-capella improvised musical), They Don’t Know the Half of It (a show where one of us has learned a script, and the person doing a scene with them is improvising), Improbotics (improv with an AI), and The Ol Bill (a post-brexit improvised police drama). I’ve also done some other shows that have finished (at least, for now!) as part of The Nursery Originals, and with The London Improv Theatre.
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
I tend to prefer long form over short form, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy good short form. I like quite naturalistic/ organic shows – I want to see lots of emotion and vulnerability when I’m watching a show, and that’s always what I aim for when performing. Obviously, musical improv is my fave; I love music and musical theatre so much, and the idea of having to sing because spoken words just can’t cut it anymore. I love really physical shows; that’s always something I’ve really picked up on watching international teams; UK improv can tend to be quite wordy and intellectual – it’s always immensely satisfying to see people making really bold choices with their bodies.
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
I could write a list as long as my arm but I’ll try to keep it short(ish).
I’m going to pick a total cliche/ unsurprising one here: Katy Schutte. Everything she touches turns to gold. She just has funny bones. I was super lucky to be directed by Katy in The Campaign and it was such a wonderful (and far too short) week. Katy is so knowledgeable, warm, and made the whole time we were rehearsing such a joy. On stage, she’s super vivacious, makes incredible, bold choices, and is just so intelligent and fun, while still being a huge supporter of what everyone else is doing. Her legend status is fully deserved.
As a whole group, I adore B. R. A.; I’ve seen them a few times now as they’re always whip-smart, sharp, and so so funny. They always seems like they’re having an absolute ball, which is just so much fun to watch.
I love watching Fran Reid perform – she’s a total powerhouse; her singing voice is PHENOMENAL, she’s so so so good at playing a huge range of characters, and is just so naturally humorous and fun to watch. She simultaneously makes me want to jump on stage with her and also never ever perform again because I’ll never be as good as her. She is such a powerful human.
I have read many articles around the debate that it is harder to be a woman in improv – what are your thoughts on this and why?
I think it maybe has been harder for women in improv, but I’ve only been doing it for a year and a bit, and I think that now there is quite a conscious effort in the scene to do better, so maybe I’ve benefited from that move towards being a more inclusive environment. There have been odd occasions where I have felt that being a woman (and particularly a young woman), has meant that my voice is perhaps less heard than my male counterparts, but I have been lucky to work with some great groups that work really hard to ensure everyone is heard.
There are still pockets of misogyny and poor behaviour, but I’d say that, in general, improv is far better than the wider entertainment community when it comes to treatment of women, but perhaps I’m showing some naïveté. I’ve had a handful of negative experiences with male improvisers, but no one I’ve worked with long term. So yes, I think maybe it can be harder for women than men in some ways in improv, but I also think (most) people in the improv community are working on that.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
So in terms of books I think people should read: definitely “The Improvisers Way” and “The Short, Cute Book of Improv”. They’re both packed with delicious improv gems.
“Dare to be lovely” is one of my favourite pieces of advice that Lee (Apsey) has given us in an Acaprov rehearsal. Basically; don’t be afraid to tell someone they look beautiful, or you love what they’re doing, or you look up to them. I think sometimes we’re scared of coming on too strong or being “too nice”, but no scene is going to be tanked by you saying something nice!
I recently got into listening to YesBot (Chris Mead’s improv podcast), and in the Valerie Ward episode she talked about how you should “dig one six foot hole, not six one foot holes”. Basically, keep piling onto what is already there, rather than trying to claw around for brand new ideas to add.
Do you find that being a female in an improv show that the suggestions you can get are traditional and stereotypical? How do you feel when you get given these?
Well, I think pretty much everyone in improv gets stereotypical suggestions at one point or another: in the short time I’ve been doing it I’ve certainly heard dildo, spatula, funeral, etc. many more times than I would have liked! I can’t say that I’ve had any suggestions that I’ve felt have come to me specifically because of my gender, but then again most of the groups I’m in take quite specific gets. I haven’t noticed any massively gendered suggestions – maybe I’ve been blessed with nice audiences!
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
Oh god, there’s so many to choose from! Pretty much any time I get to rap or do a dance break with Acaprov is always fun (I’m bad at both of these things, but I love doing them), getting a massage from StuMo in an Ol Bill Show, falling in love with Jason in They Don’t Know the Half of It on my birthday, an overly long “running through the corridors in slow motion” segment in Mission to Mars, Charlie being a doctor telling me my son was ginger in a Happy in Their Own Way show, the dating game with Improbotics, being a feisty TV executive having a go at Arfie when I guested with Studio Mandelbrot, pretty much every moment of The Campaign at the Nursery. I’m a total shit for corpsing, and it’s because I’m pretty much ALWAYS enjoying what’s happening when I’m on stage – it’s hard to narrow down my favourite moments!
What have been some of the worst and why?
It’s really hard to think of a worst moment. There have been shows that could have been better, or things I could have done better, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any truly awful moments during improv. There have been a lot of emotional moments on stage (particularly with Happy in Their Own Way), and I’ve cried or been upset on stage, but I think there’s a certain amount of catharsis in being vulnerable on stage, and I’ve never once wished I had been less emotional. So truthfully, I don’t know. Pass!
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Get stuck in. Talk to people after shows – tell them the things you loved about their shows. Be nice. Accept compliments. GO FOR THOSE DRINKS.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
1. playing characters – I tend to play quite close to myself, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, but I’d like to work more on bigger, bolder character choices.
2. Beatboxing – this is quite an acaprov-specific thing, but I’m now vaguely competent at beatboxing, but would like to get better!
3. Memory/ callbacks – I don’t really know how to do this, but I’d like to train my brain at being a bit better at remembering details to bring back later. I see so many people who are great at this, and it’s so satisfying to watch, so I’d love to get better at it. If anyone has any tips on this, please tell me!
What is the future of improv?
I have NO idea, but I’m excited to find out! I hope that the UK scene maybe gets to the point of having more paying punters coming to watch things, so that we have more investment to be able to do more.