Alex and I have created a new show: Sex, Lies & Improvisation, an improvised comedy about lying together. We’re touring it this autumn but we can’t do that without a network of awesome improvisers who run great events in their improv communities. I want to celebrate those people with this blog series.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are…The Improv Community Heroes!
Hero Fact File
Name: John McInnes
Location of Hero-ing: Bristol, and Edinburgh in August
Community events: Hodgeprov with Micky Baker, The Shit Show, and Parents’ Basement in Bristol. Improv Cagematch at Edinburgh Fringe. Plus US-style long-form coaching and jam hosting.
Troupes: Harold teams: Jazz Police in Bristol and Couch in Glasgow. 2provs: The Billy Boys with John Gallagher, Solicitors with Mark Long, and Street Justice with Theo Worsley, and Mac & Me where anyone in the room can tag in and do a scene with John.
Rachel: How did you get into improvisation?
John: My background is sketch comedy and my writing partner and I would often talk about what makes a good sketch with other writers. A lot of our favourite performers came through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre so I purchased the UCB manual. Their concept of game of the scene was very similar to what my partner and I agreed was common in good sketches so we started doing improv too.
Rachel: What do you love about improvisation?
John: I love working as part of a group. Doing things that benefit the larger ensemble feels right. I also love that you can bring exactly what YOU think is funny onto a stage immediately. You don’t have to write for someone else’s voice, you can bring your own voice on stage. Finally, it’s such a new thing, it’s a bit like the Wild West (which can have its downsides). It’s not like stand-up or sketch where there are established routes and the audience kinda knows what to expect. The fact that there aren’t a ton of iron-clad guidelines to doing things right is cool.
Rachel: What motivates you to be a hero?
John: My entire goal has been to make it easier for people to get on stage and perform good comedic longform improv. When I started there wasn’t anywhere to perform US-style longform and there was a vague hostility to US-style improv. There was so little stage time available in general and even workshop quality could be really hit or miss. I feel like “hero” is such a big title that it makes me look egotistical. I would prefer to be known as an improv community Clark Kent.
Rachel: What’s challenging about being an improv community Clark Kent?
John: Performing in shows as a teacher can sometimes feel very high-pressure, especially if you don’t have a good show. If you run shows or put together house teams you of course have to deal with community members who are discouraged or angry when you don’t book their teams or don’t put them on house teams. Improv is a long game, but it’s very common to want something before you’re ready for it. The absolute worst part is dealing with emotionally abusive sexist “nice guys” who will actively attempt to emotionally or sexually exploit women. That might not be unique to improv, but it’s a community where that happens a bunch. If someone’s a creep in your community in any way, let as many people know as you can.
Rachel: What does an improv community need to thrive?
John: The most important thing is to push for high standards in the shows. Something that I think is a mistake is treating a community just as a group of friends having fun. If you’re ONLY having fun, that leads to a lot of scene work that is off-putting to outsiders and non-improv audiences, like in-jokes or “ironic” acting. Performers also shouldn’t feel a pressure or obligation to be friends with complete strangers that they don’t know, just to perform this artform that they enjoy. Joy and friendship should be a side-effect of a good community, it shouldn’t be the core pursuit. The thing that unites an improv community should be the shared interest of improv and the pursuit of performing that well.
Rachel: How can we engage more people in improv?
John: Give people more stage time. Make your teams more diverse. Pay your performers (promptly!). Make sure the quality of your ticketed shows are as good as an equally-priced stand-up or sketch show.
Rachel: What are the best things about your improv community?
John: Meeting some of the funniest and talented people that almost nobody in the world knows about feels special. There’s a group in Bristol called “Helen” who are some of the best actors/comedians/improvisers I’ve ever seen. I really enjoy watching someone evolve as a performer over time, watching them go from unconfident/in-their-head/not committing to being a performer who is fully confident/present/committed.
Rachel: What advice or inspiration have you taken from other improv communities?
John: Start small, get very good at that one thing, then expand. I’m clearly very influenced by UCB and iO. I find London’s Free Association community inspiring as a group who are producing high quality improv comedy nearly every night of the week to paying audiences. I also find Jack Left Town really inspiring as a totally independent group coming from different schools who have put together a real successful show, while also giving opportunities to upcoming groups. Also, John Gallagher’s Bristol Longform Comedy group has really been the one leading the charge in Bristol right now and that’s not an easy job so it’s impressive to see how good the players coming out of that are.