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. This afternoon I talk to an improviser that is part of The Right Kind of Trouble and the Die Hards – Jane Mc Keever
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
Hi! I’m Jane. I play the bodhrán (Irish folk drum) very badly. I was once a qualified football referee and I can’t drive (which won’t be an issue once driverless cars kick in… right?).
How did you get into improv?
I did a stand-up course at Hoopla and was encouraged by my teacher to try improv to help with my confidence on stage.
What inspired you to start improv?
With stand-up, it was really about doing something that scared me. And then when I found improv, it was a coming home moment. I didn’t know improv was even a thing until I took a class. And now instead of walking around my flat talking to myself in silly voices, I get to step out on stage and make stuff up with my very funny friends.
What troupes are you are a part of?
I am in The Right Kind of Trouble
and The Die Hards.
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
I really enjoy long-form improv. I have a lifelong love of storytelling whether it’s books, films, theatre or tv. I love the moment of discovery when characters are born and stories unfold live on stage. I love watching Showstoppers create a whole musical on the spot. So inventive, beautiful and hilarious! The Glenda J have a fantastic opener and are an improv powerhouse, they have made me laugh and cry in the same show. Improvised Shakespeare from Chicago are incredible. They improvise in iambic pentameter, it’s ingenious and super funny.
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
I am inspired by performers who have been improvising a lot longer than me yet still take big creative risks. Cariad Lloyd is a great example of this. If you watch her in Austentatious in the West End, there is so much mischief, she goes for it every time. It’s a fantastic show. Lauren Shearing and Maria Peters’ two-person show Breaking and Entering is a two-prov masterclass. I am also inspired by teams like Do the Right Scene at Hoopla who are breathing new life into a very white, middle-class scene.
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?
This question makes me think of something Cariad Lloyd once said on the excellent Yesbot podcast, ‘As in improv, as in life!’ In other words, there is progress, but we’ve still got a way to go. I expect it’s easier for white women than women of colour, who are underrepresented in every aspect of improv from student to teacher to audience. So we’re still missing a lot of voices and not yet experiencing the full creative potential a more inclusive scene has to offer. I think the theatres and schools who are intentional about diversity and inclusiveness will ultimately thrive because they are drawing from a much bigger talent pool and will create shows that today’s audiences want to see and bring their friends to.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
I did an amazing workshop run by Patti Styles and Pippa Evans quite early on in my improv life. Patti gave us advice about how to interpret the classic ‘Yes and’ rule of improv – it doesn’t mean literally saying ‘yes’ to whatever offer we are given. E.g. – I’m in a workplace scene and my coworker asks me if I want a cup of tea. I don’t have to say, “Yes and I’d like it with milk and three sugars.” As my character, I might reply, “No thanks I’ve already had three cups this morning and it’s not even 10am!” I’m still ‘yes and’ing’ the scene without needing to literally say the word yes. I think for women especially, we need this in our back pocket if we get an offer that we’re uncomfortable with. We can say ‘no, get lost’ and still be ‘yes and’ing’ the scene.
The other area I’ve needed advice in is how to (or not to) give feedback to other players. I’ve had to learn the hard way that it’s always better to immediately address issues directly with a teammate and not let them fester, or be tempted to talk about them to other teammates. It’s not fair to that player if you’re silently judging them and not giving them a chance to respond to your issue. If it isn’t dealt with there and then, it will have a detrimental effect on team dynamics on and off stage.
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?
As improvisers, we have to remember that we are in control and can choose how to play the suggestions we’re given. I cringe when I lazily choose to lean on stereotypes in my scenes. For example, if I find myself playing a wife or a mother, instead of standing at the stove making dinner, I could be at the kitchen table preparing a board presentation, or at work designing the next Olympic stadium or in the back garden fixing my motorbike. It’s the same with gender, religion, sexuality, race, class or whatever part of England I’m pretending to be from. I have the power to punch up, rather than knockdown and make fun of those who are underrepresented or regularly stereotyped on stage. I don’t always do the right thing in the moment but as an improviser, I can recognise the choices I made and work on doing better next time.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
Most often moments when I’ve been ‘saved’ by teammates. I once stepped out and started singing a totally made-up song. I’m not a singer and I can still remember the relief I felt the moment a teammate came out and joined in. I’m lucky my teammates are always right there to support me whatever happens, it gives me the courage to be bolder with my moves. I had an amazing time at the Belfast Improv Festival, playing to a home crowd (I’m from Belfast) with The Right Kind of Trouble.
What have been some of the worst and why?
The worst moments are when I’m not present or not feeling connected with players. If I’m struggling it usually means I need to take a break and/or take more creative risks.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Take classes at different schools to add tools to your belt (we are lucky to have several great places to learn improv in London). Play with people you enjoy spending time with on and off stage. Try not to judge what others are doing or not doing, instead focus your energy on what you can control within your own style of play. Improv is making stuff up on the spot in public – be positive and back yourself, as well as your teammates, when you come off stage.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
Do something that scares me – I’d like to try solo or two-person improv
Put into practice what I learnt in Chicago (I just got back from doing the intensive)
Make more stuff. The Die Hards are working on a new show which we’re really excited about. I’m also writing a solo piece with my best mate.
What is the future of improv?
I think there’s always a danger that improv can feel a bit tired, that we’re churning out the same old thing. I think when we’re complacent as performers, and not taking risks, audiences can feel it. As my mum says, ‘If do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’ By its own definition, improv can’t afford to be safe and predictable. So I feel like the future of improv is seeing on stage (or different spaces – e.g. Do Not Adjust Your Stage performing in the Natural History Museum) characters, stories and worlds we haven’t yet explored and encouraging new voices to break through to inject the scene with fresh creativity and innovation. As with any art form, as in life, there’s always more.
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