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 is part of many improv troupes including The Same Faces and Tiny Stories – Jen Kenny
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
Hello I’m Jen Kenny
Fact 1 – I used to be the singer in a grunge band called Drowning Girl ( proudest moment being described as a cross between Nirvana and Pj Harvey )
Fact 2 – I am originally from South Shields ( otherwise known as a Sandancer )
Fact 3 – I lived in Japan for 2 years teaching English
How did you get into improv?
My good friend Tamsyn ran a café and got in touch with me to say there was a ‘comedy workshop’ It was my birthday and I had nothing to do so I just went along . I met Tom Young and had such a good night , I was hooked from that moment .
What inspired you to start improv?
Like many people, I loved Whose Line Is It Anyway , but I didn’t really know that I could do that.
I did have a jokey band with my best mate Janet called Tongue – we would make up covers of songs on casio keyboards with kazoos with new lyrics . ( Actually that started as making joke mix tapes for all our friends going off to uni when we failed ours !
Best Lyrics – to the tune of Smells Like Teen Spirit .-
Happy Mondays , Stone Roses , Charlatans Jaaames .
Morrisey , New Order , Tony Wilson , Hacienda …..)
These were done in one take on a tape recorder( definitely showing my age now !!!)so I guess I was improvising then .
What troupes are you are a part of?
Might be quicker to list what I’m not ha ha
Ok so I’m in The Same Faces, Box of Frogs and Tiny Stories .
I have also just guested with City Impro and was a member of Off Broad Street ( we are on hiatus) I have also worked with the new troupe Oof
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
Well I started off learning the basics of shortform and I still perform that with The Same Faces and Box of Frogs. I then took a long form class and a whole new world opened up! I fell in love with organic improv and really love forms which combine a bit of everything depending on the way the troupe feels the show needs to develop . .My overall favourite type of improv is musical and when I was in Off Broad Street I loved how we basically created musical Harolds. I guess I really want to do an organic long form musical troupe!!!!
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
Gosh that is a long list !!!
Of course I have Tom Young to thank for getting me into this crazy life in the first place!
I think Jules Munns really helped me develop confidence in myself as an improviser . When I took his organic class I felt so out of my dept having only done shortform , but he was incredibly patient with me and I credit him for helping me feel empowered and his guidance is the reason I do so much other improv .
I absolutely love watching Amy Cooke -Hodgson on stage .Every time I have seen her , she just uses her physicality and her face to create such brilliant characters . She is also just a very lovely person .
I saw the group North Coast at the Miller a couple of years ago with Jon Trevor and we both looked at each other and said we had to get them over for the Birmingham Improv Festival and Jon did !
They just had amazing energy and group mind and I wanted to be up there with them as they looked like they were having the best fun .
Rhiannon Vivian is an outstanding musical improviser and everything I have seen her in has been excellent .I particularly love her her in Happily Never After as the characters she creates are usually very at odds with her lovely real life personality . She is also a great teacher !
Alex Keen and Rachel Thorn are two improvisers that I am lucky to know , but I just love to watch them on stage . They can make you laugh or cry – usually both within a show . They are also just very lovely supportive people and great coaches
All of my fellow Same Faces of course ! Each and every one of them brings something special to the show . Dave Gotheridge is a master storyteller and an absolute encyclopaedia of random facts . He just has a knack of doing something incredibly funny or specific in every show with seemingly little effort . He has been very supportive during a tricky year for me and I know he always has my back !
I’m honoured to be part of Tiny Stories and am really proud of what we have achieved in a short space of time . Adam Unwin is an excellent improviser ( and actor ) and has also worked incredibly hard behind the scenes getting this troupe going . We are also so lucky to have Russ Payne , Stuart Reid and Kieron Atwood ( who is just incredibly enthusiastic about all my ventures )
I love performing with Hannah Platts as we just seem to click on stage and find pairs of characters easily. Ki Shah is absolutely brilliant and brings a whole new level of intelligence to our shows . I am often in awe of her quick thinking . Carly Smith is a joy to perform with and to be around in general !
My fellow froggies are also brilliant ! Every one of them ! Jon, Lee , JP , Jacky , Karen , David ,Grant , Marianne, Matt, Nick and John
I have learned so much from working with Kate Knight and Suzie Evans who just make it very easy for me as a performer, as they give so many gifts and have such skill at what they do Karen Benjamin as well is so much fun to play with ( particularly when we get to do a song together ) . Geddes Cureton is just an amazing musician and I wouldn’t be able to do half of the musical stuff I love so much if it wasn’t for his skill.
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 that improv can be harder for women to get into in the first place , like many things sadly . For me, it wasn’t something I actually thought about when I began, although I was and sometimes still am the only female in the show or class .
I am heartened to see more women joining workshops , but with that in mind I still think we are lacking women who are also teaching classes or instructors who understand the barriers that there might be for female players. I have been interrupted, called out for a mistake or ignored on occasion, sometimes in shows . I am lucky to play in some very supportive teams where this does not happen .It makes me really cross when I hear about females feeling excluded or talked over in workshops. Sadly women are not always seen.
I have recently run some of my own workshops and have been really thrilled by the response of the participants . I am really glad that we have forums to share thoughts and ideas and ask questions . The rise of women only workshops has also been great to see and I have attended several . I am positive about change but we aren’t there yet by a long shot.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
Follow your feet . For a long time I was hesitant and didn’t think I had anything to add, that advice helped me such a lot . The other one was from a workshop from Kate Knight ( I think based on Susan Messing) which was basically Know- Care – Say .
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?
I have had these in the past although our gets don’t tend to lend themselves to gender stereotypes luckily, so I then get the choice to cast myself . It is something that I myself need to explore a little bit more as I tend to easily fall into traditional stereotypes . Having just done Stephen Davidson’s Play Like and Ally workshop, I feel more empowered to give this a try.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
Gosh so many !!! I remember a very silly Greatest Hits during a Faces show that had the entire audience singing about spacerockets which was a lot of fun.
During a Tiny Stories show I jumped in and was endowed with being the daughter . My name became Olivia Chaos Brown and I basically got to hurricane into lots of scenes . It was a lot of fun and ended up being a weird kind of edit .
What have been some of the worst and why?
You know what, I can’t think of anything awful that has happened. So either I’ve blocked it out or I have been lucky to play with amazing teams to lovely audiences.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Listen …. You don’t have to respond straight away, let the words sit if you can. Oh and see as much improv as you can and once you’ve got the basics take as many classes with different teachers as you can too. Both will allow you to discover what type of improv you like.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
I personally want to do some more teaching. Also to do more longform and really drill into the skills of creating believable characters perhaps trying out some new formats.
Finally I want to learn how to do object work better. I have booked on a class with Katy Schutte to remedy this!
What is the future of improv?
I would love improv to become a part of what is taught at school . I have a lunchtime club and the kids who attend get so much out of it. I really believe that it could make a massive difference to the wellbeing of pupils and teachers. I also want the midlands improv scene to really take off with more groups forming and networks right across the country.
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