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 directs and is also part of the Delight Collective and works at the Bristol Improv Theatre – Imogen Palmer
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
I’m really good at losing single earrings so I wear a lot of mismatching ones.
I played the young William Wordsworth in my Lake District hometown’s georgian history walk aged 12 years old.
I soaked up the Australian upwards inflection at the end of my sentences after two years over there.
How did you get into improv?
I used to binge watch the ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ omnibus when I was a teenager and then joined the University society at the end of first year.
What inspired you to start improv?
Going to a ‘Bristol Improv’ show in the first year of Uni and seeing how much fun everyone was having with each other. I’d been doing some of the Uni drama shows and found it a bit clicque-y and walked into this improv drop in with a bunch of people smiling, chatting, being welcoming. Later, in the bar afterwards, when everyone was making Lord of the Rings and Star Wars references, I was like ‘I have found my tribe!’
What troupes are you are a part of?
Currently I direct and perform as part of ‘The Delight Collective’ which produces a few different shows including a big high-energy Theatresports style show called ‘The Bish Bosh Bash!’, ‘Friends Like These’ which takes true stories of friendship from the audience to inspire authentic grounded scenes and ‘IMOGENÉ: the improvised pop concert’ which is a clown pop diva character show. I am based in Bristol and teach, direct and do venue hire admin for The Bristol Improv Theatre. I’ve just been cast in their Christmas show which involves learning to puppeteer….
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
I am drawn to improvised theatre and narrative shows which have something to say. I enjoy watching performers who really enjoying playing with each other on stage and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and authentic at times. Recently, I’ve really gotten into Commedia dell’arte and clowing and I am excited to see how these forms can be used with improvisation. My solo show IMOGENÉ uses clown, improvised singing, audience interaction interspersed with scripted monologues. How we can blend scripted work with improvised work interests me.
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
I spent a very formative time training with Impro Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia and experienced the best teaching I have ever had in improvisation with them, the best directing and some really inspriring shows. Patti Stiles is an incredible teacher, director and performer who brings charm, grace, wisdom and profound insights into her performing and teaching. Katherine Weaver is one of the most sensitve and playful director/teachers I’ve had and everything I understand or believe is important about improv teaching I learnt from watching her. In the UK, I love learning from and playing with Caitlin Campbell who can switch from grounded authenticity to big bold character moves in a moment. God there are so many- also love Brenna Dixon, Jill Bernard, Jules Munns, the teaching work Stephen Davidson is doing, Maria Peters and Rhiannon Vivian’s two prov etc. etc…
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 watched a speech written by Holly Mandel on the topic of women in comedy and women in improv and it really helped me process and articulate some of the barriers I experience and some which I see my female students experience. She spoke about how being a skilled improviser or comedian is being bold, brave, messy, gross and BIG and how women have been socialised for a millenia to be small and quiet and submissive or we won’t get ‘picked’ (ie. get a husband!).
What I perceive in my students is that women generally take quicker to the teamwork, collaboration and listening elements of improv and then start to drop away when it gets to the big, bold, showing off elements. Men seem to generally take to the bold, silly bit and then once they’ve learnt the listening and teamwork bit, soar like eagles and go on to direct shows or teach. I performed and trained for 5 years before I started to teach and even then was racked with imposter syndrome for about three years whenever I ran a room. I’ve had some really challenging times being a teacher and director which would have been completely different if I looked and sounded like a man.
Some people in the world are still getting used to small women having something useful to say and can perceive women in leadership roles as a threat – no matter how soft spoken or gently spoken the opinions might be.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
I make a joke to my students sometimes about the ‘voices in my head’ which are the voices of some of my improv/clown teachers who pop up and whisper things in my ear when I’m performing. They rotate but a few of them are:
‘Do it’ – Patti Stiles. Just do the thing, jump off the cliff, tell them you love them etc.
‘Yeah!’ (whilst nodding and smiling) – Jason Shotts. This positive energy to bring on stage and agree with your whole body to the moment, not just the words.
‘The opposite is always true’ – Katherine Weaver. No matter what note you give in improv, the opposite can always be true because everything depends on the context of the moment and the scene.
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?
This used to piss me off when I was younger and I would do things like throw a hand grenade/ flame thrower the person I was playing with (in an imaginary mime way of course!) if they endowed for the nth time as their mum/girlfriend if nothing in the scene had suggested this. A more mature and sophisticated response I learnt from Patti and Katherine was to own the offer and then commit 150%. Ie. if the offer is ‘undress for me baby’, start to take your clothes off whilst crying. Or if you are a ‘Mum’, know that you can be any kind of Mum you want! You can be Mum who is a rocket scientist or a secret agent etc.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
I have many fond memories from playing with an improvised Shakespare in Melbourne called ‘Soothplayers’. To this day I’ve performed some of my favourite work with them, including an onstage orgy in a forest (lots of writhing bodies!), ‘fairy kisses’ being established as licking people on the face and licking everyone in the cast including the musician and this one show called ‘The Golden Shoe’ where I got to be a Lady Macbeth style character who yelled at one point ‘Out damn stain, out!’ Golden.
What have been some of the worst and why?
Not being listened to or acknowledged by other actors on stage (often men) and feeling the need to fight to be heard. One show where because of a mistake I made in the opening, a joke about everyone being incestuous was reiterated again and again throughout the show which made me feel highly uncomfortable- a friend had recently disclosed some personal history to do with incest in her family and I couldn’t stop thinking about how hugely triggering it would be for her to watch a group of actors poke fun at it in this crude way. I believe comedy is a powerful tool for exploring challenging issues but if they are explored (especially in improv), I believe it needs to be done with sensitivity and care.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Do it! Dive in. Remember it is not a cult, it is not your life. If you don’t click with one teacher or school, try a different one. There are heaps of approaches and you will learn what you like and don’t like from each one.
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
Courage, Kindness and Compassion. Life lessons as well as improv lessons but I want to bring bravery to my choices and kindness and compassion when playing with others and interacting with the audience.
What is the future of improv?
I’d love to see fresh new styles and forms emerging. I witnessed an amazing talk between Patti Stiles (taught by Keith Johnstone), Joe Bill (taught by Del Close) and Gary Schwartz (taught by Viola Spolin) about 4 years ago in Melbourne. My biggest takeaway from hearing these experts speak about the ‘parents’ of improvisation what that the reason these people became so high profile was because they were brave and broke ‘the rules’. There is this tendency I perceive in the UK to play safe and regurgitate old formats again and again whereas I am interested in what can be learnt from these formats and what new formats or styles can we discover next?
The link for that talk is here: https://soundcloud.com/impromelbourne/spolin-close-gary-schwartz-and-joe-bill-hosted-by-patti-stiles