This month we are celebrating the Improv scene in Bristol by talking to one of the founders, Caitlin Campbell of the Bristol Improv Theatre. In the first part of the interview we talk about beginnings, shows and much much more.
Hello Caitlin tell us all about who you all are and three unknown facts about yourself!
Howdy! I’m Caitlin Campbell, and I’m the Artistic Director of the Bristol Improv Theatre.
I can’t whistle, but I can pull my arm bones out of their sockets and do a passably good imitation of that sound your CD player made between songs when you put the repeat setting on.
How did you get into improv?
I joined the University of Bristol’s improv society when I was but eighteen years old: I had always wanted to do comedy (my A Level drama teacher had told me not to), and of all the performing arts societies at the freshers fair, improv seemed like the most friendly. I did my first show within two months and was hooked.
Tell us about the Bristol Improv Theatre?
We’re the UK’s first (but thankfully not only) improv theatre. We started as a festival back in 2013 – back then it was just a ploy to get all the improv groups in Bristol hanging out and meeting each other, but it spiralled into being a huge event with visiting acts and a throwdown night.
Two years on, we were running regular jams and classes and wanted to find a permanent home. We operated for two years as a pop up venue out of the Polish Ex Servicemen’s Club, until in 2017 the society offered us the chance to take over the building. We refurbished the space (no mean feat, to bring it up to code to be a licensed theatre building) with the help of 40 amazing volunteers, a huge crowdfunding campaign and a generous wodge of private investment. Now this building has a 115 seat purpose-built theatre space, a licensed bar, rehearsal rooms, our offices and two flats. More importantly, it’s home.
How did you get involved with it?
I’m a founder, along with Andy Yeoh and Stephen Clements. We met at Bristol University through the improv society and later I convinced them to let me be in their improv troupe.
When I was in my final year Andy and I started talking about running a theatre and looking for a permanent space. We found the Polish Club, at which point Stephen joined the crew. We all had day jobs, and crammed BIT work into our days and evenings off. We were wildly ambitious, unapologetically into improv and had absolutely no idea what we were doing.
Five years later, we’ve taken over the space, expanded ourselves into a 13-strong team and just about refined our working practice into something resembling a professional organisation. Now you can learn, play or watch improvisation almost every single night at the BIT.
Tell us about some of your regular shows that you have at BIT?
We have two monthly flagship shows: For The Bish Bosh Bash!, think Whose Line meets Shooting Starts, meets the competitive spirit of a premier league football match. This Is Your Musical is an all-singing, all-dancing musical inspired by stories from the audience. In both you can expect, laughter, joy, and exuberant mischief.
How do you go about booking acts from across the country to play at BIT?
There’s not one way, but several: I try to keep my ear to the ground for new shows and companies. I see stuff at the fringe, I ask people I respect on the improv scene who they’ve enjoyed recently. Some young companies get in touch directly with videos and links to reviews, which is always a boon. And we have great relationships with older companies, who come back year upon year with new work. The BIT is a great space to try out new stuff in front of a warm audience.
How long does it take for the whole process to go from booking to stage?
Right now (October) I’ve got my calendar confirmed until March, and pencilled until May. The general rule is the more lead-in time the better, so these days I’ll be firming up details with companies at least six months in advance.
What have been some of your highlights for you this year in regards to shows that have happened at BIT?
If I had to pick three: Do The Right Scene came over from London and absolutely brought the house down. You can always tell a good show by the number of people hanging around in the bar afterwards trying to catch the acts and congratulate them before they drive home. It was packed.
In July we did a benefit for Bristol Pride (something I’ve wanted to do for ages), and had the Dragprov Revue headlining a night of LGBT+ improv talent. So many people said to me that night that they’d never been to the BIT before and it had been the most they’d laughed in ages.
And in March we hosted the fourth annual 26 hour Bristol Improv Marathon in association with Closer Each Day (who do a fortnightly improvised soap over at the Wardrobe Theatre). The Marathon is always such a blast – there’s a cast of 30 improvisers, we build a huge set and everyone goes to town on the costumes. For some of us, it’s the only time we’ll improvise together in the year so it’s like a big, day-long, sleep deprived reunion.
More Next week…