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 second part of the interview we talk about the Bristol Improv scene, creative shows and working at the theatre.
What is the best thing about working at BIT?
Comedy, theatre and improv are wonderful things and I get paid to make them happen.
I can teach a class (and program another bunch of classes) and know that about a hundred Bristolians will be making each other laugh within these walls every week. On a Friday nights I get to watch audiences troop in and be amazed by our visiting and associate companies and know that we’ve made that all happen, from deciding to start the theatre five years ago, to me booking the act six months previously, to our operational team opening the house 45 minutes previously.
The other cool thing is shaping work that gets made here, and creating the kind of improv and theatre that I want to see. I watch a hell of a lot of improv and I’m ambitious for our art form. Having a space where we can experiment and grow it is a privilege.
Tell us about some of the team and the work that happens behind the scenes at BIT?
We didn’t realise when we started this thing that in order to run a theatre, we’d also need to learn how to run (and maintain) a building, an office, a staff team and a company limited by guarantee. It has been a Herculean task which we never would have managed without the thirteen strong team we have now. Here’s a selection of honourable mentions:
Mike Cook is our Commercial Director. He subbed in to cover Stephen running the bar during the fringe festival back in 2017 and he was so supremely competent, inspired and business-minded we had to beg him never to leave us. Now he basically runs the show.
Xenia Randle is our box office, theatre school and venue hire administrator. If she didn’t do all the things, nothing would get done. She also made all the puppets for our upcoming Christmas Show.
Luke Mallison is our Marketing Manager. He is incredibly funny and kind and has a masters degree in arts marketing. He’s also an improviser, which is how we convinced him to work for us for so little money. He is the only person in the office who likes football.
(Edit: I have been compelled to also mention that all BIT managers are paid the same rate)
You have recently had a new transformation at BIT – tell us about that?
Yes! The wonderful Luke and Jenna (our graphic designer) headed up our re-branding. It’s been a long time coming – our original logo was designed back in 2012 when we were more of a loose network of improvisers who ran an annual festival, than a theatre with its own personality and style.
Our journey over the last seven years has been about refining and developing ourselves from a group of mates and artists into a professional organisation. Nowadays people say they love coming to the BIT because it feels like a safe place to take the risks inherent in watching or learning improvisation, so the re-brand reflects that. It’s a shiny re-skin on the awesome place we have become.
We can’t talk about BIT without talking about the Theatre School – what lessons are on offer?
Most students start by taking Discovering Improv – it’s a six week starter class and it’s probably my favourite to teach. It’s gentle but challenging, and the focus is largely on pair and group exercises exploring improv skills rather than performance.
The next step is a six week Intro to Performing course to cover the fundamentals of doing improv in front of an audience. Then we have Performing Improv, which is a program of three seven-week courses (Creating Characters, Telling Stories and Singing Songs) that can be taken in any order, or individually. Each has a showcase at the end for family and friends.
We’re currently working on a second tier of Performing (Great Scenework, Exploring Narrative, more to come) as we now have students who have taken all our classes, and have started retaking Performing to get their improv fix.
We also collaborate with Bristol creatives to offer our more experienced students a taste of something different – we’ve had Harold intensives, six week Physical Theatre courses, Commedia dell’Arte days and Stand up comedy weekends.
Tell us what the improv scene is like in Bristol?
Warm, thriving, huge and kind. There’s so much going on, both at the BIT and far beyond its walls. The BIT focuses mostly on narrative improv, but there’s a huge American-style longform contingent putting on awesome shows and classes in venues around Bristol. The thing that unites us all, is that the scene is wonderfully supportive. It feels like everyone is genuinely rooting for each other.
How is Improv received in Bristol?
Warmly – we often hear from visiting acts that they’ve never had such an easy job warming up an audience! Bristolians are typically characterised as being laid back and skilled at having a good time, which is perfect for improv. You can feel when you walk on stage that everyone wants to love it.
Is it hard to get non improvisers interested in coming to see shows?
As much as anywhere – we did a survey recently and found that 63% of our audiences found out about us through word of mouth, and anecdotally from watching our audience base grow over the last five years I would have put it at more. I have a bit of an eerie memory for faces and I can often spot when people have come back to one of the monthly shows, and brought friends, and then seen those friends coming back with their own friends. I supposed the trick of it is just putting on good shows that people want to keep seeing.
The BIT also welcomes volunteering to help out – tell us about them?
We literally wouldn’t be standing if it wasn’t for our volunteers. When we took over our building back in January 2017, 40 volunteers answered our call and came and helped us for two months. People smashed cabinets, did dump runs, pulled up floorboards, stripped wallpaper, put down insulating foam, made tea. It was biblical.
Nowadays we have volunteers who help run our box office, distribute our programmes, and occasionally help us with building maintenance. We’re a very lucky theatre.
Is there much competition between BIT and other improv locations in Bristol?
Not anymore – in the early days we would coordinate with other improv groups to try to avoid each other’s key programming dates, but now there’s enough audience and students to go around everyone. Last week, there were three improv shows happening in Bristol on the same night and everyone got a great turn out. Competition is the wrong way of thinking about it anyway – we all have something slightly different to offer, and everyone benefits from a greater awareness of improv in Bristol. A rising tide raises all boats.
Bristol is a hub of creative people – do you think it affects the style of improv that you see being created in the city?
Couldn’t say for sure, but it’s a good theory! I’ve seen some wonderfully creative shows coming out of Bristol. Last year two Bristol improvisers (Graham Johnson and Beth Kerridge) created a show called When It Rains, where they performed scenes over handheld radios in two separate rooms. That gladdened my experimental-improv-loving heart.
What is the best thing about a night at your theatre for the audience?
The promise that the show they see will be for them and them alone. The cheap cocktails are also good.
For new improvisers is there a space for them to perform?
There are a few. We run a monthly jam, where anyone can get on stage and play in a safe, supportive environment. The BIT also has an amateur company called the Unscripted Players which puts on six shows a year, pitched, directed and performed by its membership. And we run Scratchpad, a monthly scratch night for new shows and young companies.
How do acts normally warm up for a show?
Each BIT Associate Company has its own habits and rituals. The cast of The Bish Bosh Bash! always play a round of ‘What’s on your stupid T-shirt?’ just before the audience come in. This Is Your Musical blast musical theatre favourites as they deck the stage in festoons, and sing through Toto’s Africa before every show. Tales of Adventure (our Dungeons and Dragons show) have a Domino’s pizza feast in the office before heading down to entertain the masses.
What is in store for BIT in 2020?
We’ve got a whole roster of new advanced classes coming, in response to demand from our wonderful students. On the show side of things, we’re going to do some fun specials for International Women’s Day and Valentine’s Day. We’ve got a brand new experimental devised and improv theatre night starting called the Dirty Picnic Club, directed by Lucy Fennell. Our associate productions are chasing up touring opportunities outside Bristol to spread the good word.
More next week…