Alex and I are touring our new show, Sex, Lies & Improvisation, a dark comedy about lying together. But a tour is only possible thanks to the people who run great events in their improv communities. We’d like to celebrate those people.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are…The Improv Community Heroes!
Hero Fact File
Name: Liam Webber
Location of Hero-ing: Nottingham
Community events: Missimp courses and one-off workshops, the Gorilla Burger jam, Smash Night which hosts guest acts, Missimp shows at Nonsuch Studios and Nottingham Playhouse, Rhymes Against Humanity musical jam, Improv Boost’s virtual improv instructors.
Rachel: How did you get into improvisation?
Liam: As a kid I did tonnes of theatre stuff — mostly jukebox musicals that we would spend a summer devising, and choreographing (they were just as tacky as it sounds). I then went to university and joined the comedy society there, where you had to do all three ‘comedy art forms’ — sketch, stand-up and improv. I went wanting to do sketch and came out with a love for improv.
I really struggled at uni though, and dropped out after a year with my confidence shot and without any real purpose. Eventually I stumbled into a Missimp jam on a rainy Thursday evening. That was about four-and-a-half years ago and I’ve been most Thursday evenings since.
Rachel: You took on a position of responsibility at Missimp when you were only 23. What have you learned from that?
Liam: So much! I’m not gonna lie, I kinda stumbled into it to begin with and didn’t know exactly what that responsibility meant then. I’m still learning every day. When you accept any kind of leadership position, even in a hobby centred on being daft, it comes with a certain duty of care for the folks partaking in it. Your opinions wind up holding more weight than you’d like them to, the things you say are held to higher level of scrutiny — and rightly so! You’ve accepted responsibility. But it’s a bit of a shock to the system too. I’m the first to admit that I was naïve around this for a long time.
People wind up looking to you as a way to act and a way to be within this community. That responsibility is difficult and tiring and hard work, but it also pushes me to try and be better. When I slip below those standards, I hold my hands up, and work that bit harder. Improv is a beautiful, wonderful art form I love and I always think it deserves the guy I wanna be, not the guy I am now.
You also have to remember that your duty of care of folks within your community includes yourself. Practising self-care (whatever that means to you) is essential. Improv should always be the escape you love, not another source of anxiety in a terrifying world.
Rachel: Can I call you a community hero?
Liam: Um… I kinda hate that title. Ha ha! I’m just a guy who loves improv. And what is a community hero anyway? It’s easy to point at the teacher or the person running a show, but I think everyone in a community should be appreciated. We have to be careful not to narrow ourselves to a specific criteria or specific function someone has within a community. Look at your regular audience members, the folks who put the chairs out, your background admin and design folks, etc. They’re all heroes! Part of being a community should be that everyone is celebrated for what they bring to it.
Rachel: OK, you’re not a hero! So what drives you to do good things for the improv community?
Liam: First and foremost I love the art form. The sheer fact we can get on stage and in the moment create something hilarious, truthful, and moving is crazy and awesome and I love it! But there’s the other side too — when I was in a rough spot, improv gave me a place where I felt like I could be me again and I think it can do that for a lot of people too. I do all I can to share it with folks in the hope they’ll find the same joy I do.
Rachel: What do you want for your community?
Liam: You have to evolve with the needs of your community as it grows. I want to keep doing that. Currently in Nottingham, my main aim is to encourage folks in classes and drop-ins to start new things. By all means take advantage of the opportunities that are already out there, but as a scene grows it’s impossible for it to all be kept under one roof. We should celebrate that and empower performers to create their own teams and opportunities. The example I point everyone towards are Tiny Stories, who are blowing my mind at the moment.
Rachel: How can we engage more people in improv?
Liam: It was put really well in the latest Improv Chronicle podcast about marketing improv (it’s great, go listen!): “Remember what you’re selling is joy.” If you market your shows/jams/etc with improv in-jokes, mentioning “yes and” and “La Rondes” you’re gonna attract improvisers. If you want to attract a wider audience, it starts with remembering why you first fell in love with improv. It wasn’t because the team you watched did a structurally perfect Harold. It was because you watched a bunch of people have the time of their life on stage, with people they loved performing with. Focus on that feeling. The public don’t know the name “improv”, they have no clue how revolutionary your format is, but they damn sure know the feeling “joy”. When they work out that’s what you’re selling, they’ll be queueing out the door.
Rachel: Can you recommend any online improv resources?
Liam: Oh man — how long have you got?! If you like videos, check out The Improv Boost. They regularly interview awesome improvisers from communities all over the world for tips and advice. Paul Vaillancourt has an ace YouTube channel filled with hints, tips, and interviews too. Joe Thompson’s also just started a series on improv as culture, which I’m following like a hawk. If you get your kicks from reading, there’s stuff like The Phoenix Remix, Medium articles written by awesome improvisers, The Stage articles, obviously this blog. If you like audio there are so many interesting improv podcasts. Interview-wise I love Improv Treehouse, but a newer fave of mine is Improv Chronicle. Each episode is centred around a specific topic and gets input from around the globe. How cool is that?
Rachel: What’s special about improvisation?
Liam: I love making people laugh. I love getting on stage and getting to be an idiot, and having an audience laugh with me. But improv isn’t restricted to that. It’s not just stupid. It has the power to be beautiful. Great groups like TJ & Dave, or The Maydays create heart-wrenching, wonderful theatre on the spot. At iO Chicago they told us it’s “theatre of the heart” and that we’re putting truth on stage — that’s the art form’s power. To get the chance to do something that can be both dumb and hilarious and touching and sad all in the same instant… and then it’s gone forever, never to be seen again. It’s magical. It’s a gift I’m always thankful for.
Rachel: What has helped you be a better improviser?
Liam: I’m always looking to learn from pretty much anyone I can. I travel as far and as frequently as I can to learn from as many different folks. Also, your on-stage improv is informed by your life off-stage — enriching that and being interested in the people and the world around you should be a priority for all improvisers. This is why I believe you can learn something about improv from literally anyone too. I’ve learnt as much from students taking my level one classes as I have from workshops and jams with awesome improvisers!
As well as that, something important for me is getting perspectives of folks from different backgrounds. As a white dude, you have to be aware that that puts you in a position of privilege. It’s super important to look at the work (via books, workshops, panels, threads, forums, blogs etc) of folks like Stephen Davidson, Tai Campbell, Monica Gaga, Minder Athwal and so many others who are making strides in this area and making our art form all the better for it. This has really opened my eyes and affected my practice as a teacher and human being.
Rachel: You’re involved in so much that it was really hard to summarise it all when I was writing up your fact file. Why do you do it?
Liam: I help to run a company, rehearse three to four times a week, teach around the UK and overseas, and perform on average once or twice a week. It’s not always easy, Heck! Most of the time it’s hard, draining work done at the dead of night after a show, before you wake up for the “real job”. But I tell you what, nothing sparks joy like seeing someone feel that buzz the first time they make an audience laugh at a jam, or watching a student smash their grad show. I feel like most of the lessons I’ve learnt in my adult life have come from improv in one way or other, and you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world, because literally nothing makes me happier than stepping onto a stage with people I love and making up something truly stupid and beautiful with them. So yeah, trying to do what you love is hard, but OH MY GOD is it worth it.