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 third part of the interview we talk about inspiring improvisers, underrated improv styles and favourite games.
What are your three favourite things about working at an improv theatre?
Seeing and performing in improv shows every week; messing about in the office with our hilarious team; having a bar to prop up with the most amazing people every Friday night.
Who would be your ultimate dream audience member?
An eccentric billionaire investor, who would narrow their eyes, nod sagely and say “these kids are alright. I’m going to give them all my money”. And then gives us all their money.
What style of improv is your favourite and why?
In broad strokes: I like Keith Johnstone inspired narrative improvisation, because I love stories and characters – getting a laugh in improv is wonderful, but getting a gasp, or an ‘ooh’ or (this totally happened once) a loudly hissed ‘I knew it!’ feels even better. And I like play that is bold, fearless and mischievous – the kind that comes from a true love of performing and connection between players.
What style of improv would you want to see more of and why?
Experimental improv that pushes the form – especially shows that use or involve the audience in new and different ways. For me, the first question you should ask yourself when you’re making a show is ‘why should this show be improvised?’ and there ought to be a reason beyond ‘because we do improv and we like it’. At the BIT we’re experimenting with putting the audience on stage, using audience interaction as part of the show, and combining improvisation with devised theatre and set pieces.
I think because our art form already demands that we’re imaginative and innovative on stage, some of that imagination and innovation can get lost in the production stages: so a lot of improvised shows can look very similar on the face of it. I still bloody love those shows, but I’m excited by the improv that looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
What improv styles do you think are most underrated?
I think short-form gets a bad rap, but when it’s done well it can be utterly joyful, imaginative and full of discovery. I, and a lot of improvisers I know started out doing short-form at university and then moved on to doing long-form and narrative – maybe as a result I often hear experienced improvisers being a bit snotty about short-form. What people forget is that it’s one of the most recognisable and accessible types of improv for non-improv audiences. I think every improv theatre should have a shit-hot short-form improv night (the BIT’s is called The Bish Bosh Bash! and it’s an absolute banger of an evening).
What’s the most inventive improv show you have seen recently and why?
I saw a Canadian improv show called Blind Date at the fringe this year – an improviser (the night I saw it this was Rebecca Northan, who has been performing the show for 10 years now) goes on a date with an audience member. He was on stage with her for the entire hour and the way she put him at ease and drew him out was masterful. There were set beats throughout (driving home from the date together and a police officer pulling them over, for example), and each was perfectly chosen to immerse the non-improviser further into the world and give them chances to play.
On the night I saw it, the date mentioned he could play guitar and in the next scene, there was a guitar on stage (he played it and everyone cheered him). On another night the date was married, so the improviser chose a ‘kissing double’ from the audience to do all his onstage kisses. The whole thing was delightful and hilarious and I want them to tour to the UK so I can go and see it every night for a week.
Who are your top 5 favourite improvisers and why?
Kaci Beeler – someone once told me if you’re nervous before an improv show you should just go on and do an impression of the best improviser you know. When I’m scared, I’m always Kaci Beeler. She’s wild and fearless, endlessly funny, and an incredible listener. I would like to be her.
Imogen Palmer – Imogen is my creative life partner (I have asked her and I’m allowed to call her that). We have been working together since we were teenagers and she is an endless font of creativity and talent. Imogen can see shows that don’t exist yet, and bring them into life. She can run a company that will thrive and support each other. She can teach a class so they will fall in love with improv forever. She’s also incredibly funny and wildly silly on stage.
Tom Wilkinson – long before I really knew Tom I told a mutual friend he was my favourite UK improviser to watch because he was such a wonderful actor – completely unafraid to act and commit and be completely immersed in the scene. She told me I should tell him, so I did tell him and I think it was the most embarrassing moment of both of our lives but he must have secretly liked it because later that year he asked me to be in one of his shows and now we’re making two new shows together and we are also FRIENDS so the message of this story is meet your heroes, and tell them you love their improv.
Dougie Walker – I had seen Dougie performing with Racing Minds years before he moved to Bristol and we started working together. His brain works so fast I occasionally come away from performing or spending time with him feeling vaguely dazzled. He has unapologetically high standards for improv (which I love) so doing a show with Dougie is a bit like being allowed to hang out with your older brother’s cool friends: fun, but with hauntingly high stakes.
Pippa Evans – I remember seeing Showstopper at my first ever fringe in 2012 and just being astonished that anyone could be as funny as Pippa Evans was being. I took a workshop with her back when I was 19 and she gave me the best note I had ever got at that stage of my improvising career, which was to gently take my folded arms away from my chest and shake them saying “LET’S SEE SOME NICE POSITIVE BODY LANGUAGE SHALL WE?” She’s also just a very very nice, kind person who takes an interest in young improvisers, remembers their names and doesn’t mind if they’re so helplessly intimidated by her they say almost no real words (I’m still talking about me obviously).
What is your favourite warm up game?
I made up a game called ‘Why are you crying on the megabus?’ for my company Degrees of Error after I spent most of 2018 travelling between London and Bristol. It keeps me humble.
What are the three top tips anyone has ever taught you in improv?
Look like you want to be there. Pay attention. Chill out.
In no more than 5 words, what advice would you give a new improviser?
Don’t waste energy on fear.
What are some of your favourite new acts you have come across this year and why?
Derek’s Mojo – I love how they combine short form and scenes, and they’re a lovely pair of humans.
Birdwatchers – a seemingly psychically connected, whip-smart funny pair of improvisers.
What is the future of improv?
More improv venues are going to open around the country – they’re good and people want them. Then more brilliant improv shows are going to get made, and the profile of improv will be raised around the country, until theatres are happily programming improvised theatre alongside their scripted and devised work. Improv companies will build reputations that allow them to make work that isn’t immediately ‘commercial’. Performing improv will be a viable part of a professional performing career and actors will see improv as a key part of their acting training. I will be on telly, talking about it. All my friends will be famous.
In Three Words Why should people come to BIT?
Pay our wages.
More Next Week…