Alex and I are part way through the first tour of our new show, Sex, Lies & Improvisation, a dark comedy about lying together. We’ve only been able to tour thanks to the people who run great events in their improv communities. Let’s celebrate those people.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are…The Improv Community Heroes!
Hero Fact File
Name: Owen Scrivens
Location of Hero-ing: Newcastle
Community events: Co-director of Open Heart Theatre alongside William Steele and Alex Fradera which runs courses, the Say What!? Jam (run with Hazel Dixon, Matthew Nicholson and Calum Bruce) and Let Us Make It Up To You, a mixed bill performance night.
Rachel: How did you get into improvisation?
Owen: I did a course with the National Youth Theatre as a 16-year-old. The director used a lot of improvisation in rehearsal and as a creative technique and I remember laughing more in those three weeks than I had in the rest of my life to that point.
When I went to university I was determined to find some improvisation and I was very lucky that Paul Foxcroft (now director of Monkey Toast) taught classes. Following those workshops I read everything I could get my hands on before eventually setting up a group (Sticky Floor) a few years later alongside Mark Rawle, Will Whitehouse and Patrick Fisher.
Rachel: What do you love about improvisation?
Owen: Spontaneity, discovery and community.
Spontaneity: I have always been to loud and had too much energy. I was in trouble in school for talking too much, being too playful, and not taking things seriously. My love for acting instinctively has consistently been rewarded in improvisation, but it is also my greatest improv weakness. I am constantly working on allowing there to be more silence and space in scenes. This is great learning for stage and for life.
Discovery: The incredible thing about improvisation is that the audience and the performers are discovering at the same time. There are moments where a character is put in a tough position. The audience, the scene partner and the performer themselves all discover together how that character reacts.
Community: Improv is about being present in the same space together, and there is nothing like being supported by your fellow improvisers. This sense of community also extends off the stage and outside of the rehearsal room. It is incredibly rare to not feel welcomed at an improv event. Improvisers generally like meeting other improvisers because it is always exciting to have someone new to play with.
Rachel: That’s why I wanted to do a blog series about improv communities! What are the best things about your improv community?
Owen: Newcastle already had a great improv community when I moved here. Bev Fox and Ian McLaughlin have been running classes here and performing shows for years. This community is close-knit, supportive and always looking to learn. There appears to be more collaborating and creating happening than ever before.
One of the things I am proud of is the variety of people that are involved in our community. From professionally-trained performers, to students, to locals that would never have dreamt of something like this, to a whole selection of academics.
Rachel: What drives you to do good things for your improv community?
Owen: I want there to be more improvisation. I want more people to have the opportunity to improvise. I want the improv community to be a thriving community without becoming a clique.
Community as a concept is something I believe in strongly. Sadly, since the early 1980s and Margaret Thatcher our society has increasingly lost its communities. We have an opportunity to grow a community of people who agree that acceptance is important and that failure is not something to fear.
Rachel: What does an improv community need so that it grows as you describe?
Owen: The opportunity to learn and work together. The drive to always keep learning and to want more people involved. Don’t see other improvisers as the competition. We are all working together to increase the size of the community. There is not a finite amount of people that may want to do improv, and if there is we are nowhere near that saturation point.
It is important to look at what the community is lacking and find ways to address that. This involves learning both from within the community, but especially learning from outside. This has led to one of our major focuses being on guest workshops and shows.
Rachel: What have been the sources of inspiration for the way you run Open Heart Theatre?
Owen: The inspirations for Let Us Make It Up To You were The Nursery and Hoopla in London. These companies were putting on everything from international ensembles to scratch shows of genre improv. Where possible, the production values were high, but that did not exclude new groups from finding space to perform. I like to think we have a similar approach.
A lot of inspiration for Say What!?, our jam night, came from Duck Duck Goose in Brixton. They trust the audience and the improvisers, create a safe space and allow for people to play together for the first time and feel good.
Rachel: How can we engage more people in improv?
Owen: For there to be more available. I truly believe that as improv nights increase audience interest increases. Some of that new audience will want to learn, and we need to make sure those opportunities are available.
It is important for the improv community to believe in itself and put its best foot forward to the outside world. If you are going to put on a show, try your best to put on a good show while also finding other opportunities for newcomers to perform. Often this means multiple nights are needed, which can be a time/resource drain. If the first time you see improv it is slick and interesting, it is more likely to be recommended to others.
Rachel: What’s challenging about being an improv community hero?
Owen: Time. We are sadly not able to do everything that we want to do. We have to work within our limitations of not doing improv full time.
Rachel: What have you learned about life from improv?
Owen: People thrive when working with other people and the pressure of failure is removed. There were several years in Liverpool where I had got into an improv funk. After moving to Newcastle I was encouraged to create what I felt the community needed. Sometimes you just need to try something without the fear of failure, and if you do that with the support of a community it is likely to succeed.