Welcome to this years Phoenix Remix Awards – every year as Editor I like to celebrate the talent that I have witnessed on stage and give that particular group extra promotion to introduce new audience members to them as well as also celebrate their talents.
For this years Improv Act of the Year I felt it deserved to go to a group that I saw this year at Brighton Fringe that welcomed me to the world of Dramatic Improv and did it so well and since then I have seen them go from strength to strength.
Hello Alex and Rachel! Tell us all about who you are and three unknown facts about Between Us?
We are Alex Keen and Rachel E. Thorn of @BetweenUsImprov.
Here are three secrets about our show: One, we are so particular about which chairs we need that we bring our own to every venue we perform at. Two, we have an iPad with a clock on it in the wings to keep us to time. And three, the biggie, the cue to our tech operator to bring down the lights at the end of the show is the words “between us”. Now that you know that one it’ll seem obvious but people don’t usually clock it!
How did your group form?
We met at Shrimps, the Sheffield University improv society. A group of us created Scriptless In Seattle, the improvised romcom, then when that show came to an end we decided to give 2prov a go, and Between Us was born.
How did you come up with the name of your troupe? Was it difficult?
Rachel’s husband takes credit for that one! We love it because it hints at the central tension in all couples’ relationships between the positive (the connection between us) and the negative (the obstacles between us).
How did the show Between Us come about?
Rachel was working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (which is awesome – try it!) and the concept just arrived one day in her morning pages. Usually improv shows take a long time to build and require a lot of experimentation, but our vision for Between Us was really clear from day one.
You have been awarded the Phoenix Remix Act Of The Year award. I came and saw your show at Brighton Fringe and was astounded just how well you work together on stage. How do you feel?
Just so touched and honoured to have our work recognised in this way! Thank you.
I was completely blown away by your set. It is not very often that you come across serious improv. How did you decide to approach this genre?
We didn’t feel like we were tackling a genre when we created Between Us. We just did the things that seemed right, and it was only afterwards when we started creating marketing materials that we began to label it as an improvised play. That’s probably how most good art is created – you have something to express and you find a medium with which to do so, and then it’s the marketing machine that applies labels and expectations and categories.
For those who have not seen your show, it has a real sense of relationship to it. How do you create the drama that happens between you both in the show?
Rachel: I don’t think we do create the drama. I feel like it’s there, waiting to be discovered, and our job is just to follow the dots until the drama reveals itself. If you stay open and connected when you’re improvising, and you follow the interesting thing, the drama takes care of itself.
Alex: I think it boils down to what you focus on. In game-based improv, you find and heighten the unusual thing or the funny thing. In our show, we’re finding the thing with emotional significance and the next plot point is just whatever puts strain on that element of the relationship.
Have you ever had any situations you have been put into where you are inspired by events you have been a part of in real life or ones that you have witnessed others go through?
There is sometimes a sprinkling of personal experience in a show, but we’re definitely acting! We very rarely have first-hand experience of the circumstances our characters are going through, but our job is to create characters whose experiences are relatable, so we’re drawing on emotions that everyone has felt. Sometimes audience members confuse the characters we play with our real selves. The appeal of dramatic improvisation is that it feels really intimate and genuine, and that quality seems to blur the lines for the audience so they lose track of the fact it’s all just fiction.
Your show is based off of real Alexes and Rachels that people know. What have been the most unusual suggestions you have been given?
Most people seem to know some very interesting Rachels and Alexes! We particularly enjoyed an Alex whose aunt rents a cruise ship for the whole family every year. We set almost all of the show in the couple’s cabin on the cruise ship. We could really feel the pressure of having Alex’s entire family and their world of luxury and privilege just outside the door, encroaching on the couple.
And you are not married, are you? There is so much emotion involved that it can be a surprise to find out for those who do not know you both personally.
Rachel: Hell no! A creative relationship is very different to a romantic relationship.
Alex: So many of the relationships we act out are really messed up. I’d hate to do that with a real-life partner.
Have there been any shows or films that have inspired your style? If so how?
Rachel: I’m inspired by what theatreland calls “new writing”. I love the work of Paines Plough and HighTide and Third Angel. A lot of contemporary theatre experiments with the fourth wall and really takes advantage of the relationship between the audience and the performers. That’s crucial to Between Us.
Alex: I love literature and film which mixes universal existential questions with deeply personal and emotional character stories. Richard Linklater, Charlie Kaufman, Lars Von Trier and Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have definitely influenced how I think about our partnership.
What is the best piece of advice you would give any improviser, experienced or new?
Rachel: Build shows with people you connect with artistically. That’s when the magic happens.
Alex: The best way to improve as an improviser is performing, as much as you can and to as many varied audiences as you can. The second best way is to watch other improv shows, work out what works and what doesn’t and why.
How did you get into improv? Which improvisers inspire you?
Rachel: I trained in improv at drama school. One of my favourite improvisers is Alex Hoyle, who does the tech for Murder She Didn’t Write. He’s never on stage, but he calls the shots and he has excellent narrative and comic timing.
Alex: I was first exposed to improv games as warm-ups and exercises in drama classes at secondary school, but I really got into performing improv at university ten years ago. I love TJ & Dave’s work. Seeing that for the first time blew me away.
How do you warm up before every show?
We find a set warm-up gets stale so we just go with the flow and see what happens. We’ve invented a bunch of new (mostly useless) improv games this way. The day of the Brighton Fringe show that you saw we spent our warm-up making sure all the sequins on a dog cushion were flipped to silver rather than multicoloured. The activity isn’t important. It’s doing it together with equal commitment that matters.
When can people see your show? Will you be returning soon?
When we started two years ago we set out to use improv to make drama and see what range of stories we could tell about relationships. Now we’ve clarified for ourselves how we want our work to evolve, we’ve relaunched the show as Sex, Lies & Improvisation: a dark comedy about lying together. If you liked Between Us, you’ll love Sex, Lies & Improvisation!
What are your plans in 2020?
Sex, Lies & Improvisation will be at Leicester Comedy Festival in February, Brighton Fringe in May and possibly Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve also been invited to Melbourne Fringe by a theatre who are in the process of working out if they can fund the trip. Fingers crossed!
If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?
On Facebook and Twitter @betweenusimprov for news about Between Us, Sex, Lies & Improvisation, and any workshops we’re teaching.
Finally in three words: Why is Between Us so unique?
Rachel and Alex.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
What makes you smile?
Rachel: When people talk about something they’re really passionate about.
Alex: Yeah, that. Watching a new improviser taste the magic of improv for the very first time is pretty great as well.
What is your biggest strength as an improviser?
Rachel: Drama school training.
Alex: Trusting in the process and not second-guessing myself (until I get offstage and immediately begin analysing every minute detail).
Dream venue to perform at and why?
Rachel: Soho Theatre. I really think their audiences would enjoy our work.
Alex: I’d like to do National Theatre Live. I think the philosophy of making the arts more accessible and each performance being a unique work of art really fits with the improv spirit.
Are you a dog or cat person?
Rachel: My daughter pretends to be either a cat, a dog or a unicorn most days, so it depends on the day for me!
Alex: I’m allergic to cats and I find most dogs obnoxious – not a very charismatic answer!
What is the most delightful suggestion for a scene you can think of?
Rachel: I really like to be surprised in improv, so something that I can’t think of would be good!
Alex: I love specificity. Don’t give me a hospital, give me the minor injuries unit at 2.38am.
If you had to have a tattoo to represent improv what would you have and why?
Rachel: I think most improv problems can be solved with eye contact, so I’d have a Cyclops eye tattooed on my forehead. What could be more helpful?
Alex: For me improv is all about the joy of imagination and nothing captures that better than Spaceman Spiff from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.
Who is your improv hero and why?
Rachel: I’ve done a blog series where I interview improv heroes, the people who provide opportunities and make good improv happen in their communities. There are so many awesome improvisers I couldn’t possibly choose!
Alex: My best buddy and constant collaborator Bobby Anderson is responsible for tricking me into doing improv in the first place; now working together pushes both of us to be better performers. He also often does the tech for Between Us and his feedback has been so useful in developing the show.
What is the last thing you liked on social media?
Rachel: All the brags on the UK Ladies of Improv bragfest. I love when improv does well.
Alex: A silly post on the “yes and memes for improv teens” page
Something on your bucket list.
Rachel: BIG IF. If we don’t make it to Melbourne, I’ll go next year for sure.
Alex: The Dramatic Improv Festival in Chicago. They invited Between Us to perform this year but we couldn’t fit it in. One day I’d like to go!