This month we are welcoming in the new year by celebrating the world of short form improv! All this month we are talking to a number of different improv troupes about their favourite games, advice and also debates that have arisen over time around the comedy form. Today we speak to London based Short Form Troupe that are legends in the improv world and made improv what is is today – The Comedy Store Players. I sat down with Richard Vranch to talk about everything improv.
Hello Richard! How did you get into improv?
I had a small part in an improvised adaptation of Oliver Twist at school in the 60s. At university me and Tony Slattery had a double-act and we played the London Alternative Cabaret circuit. Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen had been doing improv for years, and they asked us to guest with their group Omelette Broadcasting Company. In 1985 Paul Merton, Dave Cohen and Kit Hollerbach began the Comedy Store Players with Neil Mullarkey and Mike Myers, who were a double-act at the time. I joined the Players in 1986.
How do you warm up for a show with The Comedy Store Players?
We just chat about what we’ve been up to. We do a mic check 10 mins before the show, then a short story game. It’s very brief. There’s no physical warm up.
Before you do a show The Comedy Store Players tend to post social media posts in different poses in the dressing room of the team – how do you get the ideas for the photos that you post as they are really creative?
Josie has good ideas, also the Comedy Store staff who take the pictures, but we all chip in. The line-up varies because guests come in if one of the Players is away. I don’t think there’s a photo of every possible line-up yet. (The core team is Richard Vranch, Josie Lawrence, Andy Smart, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey and Paul Merton.)
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage at The Comedy Store?
You generally don’t remember what you’ve done on stage because you’re so in the moment. But the other week in Freeze Tag, which we generally play as a two-hander, all of us ended up on stage doing a big scene out of nowhere. I like it when we break the rules. We also enjoy playing theatre spaces, especially Shakespeare’s Globe where we’ve performed every year since 1998.
What have been some of the best suggestions you have been given by audience?
Recently we’ve been getting the emotion Hangry, a combination of hungry and angry. To encourage creative suggestions the best suggestion of the night wins 2 free tickets for another Players show. The other night it was won by “Polishing the Gear Knob on a Bentley.”
You are also welcoming in new players to the Comedy Store Players what does this new energy create for a show?
We couldn’t survive without our guests. They keep the show fresh. Some of them used to watch us on telly when they were little, which is frightening. They’ve also trained more than we ever did. They really know their stuff.
The Comedy Store Players have been improvising together with each other for so long is there anything that you do to keep it fresh for when you go on stage?
Trust and confidence builds up over the years. Going on stage with no idea gets easier with years of shared experience. And the guests all bring something new.
Is there a difference between audiences you get on Sundays compared to Wednesday Nights at the Comedy Store?
It varies a bit. More office groups in the week, more retired types on Sunday. We are very lucky that our audience is a great mix of types and ages. You have to be over 18 though.
Let’s talk about Whose Line How did you first get involved with the show in the first place?
I was improvising scenes and at the piano in the Comedy Store Players, and I was invited to do the TV pilot in 1988 when it transferred from BBC Radio. I used simple chords, I wasn’t a virtuoso pianist, and some guitar. Lots of the Players were on the show. There were only four TV channels then. Whose Line? brought improv to a global audience and we still get recognised from it.
What is your Favourite short form game?
Three Headed Expert. Nobody’s in charge, you don’t have time to think and you have to listen to keep it going. Also the audience gets to see the machinery of the game.
What is your least favourite game?
I like all the games. I try to swap around which games I do to keep it fresh.
With short form it is all about the pace, what is your advice when you can see a scene is losing its energy and the audience are not responding?
I would say don’t panic, take your time and do something interesting to get them intrigued again. Or just move on.
Do you think Short form works better when the audience is more involved?
Some of them try very hard to win the best suggestion prize! First time audiences like to be involved to test it’s actually improvised, but generally I don’t think they mind just watching. There are long periods we don’t ask for anything, like during the 30 minute Act II narrative, but we do freeze/rollercoaster games as well.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Work with people that you like, who are at a similar level of experience to you. You all learn together if you are all in about the same place to start.
You used to be a Doctor of phsyics has there been anytime you have been able to collide that world into improv?
Not yet. I do science stuff in my stand up set, but that’s scripted, and I had a science series on Channel 4 in the 90s. In the USA the actor Alan Alda is using improv to help scientists communicate, which sounds very interesting.
How did your name become part of Little Britain?
I think David and Matt used to watch Whose Line? I remember watching it on TV and a sign came into view saying “Richard Vranch House.” It was a hell of a shock at the time. Another week it was “Jim Sweeney House.” People said “Saw you on Little Britain.”
You are doing your first ever improv course this year at the Comedy Store! That is very exciting! Tell us all about it!
We are doing improv workshops at the Comedy Store for the first time! Details are on the Comedy Store website. The listings for the Players shows are at http://www.comedystoreplayers.com
What is the future of short form improv?
It’s great to see so many improv formats out there side by side. I hope they all continue. We love doing it, and the audience seems to enjoy it too.