All this month we are going behind the scenes of Improtoons – an improvised comedy cartoon sketch show. we talk to the Director Jonah Fazel and the cast Monica Gaga, John Oakes, Lucy Trodd and Amy Cooke-Hodgson to find out what really goes into making animated improv. We discuss everything from the production side to how the team got into improv in the first place! Today I talk to the team about how they got into improv and adapting to online improv in Lockdown.
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
Amy: Amy Here, 1) I play lots of instruments (badly – but enough to get by impressing small children!) including the accordion and harp. 2) I used to want to be a ‘Weather Girl’ and studied Environmental Chemistry at Uni so I could do just that. Then I discovered the theatre – at the same time as realising I was awful at titration. 3) I own a special whisk for enriched dough.
John: 1. I wear a lot of hats. 2. I often repeat myself. 3. I wear a lot of hats
Monica: 1. I have size 8 feet 2. Michael Buble is my jam 3. When I once tidied up my house I filled a whole plastic bags with pens, that’s alot of pens!
Jonah: Hi, I’m Jonah and I set up Improtoons. 1) I collect and build ridiculous Lego towns. 2) I dress up as a small 1940s boy for money 3) Gonzo is my style icon.
I find the people I do ‘Improvathons’ with the most inspiring performers in the world!Lucy
How long have you been improvising and what inspired you to start improv?
Lucy: 13 years. Ouch. Although I did my first improvised musical at a school sports day around 1995. I did a workshop with Ken Campbell at The Actors Centre. The next day I was performing an improv musical with him and a bunch of random people in Brighton. I attended weekly workshops with Ken from 2005-2008, where I met Adam Meggido (and eventually Dylan Emery and Pippa Evans) and along came Showstopper! At the same time I was performing with Mixt Nutz ‘the most diverse improv group’ at that time. I went on to join ‘The Institute’ with Cariad Lloyd, Paul Foxcroft, Gemma Arrowsmith, Gemma Whelan, Sara Pascoe, Jess Fostekew to name but a few. There was obviously a mutual discovery around this time. Children of the ‘Whose Line’ generation. Copying and expanding on the improv we’d seen (though the work I did with Ken was v experimental- performing in working men’s clubs one week, The Royal Court the next).
Monica: I was less inspired and more forced by my Grandmother when I was 10 years old and I have never looked back.
Jonah: Oh man, I full on hated impro at secondary school and during my A-Levels, and wanted to be a serious actooor, then at around 18/19 I saw a devised play that was interactive and smart and used a lot of improv which is also the exact moment when I realised that Theatre could be fun despite what my teachers had taught me. It wasn’t until I moved to London that I took my first class- which believe it or not was with Keith Johnstone!
Amy: I began officially training in improv about 15 years ago – but it turns out that I’d been unwittingly doing impro exercise at Youth Theatre as a teenager – I just hadn’t realised. I went along to the Oxford Imps audition after seeing one of their shows and noticed that there were only 2 women in the team… that made me want to do something about redressing the balance. I nearly legged it from the audition about three times (I’d left my coat and handbag by the door so that I could make a swift exit if needed) but I’m glad I stuck it out. I got a recall the following day and then accepted into their short form troupe where my real training began. It was a great place to get good at the basics – like the Beatles going to Hamburg.
What are some of your earliest memories of your early improv performances?
John: My first ever show was with a troupe called ‘Quirkish Delight’. I wasn’t old enough to be in the pub we were performing in so they had to sneak me in the fire escape. They were all fairly experienced improvisers and I remember sitting by the side of the stage (actually just a rug in the middle of the room) in awe of how brilliant they were. Good improv should make you think “that’s unbelievable, I’d never be able to do that” and “I want to do that” at the same time.
Jonah: Years ago I was part of a Downton Abbey themed improv show, and one night one of the actors was lamenting to her scene partner about the death of her father and how she wished he had some final wise words for her before he passed. Without knowing what each other were doing myself and 2 other guys in the cast threw on some white tablecloths over our heads that were in the wings and all rushed on at the same time with sheets over our heads and no clue that we’d all made the same exact choice. We realised when we all went “wooooOOOoooo” and nearly headbutted each other at the same time.. Peeking under the sheets to discover what had happened and why this had gotten such a loud reaction from the crowd, we then continued the episode of Upstairs Downton as three ghost dads, and there were plenty of sit-com style scenes that followed with the three dead dads getting up to ghostly hijinks. Very Downton Abbey.
Amy: I remember my first ever open scene (rather than game) in a short form show. It was with Andy Murray and I played Father Christmas who captained a pirate ship during the summer months of the year. It was exhilarating and liberating and most likely absolutely awful.
“I really admire improv that brings more than that. Improv that can make you cry, reflect, fear and then in another scene, guffaw. “Amy
Who are some Improvisers that you find inspiring and why?
Lucy: DieNasty Troupe in Canada- long for Lsoap- the originals. The Sufferettes (2 prov canadian), The Committee, Showstopper! and Austentatious obvs. Basically any group who connect well.
Amy: I watched a show at the National Theatre not too long ago directed by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott – ‘Lost Without Words’ – where seasoned ‘older’ actors with little or no improv experience performed an improvised theatre show. They brought characters and scenes to life that you rarely see played in comedy clubs/impro shows as they drew upon a wealth of life experience, performed with a sense of gravitas and exuded stage presence. I found it totally inspiring that things weren’t automatically played for laughs (even though there were plenty) and there was a calmness in their making offers. I’d like to be like that when I grow up.
Tell us about the styles of improv you enjoy and why?
Lucy: I find the people I do ‘Improvathons’ with the most inspiring performers in the world! That moment when you are so sleep deprived and all the barriers are down and the improv is so pure. Magic.
Monica: Any improv that allows me to forget that it’s improvised, it gets me lost in it.
Amy: Whilst I do love funny…. I really admire improv that brings more than that. Improv that can make you cry, reflect, fear and then in another scene, guffaw. It requires improvisers to be open and vulnerable. I admire and enjoy watching people who are able to bring that to the stage.
John: I’m a huge fan of classic ‘short form’. Sticking a format on a short game and finding as much fun as quickly as possible. One of my favourite things about short form is building something real, as fast as possible then letting explode into nothing again. Improtoons has an element of that, and I love it!
Tell us about the improv groups you are in?
Lucy: Showstopper- Improvised musical. We try and create a West End style musical based on audience suggestions. We won an Olivier in 2016. Which was nice and weird.
Amy: Austentatious – the improvised Jane Austen novel – which in addition to performing in the West End, has been exploring transferring improvised narrative to Radio (4) – you can listen to some of our performances on BBC Sounds. We were recently invited to play at Buckingham Palace too! Curtsey! I’m also in a couple of female led groups such as Yes Queens, Playground and Juice who are always fun to play with.
Jonah: I produce and perform in Bumper Blyton which as we speak was meant to be on the second leg of an absurdly huge national tour…maybe next year!
John: In Essex, where I’m based, we have a growing improv community through a course I co-host called The Laughter Academy and we produce regular shows which are always great fun. I’m in an improv Shakespeare duo called ‘Shakespair’ and also perform annually with ’Oh yes it is!’ – the improvised pantomime.
What makes you different to the other improv teams on the scene in London?
Lucy: I’m not sure we’re striving to be different in ImproToons- but I guess there aren’t too many groups who’ve been recording via zoom for the whole of lockdown and making cartoons?
Jonah: Well I guess we’re not really London based. In fact it’s only Amy and I that live in London. The positives we’ve experienced, like 99% of the #globalimprovcommunity in the move to remote creation has opened up a whole world of potential future collaborators which is something that I have absolutely adored about Digital improv.
How have you adapted to the world of online with Lockdown that has happened?
Jonah: I love online improv. It’s not better, it’s not worse, though it’s almost a different artform, it’s certainly grown and adapted very quickly. As a teacher I have learned so much about how to foster genuine moments of connection with people over their WIFI connections, not to mention the fact that I have thrown out most of my go-to exercises and games that have been in the improv world for over 30 years, and totally reinvented things for the medium. The online improv world is hugely progressive and landslide moves have been made in terms of levelling the accessibility of the artform. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle with this one and pandemic or no, online improv is here to stay.
Lucy: We only recorded a few before lockdown- I think the pandemic has made it easier to spend a few dedicated hours together. As an out of Londoner it’s brilliant for me as I can still do the recordings with my son in the room and I don’t have to factor in the travel time. It is a very welcome moment of creativity. We make each other laugh. And we’re all open to trying new ‘ins’ to scenes.
Amy: As someone who is a bit of a technophobe I’ve probably been the most shy when it came to adapting to online. Whilst I think we’ve worked out some fun and useful techniques of building scenes together online, I still deep-down miss the proximity of a ‘in the same room’ scene partner….. being able to look into their eyes, hear them breathe (does this make me sound like a stalker??)
“I wasn’t old enough to be in the pub we were performing in so they had to sneak me in the fire escape...”John
Who would be your dream guest to appear at one of your shows and why?
Lucy: Steve Carell and Tina Fey. That took me 2 seconds to decide! They’re brilliant at voices, have brilliant affiliation with improv comedy and I think most importantly they’re nice to collaborate with. I hope! Don’t tell me if they’re horrid- a girl’s gotta dream.
Amy: Robin Williams
Jonah: I think I would absolutely shit my pants in excitement if I ever got to work with Keegan-Michael Key or Jordan Peele. My dream improv troupe would probably be; Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, Alec Guinness, Kate McKinnon & Paul Rudd. All people who are highly skilled and seem to understand the value of play. I would have Said Robin Williams but Amy got there first.
If people want to find out more about you where can they follow you on social media?
@improtoons on Instagram for previews and sketches of upcoming episodes
@LTrodd for Insta @LucyTrodd for Twitter
@amycookehodgson on Insta and Twitter
@Jonah_Fazel on Insta
@MsMonicaGaga on insta