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! Each of the team are in some of the biggest improv groups around from Showstopper! To Austentatious so I wanted to know more about how they prepare for shows.
What three things are you looking forward to about performing in an improv show?
Lucy: The waft of laughter. The communion of claps. The dressing room bants. The adrenaline.
Jonah: The thing I most look forward to when we can put on IRL improv shows again is that at the end of a show I don’t close my laptop to a wall of deafening silence and crushing loneliness.
Amy: I literally CANNOT wait to be in an actual room with other people… some of them next to me on stage and some of them looking at the stage and some of them lighting the stage and some of them selling tickets and ice creams and some manning the stage door and some of them in the basement with the ladders and the thick black tape. I am counting the days (literally… using the five bar gate method on my bedroom wall) til this happens again.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
Lucy: When in doubt, physically move forward. Also you can leave the scene at any time. Make others look good.
John: Trust your feet. Remember the show is for the audience. Don’t mourn the scene it could have been.
Jonah: You’re one and only job is to make the other improviser LOOK incredible and FEEL amazing.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
Lucy: I rarely remember anything in detail. But I do enjoy a big battle corpse body pile up in Showstopper when someone gets the giggles and you can just feel a pile jiggling on top of you. I also love the moment when you’re fully committed in a scene and taking it really seriously, doing your best acting and then the outside eye steps in a makes you remember how ridiculous it all is!
Amy: As Lucy said, very few stay with me in detail. I have a reasonable memory for the hour the show is happening, but once it’s finished it’s mostly lost to the ether. BUT the moments that do tend to stick are the ones where my playmates (or I) have made big bold moves that I wasn’t expecting or even knew I was going to do (Patti Styles calls it a ‘shiv’) and that can be ones of the best experiences – it wakes you up, makes you react, creates a path or choice that you hadn’t predicted. Like when I threw Joe Morpurgo’s shoe in a pond at an outdoor gig, or went to hold and comfort the crying baby in the audience at an Edinburgh show, or Andrew Hunter Murray came into the scene to be a Hen Do stripper. It made sense at the time, but in retrospect sounds utterly absurd.
John: Some of my favourite moments on stage are watching the other players laugh. If you can make a fellow improviser corpse so hard they break character it’s probably my favourite moment in the show.
Monica: I am usually having the most fun when I almost forget I’m on stage and am just enjoying playing. Time flies then I’m running on a high post show. I have a terrible memory so pining down one moment is difficult.
I want to see new faces, approaches and more improv in the mainstream.Monica
What have been some of the worst and why?
Amy: I think it might be from the first Edinburgh that Austentatious attended. I was severely hung over from the night before (it was a lunch time show) and my head was basically concrete. In fact I don’t think I was hung over, I was still drunk. I found it hard to listen, be present, make choices….. Improvise. I didn’t have a very good show and I’m sure I wasn’t much use to my teammates either. Afterwards we found out there was someone reasonably important in the audience. I now don’t drink before a show, ever.
John: My worst moment on stage was 20 something hours deep into the London 50 hour Improvathon a few years ago. My brain was sludge from lack of sleep. There was a trench-coat and a prop razor. I don’t remember much else apart from coming off stage thinking “I’m going home and I’m never going on stage again”. Very dramatic of me I know, especially as 10 mins later I was playing a duck having the time of my life.
Monica: When I’m tired or deep down I know I should have taken a day off for my wellbeing. It I have to force it, it’s not fun for anyone.
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Amy: Watch as much as you can. You can learn a heap from seeing other people and the choices they make. Notice what you admire in other players…and then try and put some of those skills into practice in your own work. When I first started out there was this awesome improviser who will remain nameless (it was Pippa Evans) who I just couldn’t get enough of (I still can’t). What I love watching in Pippa is her ability to serve the scene or game – it’s not about her being in the limelight – it’s about delivering what is needed at that moment. She’s great in the limelight, don’t get me wrong, but she will also play a hat stand or a rug if need be. I’d like to be like her when I grow up too ( I am older than her).
Lucy: Figure out your thing, what makes you funny or what you bring. Because it’s enough. And you can spend years trying to be the best at rhyming when maybe it’s not what you’re best at. Celebrate what you do. I think we give ourselves a hard time too much.
Jonah: Say yes to as many opportunities to perform as you can, noone except you will remember any crap gigs you have, so get on with failing so you can succeed!
What is your favourite warm up game?
John: I’m a big fan of limericks! Great for storytelling, collaborating and of course having fun with rhyme.
Lucy: Anything which gets people working in collaboration without thinking too much. Get the ‘yes and’ mind set going early.
Jonah: Something that works with active listening and puts ‘yes and’ into your body not just your mind, so “Chicken Monster” which is a game anyone who has taken a class with me in the last 15 years will know well.
Amy: I occasionally get tongue tied on stage (my brain works faster than my mouth sometimes – well that’s what I tell myself) so anything where I can generate vocabulary or ideas quickly to get things moving – games like: word ball, I’m a whisk, I need a… are good. But I also love a rowdy group game of Beastie Boyz or Wild Rover.
How do you warm up before a show?
Jonah: There are a million and three things one could do, but sometimes all you really need is just to connect and make each other giggle and remember what you love about working with those people.
Amy: I like to stretch and breathe. I like to ‘make friends’ with the performance space too – especially if I’m on a tour gig in a venue I’ve never been to before. I like to walk about the stage, walk out into the auditorium and see what it’s like for the audience to see the stage from different places in the room – figure out the sight lines, get to know the tech staff. Once I’ve done that – it’s all about connecting with my teammates – sometimes that’s playing group games but sometimes it’s just chatting, listening and being in each other’s company.
How do you wind down?
Lucy: I like to pick apart everything I’ve done… haha not really. If it’s a singing show, I might hum or stretch a bit. Mostly I like to tell other people all the good things they did. Be kind. And if I haven’t had a good show, I’ll keep it to myself so as not to spread paranoia/ deflate other people’s experience.
Amy: Wind down??????
John: I usually have a drink and chat to the audience. I like to find out which bits they didn’t like, is that weird? I find it much more interesting and useful.
Monica: The journey home is my time for that. It’s usually a bit of a journey so I can snack and chill.
I literally CANNOT wait to be in an actual room with other people…Amy
Do you have any pre-show rituals if so what are they?
Lucy: I like to check my trousers are done up. It’s really important to me that I’m not flashing my vagina or my pants at the audience.
John: I work fairly regularly with a great improviser called Lee Tearrell and before our short form shows we always tell each other “I’m going to put you in as much shit as possible, but I’ve always got your back”. And we sacrifice a sheep.
Jonah: This is trademarked to Justin Brett from Showstoppers who I used to be in a few improv shows with, a “lucky shit”- so your mind and bowel are empty before you walk on. Just to note that this is not the same shit that John mentioned above…
Amy: I don’t really have one now – apart from just making sure I’ve connected with all my teammates for that show. When I started out in the Oxford Imps (700 years ago) I’d convinced myself that I couldn’t get through a show without downing a pint of CocaCola backstage. With hindsight that was my way of trying to quell nerves… of course in reality it gave me heart palpitations and pushed me ever closer to renal failure.
Describe the feeling you get when you host a show and people specifically turn up to see you?
Monica: Gratitude and joy.
Jonah: Surprise, and humility.
What other improv groups are you a fan of and why?
Monica: Velvet Wells, he has such a beautiful voice.
Lucy: Mischief Theatre. Love their energy and their huge success is out of this world. They are also lovely humble supportive humans.
Amy: Bollyprov – a group I’ve recently had the absolute pleasure of working alongside. They are such a bunch of wonderful human beings and I cannot wait to see how their show grows once the Covid hurdle has been eliminated.
What advice would you give for people thinking about starting an improv troupe?
John: Do it! The hardest thing to do is get started and now is as good a time as any. Grab a few like minded people and get together (even if that is online for now) and just play some games. Don’t expect it to be good straight away but as long as it’s fun for the most part you’re doing it right. Then evaluate with the whole group – something you hated or found difficult might have been someone else’s favourite thing!
Lucy: Stick with one group and put the energy in there. Don’t join every group going. The energy often lessens.
Jonah: Ideally, you want a balanced mix of styles of player, with styles of training and ethos and then work towards creating a shared language which benefits everyone’s strengths. Starting an improv team or troupe is about the easiest thing in the world to do. If you don’t believe me then stand on the Royal Mile of Edinburgh at 1pm during the fringe and see how many improv show flyers to collect. All you need to get going are friends (God knows how I’ve managed it). But be aware improv teams are like improv scenes- they can be hilarious but also short lived and ephemeral- just move onto the next thing if the interest is waning. Also, don’t try to make EVERY project or show you are involved with tick all of your personal creative boxes. Join lots of teams ot learn how to play in multiple ways but bare minimum, nowadays- have an online team and and IRL team as working in both those ways will stretch you as a performer.
What about extra advice for those wanting to focus on an improv style or format they are creating?
Jonah: Take one of my classes on Genre or format! Genuinely though, whilst you can be methodical in your understanding of a genre or trope or format and dissect it to the point of easy replication, do make sure it’s something that you have some love for and that you are likely to want to spend a lot of time researching so that you have a subconscious and instinctive knowledge of the style. If you are going for Genre style improv then it’s a good idea to ask the sorts of people who might come to shows like yours (who aren’t also actors) what they would define as the primary recognisable tropes of that genre or style- then your team had better damn well make sure you can play that game. E.G if you’re doing Checkov and no one stares into the middle distance and says something bleak- then you’re not doing Checkov!
Lucy: Don’t bog yourself down with format. Just work with people you connect with who make you feel good. It should be fun! No one wants to see a bunch of people who are in a grump with each other, trying to remember what a Harold is.
What would you like to see happen to comedy in the next 10 years?
Monica: I want to see new faces, approaches and more improv in the mainstream.
Jonah: What Mon said, more stories from places we are not used to hearing from. Plus for the mainstream to understand and recognize what improv actually is (“No Karen at the office it’s not bloody stand up”). This goes doubly for The Arts Council England funding body! Improv being seen as its own product not just a means to an end.
Amy: I’d love to see pieces of more traditional Theatre and TV embracing improv not just in the rehearsal room but in the final performance.