All this month we are talking to Multiverse Impro, a London based troupe that was founded in 2014 and has been going strong ever since. They create improv musicals in a ‘multiverse with possible outcomes’. The co-directors of the team are Lee Apsey and Lisa Lynn, Rob Carolina is the executive producer and David Rees is the MD. Today I speak to Lee about musical improv and the way it differs from normal improv.
How do you rehearse for musical improv shows?
Rehearsing for improv is like training for a sport. We run exercises and we “do the thing” with specific nudges and focuses that push us to develop and maintain good habits.
Is it important to have a musician as part of a musical improv troupe?
For us it is. They’re not just playing: they’re the composer, one of the leading creative voices in a musical, let alone how much they push and pull the on-stage players with their emotive choices.
Having worked with a lot of musicians in various improv projects it absolutely carries the same spark as being an onstage duo. Sometimes you have a deep, long lasting relationship based on really knowing your specific chemistry… other times there can be an excitement to working with someone new for the first time and not knowing what you’ll bring out in one another.
The multiverse band is led by our MD David Rees on piano. We also have Amy Sampson layering in pure emotion on the clarinet and most recently Sam Elwin bringing the drama on cajon.
What will make you different to other musical improv shows out there?
It’s a combination of our format and our approach to making high quality musical theatre without a script. In the Multiverse Musical, one small choice creates two very different lives and we jump between both possible realities, Sliding Doors style.
If you enjoy What If? stories or you’ve ever loved that episode of a sitcom that plays with branching timelines (Frasier, Community, Scrubs, Broad City) then you can see how much fun there is to be had as well as some really interesting opportunities for character study. When a parent promises “I’ll always be there for you” we can really test that. When someone says “I wouldn’t be who I am without you” we can find out just who they would be without the support of one friend or partner.
Like all the best things, by which I mean Pixar, Multiverse is joyful and uplifting but utterly unafraid to punch you in the feels.
As Rob Carolina sometimes says before we step on stage “We’re gonna make a lot of people smile and if we’re lucky, we might make some of them cry too.”
Lee Apsey, Multiverse
Your singing ability is as important as you choose for it to be in the show you want to make.
What is the best thing about performing music improv?
It’s like improv squared: that feeling of jumping into the unknown, surprising yourself and making something in a connected flow state, taken to a new level. When I first started musical improv it felt like discovering improv for the first time again.
Lets talk about dancing – is this an important part of the show?
We’ve been levelling up our dance recently (shout out dance captain Vicky Hawley,) especially as we play larger venues. Much like “just being enough” in improv, I think it’s easy to forget how satisfying it is to the audience to see people in synch with music and one another: even just matching a texture of movement is visually quite potent and folding that into storytelling (are our characters in synch? How does their movement reflect and alter the other?) is a whole layer of musical theatre language you’re missing without it.
Also: never underestimate how much easier it is to dance with percussion than just piano.
How do you know when is the perfect time to burst into song?
The great Howard Ashman said that in musical theatre when the emotions grow too big to say, we sing them, and when they grow too big to sing, we dance.
Having worked with a lot of musicians in various improv projects it absolutely carries the same spark as being an onstage duo. Sometimes you have a deep, long lasting relationship based on really knowing your specific chemistry…Lee Apsey, Multiverse Impro
What has been your favourite suggestion for a show and why?
Maybe my favourite magic trick in improv is taking something said as a joke and giving it so much genuine care that the audience are surprised by what they made happen and how it made them feel.
The final night of the Sweden International Improv Festival 2020, I asked the audience for a suggestion innovated by Lisa Lynn to give us good, emotionally grounded set ups: “Where’s a place that two lovely people might meet?”
An audience member shouts “graveyard” and it gets a room-wide laugh. Being an improv festival, there are a lot of helpful improvisers trying to shout what they guess are more normal suggestions but we take graveyard.
When we ask what a musical set in a graveyard would be called we get “trampoline.” It’s very random and gets another big laugh and another round of helpful improvisers wanting to give a suggestion that felt more expected.
But we stayed with an uplifting musical, set in a graveyard, called Trampoline, and we loved and nurtured those ideas and made a big cathartic musical about it because when you shout out at an improv show, and it comes from a place of playfulness and not malice, you deserve to feel like a genius and a hero for creating that with us.
What advice would you give for people thinking about starting an improv troupe?
Good communication will help you more than talent.
Cheap or free rehearsal space will improve your lives dramatically.
The group will change with time, as will you, and that’s OK.
What about extra advice for those wanting to focus on music?
Treat your improvising musicians like the rare saints that they are unless you want to dedicate yourself to a cappella (totally organic segue into plugging my co-director Lisa Lynn’s a cappella improv workshops: @acaprovmusical )
Is being a professional singer an important part of doing music in improv? Why?
Your singing ability is as important as you choose for it to be in the show you want to make. Not everyone in a Whose Line hoedown is a professional singer and the fun comes from the play between players (“he stole my rhyme!”)
Multiverse set a higher, musical theatre bar for ourselves because that’s the type of show we’re passionate about.
Many of the cast have a professional background in musical theatre and I would listen to Beth Organ sing the phonebook.
By contrast I’m a blackhole of musical ability and couldn’t hear pitch at all until my thirties when I started working hard and consistently with professional coaches. I’ve been rhyming since I could walk but to expand what I can give this show beyond rap is a long, dedicated climb that I chose to go on. Thanks to my singing teacher and best web address winner Robert Bicknell (singingteacher.co.uk) the window of what’s possible gets a centimetre bigger every day.
Especially for people like me, if you want to create something that sounds “good” in a traditional music sense, then it becomes a matter of doing what you’re good at doing and growing into what you want to be doing.
To take a non-improv example: Lin Manuel Miranda isn’t the strongest singer you’ll hear, especially not on Broadway, but he built shows around elements he IS stronger in and it took the world by storm. Miranda has strong anime protagonist energy as he shows the world what his version of musical theatre looks like.
You might love the way others are doing it but that’s just an option, dude.
What is some of your favourite songs you have come up with in shows that you remember?
A climactic number “Love is Love” with an entire audience clapping and singing along was a moment.
“In Space No One Can Hear You Dream” and Jenet Le Lacheur’s minor reprise “In Space No One Can Hear You Love”
And a heartbreaking solo from Rob Carolina as a man saying goodbye to his family that honestly contained no jokes or parody. It was just a really heartfelt, spontaneous song that you might hear on the West End and for a moment we all forgot this was unscripted.
Like all the best things, by which I mean Pixar, Multiverse is joyful and uplifting but utterly unafraid to punch you in the feels.Lee Apsey, Multiverse Impro
You teach workshops on improv as well – tell us about these ?
Our Lisa Lynn and Sabrina Luisi both teach for Hoopla, the UK’s biggest improv school, so leap onto hooplaimpro.com to check out their courses.
Outside of Hoopla, Multiverse has the combined performance and teaching experience of close to a century so we run all sorts of workshops both public and private hire across the UK and Europe. Very soon Lisa is running an introduction to improvising musicals a cappella at the Bristol Improv Theatre on November 12th.
In January, Emma Wessleus and I will be out in Amsterdam where she’ll be teaching vocal technique and musical improv and I’ll be teaching my personal approach to improv, which one could fairly describe as either honesty or laziness.
You can find all of the upcoming workshops via our social media and www.multiverseimpro.com.