The show is often listed as comedy rather than musical theatre. Is it always funny?
"We try to be everything. While comedy is massively important, we never set out to be funny.We don't really do "jokes", we just say logical things that are funny because of the context they are in. We're trying to create a genuine musical which would be on in the West End, but when you have eight brains all trying to create something simultaneously but not able to tell each other what they're thinking in advance, it's bound to be funny. So we attempt seriousness, and generally something funny comes out of our seriousness and commitment to that!"
Improvisation sounds scary – is it?
"Yes and no. It's scary in that you have to relinquish control and let whatever happens happen. And it's scary to turn off that little person on your shoulder who says, 'Don't say that, don't do that, people will think you're silly'. Once you've got rid of your censor, things get much less scary and in Showstopper the trust we have in one another is extraordinary and we each act like a bungee cord. If one of us falls, the others will sproing them back. (Is sproing a word? It is now). We are completely in each other's hands, but they are great hands to be in. The best thing is that there are no lines to learn, so there are no lines to forget. Every actor's biggest nightmare or fear is forgetting your lines, or not knowing them in the first place. We always know our lines, we just don't know what those lines are before we say them...
Are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types in your day-to-day lives? Do you break into song in the Asda queue? "We all try to live by the philosophy of "Yes, and..." off stage as well as on. That basically means that you say "yes" as much as possible and then add to it - it's the most important impro rule. So you accept offers that are made to you and then build on them. We try not to avoid stuff that scares us, but rather grab it with both hands. For instance, four of us are scared of heights, but in Hong Kong we got the cable car which takes 45 minutes to go from one end to the other and has a 200 foot drop to the sea. Having said that, we are all perfectionists and control freaks.... I do sometimes think I might go a bit bonkers if I didn't have the release of telling stories and making stuff up on stage - I'd certainly be talking to myself a lot more. And I did once break up with a boyfriend because he didn't like my songs about his parking... So that’s a yes to part b of the question!"
You certainly stopped the critics in their tracks garnering rave reviews in Edinburgh – were you the best thing there? "Well, we were certainly different from anything else. We don't like to be in competition - this is going to sound very "hippyish" but it's all about sharing and playing and generosity - there's room for everyone. We are very flattered and pleased that other people love the show as much as we do - the audience are as important and vital to the show's success as we are. Some people come every night (20 plus performances) in Edinburgh every year, which is such a huge compliment and just goes to show that it really is completely different every night! We all pretty much eat, breathe and sleep Showstopper, so it's great that audiences and critics get drawn into that too.
What would be your desert island discs be – and your one luxury?
"Well, assuming all 12 Showstoppers would be going together we'd need compilations of all the musicals to keep us tuned up because we'd never be able to just sit around eating coconuts and making fire out of twigs and the sun, there'd always be a song on the go. Plus we'd want to practice in case we got picked up by a passing ship and got to resume whatever tour or season we were doing at the time. So if we were all there, we'd have a Sondheim box set, a West End box set, I'd like some Dolly Parton and our luxury would be a really nice bathroom (that's for me, I really don't like camping loos!), and a piano. If I'm there alone, my luxury would be the rest of the Showstoppers. If that's not allowed, can I take cardboard cut-outs of them?"
What’s the worst audience suggestion you’ve ever had?
"That's hard, because you don't want to put anyone off yelling out - as that's the only way the show works. Late night audiences can sometimes be a bit off colour, but mostly we're impressed with how imaginative people are when you give them permission. However, "cheese", "badger" and "Scunthorpe" are suggestions which come up most often and are the least useful. We have no idea why, but "cheese" is the most yelled word. We have done a show called "Cheese". It was set on a submarine. I don't think we'll ever do a show about cheese again."
If all else fails is there a standard gag you know you can always fall back on?
"Unfortunately not. That would make life easier! People can tell if it's not spontaneous, and it would feel like cheating. Also, it wouldn’t work because we have nothing planned when we start each show, we have no way of knowing what will happen and there is no universal gag. Except falling over maybe. That's always funny. Perhaps we'll try it..."
Showstoppers started out as an actors’ workshop – are you all frustrated Hamlets underneath all the music, dance and frivolity?
"We all come from different backgrounds; improvisers, comedians, musicians, musical theatre bods, and yes, proper actors. That's what makes it so interesting - it's a real mixture of talents and disciplines. We do improvise Shakespeare in some of the show (if that audience ask for that) and all in all most on-stage desires get fulfilled at some point. We all have other projects too - one of our company just finished a run of The Count of Monte Cristo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, another is taking a solo show up to Edinburgh this year. And to be honest, this job gives us all the chance to do proper acting as well as being frivolous. Finally, why would you want to say someone else's words and the same words every night for months, when you can make up new ones every night and be constantly surprised and inspired by the people around you who are also making everything up?"
Ruth Bratt was speaking to Glenn Meads. Showstopper is at the Lowry on 10 July.