It’s an honour to be working with Ben Benison and Roddy Maude Roxby - two legends of the impro theatre circuit who worked extensively with Keith Johnstone and played at the heart of the Theatre Machine for twenty years. Roxby is a sprightly eighty-year old soon to appear in a new NF Simpson play. He’s all water and air, charming, effervescent, engaging and mercurial. Benison is earth and fire, tough and direct, kind and confrontational in equal measure.
Between them, it could be argued, what they don’t know about improvised theatre isn’t worth knowing. And I mean real improvised theatre, not quickfire comedy stuff or Whose Line rip-off’s. I mean walking into a space in front of an audience with nothing but your craft and weaving stories for two hours that touch, move and explore fundamental human issues.
For the past two-and-a-half years I have enjoyed the privilege of co-producing and directing Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (which soon opens at the Gilded Balloon for its third Edinburgh run). Developing and performing in Showstopper is endlessly fascinating. There’s no blueprint for an improvised musical. How to undertake such a task is as improvised as the show itself. So it’s reassuring to hear how the processes behind 1970s innovators Theatre Machine are similar to those we have often experienced in Showstopper.
For Theatre Machine, something would crop up in a show forcing the team's retreat to a workshop to figure out how to improve on such a situation for next time. (‘Hmmm that fight scene didn’t work very well’.) It is often the same for Showstopper. We perform first, rehearse later. Performance throws up that which needs to be examined. Rehearsal examines it. It’s a complete inversion of 'normal' theatre. For us, as improvising storytellers, we don’t know what we need to work on until we are clearly failing. We only learn in the heat of battle. It’s exciting stuff. And working with the likes of David Hyde Pierce, Mark Rylance and his wife Claire, Tim Barlow and Alan Cox, the sleep deprived (he’s just had a baby) Brian Logan, my old friend Cariad Lloyd and dancer Sian Williams, is a blast.
In improvisation we often get bogged down with rules. So it's freeing to forget about them for a while and get back to the principles. As a result, not everything we did today may have made sense but it was delightful to spend a little time exploring the senses.
Time to put it into practice. Showstoppers beware...