Opinion: How Not To Improvise by Phil Mann of BattleActs

battle acts

Phil Mann is artistic director of BattleActs and Spacejunk and an IdeasTap Creative Space Associate Member. Improvisation group BattleActs is appearing at the Vault Festival in Waterloo from Wednesdays to Sundays, Feb 18 - March 1. Tickets here. So we asked Phil to give Beyond The Joke his thoughts on improvisation. It's not all Whose Line Is It Anyway? you know...





How Not To Improvise 

At BattleActs Improvised Comedy, we do improv. You remember improv, it’s that thing you hated watching your mates do at uni. 

There are a lot of uni improv troupes, and we’ve seen a bunch. Some are terrible, sure. But the form is undergoing a bit of a resurgence at the moment. as you can barely move in the comedy scene without meeting someone that’s taken at least one level in the improv courses run by many companies. In fact some black market improv schools have started up selling you techniques that work one minute and after a while you realise they’re actually just drugs.

And of course, there’s the ever-present shadow of the mighty Whose Line… and its influence on the modern panel shows such as Mock the Week, and almost a generation of films built on the ability of improvising comedians to come up with the funny, and then put it in a movie-form: from Ghostbusters through to Anchorman.

With there being an abundance of the form we thought we’d allow you to avoid the pitfalls and give you the best tips on How Not To Improvise, and hopefully give you an insight as to why we love improv:

Don’t: Plan Ahead 

For a start, it’s meant to be improvised. A great number of inexperienced players come crashing into a scene with a fully-formed idea about where they want the scene to go and what the joke is. Improv is essentially listening to the other members of your team one line at a time as we attempt to build a road to somewhere we don’t know where we’re going. It’s living on the edge of your seat and however funny you think your idea is, it’s nowhere near as funny as the spontaneous eruption of ideas that’ll bounce between you and your scene partners.

Don’t: Be Smarter Than Everyone Else

Yeah, we’ve watched that movie, too. And we’re fully aware that string theory is a theory about strings. It’s alright, you’re on stage so you’re showing off already. There’s no need to tell us that you’ve thought of a tenuous link between what’s happening on stage and a Monty Python routine. 

Comedy requires you to use every inch of your brain, and to drain that brain onto the stage every night. But it’s also about being very, very stupid. The characters we love to play are all happy idiots. The characters you end up playing in improv are usually delighted with their ridiculous situations and as a result, disaster occurs for other characters - other characters who are usually delighted with that disastrous situation, against all odds…

Don’t: Be the Funniest Person on Stage

Nothing is worse than someone trying to be funny, nothing is worse than someone not being funny. So you have to be funny, but you can’t be seen to try. It’s why for us that improv works - you can throw yourself into the scene you’re doing, relying only on your instincts and the trust of your team, and something funny will hopefully come out.

Put any bunch of people together and they’ll all attempt to make each other laugh. It’s a natural instinct, and a bonding ritual. With improv we’re making other members of our own team, and ourselves, laugh at the same time as the audience. We - the audience, and the players - are finding out what happens at the same time, and are constantly surprising each other and ourselves with what we’re doing. 

Don’t: Be the Sexiest Person On Stage

I mean, sure, all of us totally look like people you’d meet in the alleys behind Games Workshop because we want to keep painting Space Marines but it’s 4am and the manager threw us out again, but gradually the nerds are slowly taking over and making it cool - like we did with computer science and physics. Eventually Eddie Redmayne and Cumberbatch will be at each other’s throats trying to play me. And guess what, suckers, I play with myself already. 

Letting go of yourself can be hard, and many people keep their comedy characters around themselves like a turtle’s shell to protect them - it’s hard to break out and be really ugly and weird. But guess what? It’s funny. 

We love not planning ahead, being idiots, trying to take stupid things seriously and being really, really, really unsexy. We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do and we see you in improv class or at one of our gigs soon. 


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