Amy Price talks to Durham’s Improvised Comedy Society: Jonny Lock, President; Rachel Edwards, Publicity Officer; Ryan Murphy, Workshop Officer.
What exactly is ‘improvised comedy’?
Jonny Lock (President): It’s essentially script-less, spontaneous sketch. Completely unprepared scenes that we make up on the spot.
Ryan Murphy (Workshop Officer): So we use audience participation to create scenes. It can be anything from short ‘games’ like on ‘Who’s Line is Anyway’, to longer sketches. Often in our workshops we look at sketches that can be up to an hour! There’s so much scope within improvised comedy, but the main thing is that we don’t plan what we say.
So you do no preparation whatsoever for each show?
JL: Well it’s a bit like a football match – you can rehearsal certain skills (like characterisation, story structure etc.), but we have no set scenarios that we follow.
RM: Like sport, we can ‘train’ for skills, but we don’t know how the game will go.
Rachel Edwards (Publicity Officer): That’s why every show is different.
What projects have you got coming up?
JL: Aside from our fortnightly shows in Vane Tempest, we have been invited to perform at the castle MCR ball and we’re also doing the Secret Policeman ball. Because improvised comedy is inherently flexible, we’re well suited to these kinds of events – we can do big groups or small.
RM: Aside from this, we have regular workshops and we’ve been to the Fringe for the last 6 years! This year we’re going back with the same format as last year, ‘ShellShock! Improv. Live’
JL: Which sold out…. So it seemed to work!
There are lots of Durham Comedy groups; do you feel there is much competition between you all?
JL: You don’t often see the direct competition, and I’m not sure there’s actually much competition between sketch groups anyway. There are enough of us comedians to go around! Although we have been cancelled by events before because they find out we’re not the stand up society…
RM: We’re inherently all quite different. We’ve all found our own niche of performance, even if our sense of humour isn’t too different. People don’t always seem to know improv. as well; it’s probably the least well known of comedy forms even since ‘Who’s Line is it Anyway’ went off of TV. I’d say it’s re-emerging as a style though..
RE: Plus we often perform together in Collaboration events. It’s nice that people get a choice.
Who would you say were your biggest influences and inspirations?
JL: Every year our workshops change, so that means there are different influences on each generation of performers. Plus because it’s made up, its inherently your ideas, so it’s less about the influences of others than in some of the comedy forms.
RM: I personally have made the effort to see as many improv. shows as possible at the Edinburgh Fringe: ‘Austentatious’ or ‘Baby Wants Candy’, or ‘Lights, Camera, Improvise’ by Mischief Theatre. Aside from that, it’s just useful to have a good general knowledge about things, as its difficult to improvise on topics you don’t know about; I was playing Gandalf the other day, having never read the Lord of The Rings books nor the films!
RE: It’s good that we all have different knowledge bases, so it’s possible to have different puns, and maybe some slightly less obvious jokes brought out as well. Improv. has been great for learning new things as you see what other people come up with!
What are all your backgrounds? Is there a specific ‘type’ of person who does this kind of comedy?
RM: We’re quite a mix in terms of subject backgrounds. By chance there’s a surprising lack of English and History students actually… but we do have a fair few scientists!
JL: I’m a bio-medic hoping to be a medic.,. but we have a real mix. I think anyone can do improv. to be honest!
RM: Life is improv. … we’re improvising the conversation right now!
RE: You just need to be confident, and open to suggestions, and quick thinking. There’s no fear of forgetting lines or ‘something going wrong’; you simply go and do it.
What is your least favourite aspect of doing this?
JL: From the beginning you need the audience on side, and you need to maintain that! If that doesn’t happen, it’s not ideal…
RE: It happens so quickly there isn’t much time to regret stuff! Although it is important to know when to stop the scene… that’s up to the compere really!
RM: Compering is really hard, as it’s to do with knowing when to let a scene explore its full potential, and when to cut it off.
There’s been a lot of press about Frankie Boyle lately; where do you stand on the freedom of comedy? Do some jokes just take it too far? Where would your line be?
RM: I’m pro freedom of speech. But when we’re performing we have to cater to our audience, and target their humour; which can mean steering away from jokes that are going to get a bad reaction. It’s hard when it’s a new group everyday, as you don’t know how they will respond. Plus, as an improv. group we have to engage with what people send our way; we can’t block anything off in advance., meaning we have to be available to all senses of humour.
JL: I have a strong opinion on this. As the ‘president’ of the society, I’ve thought about telling people to ‘avoid’ this, or to ‘not say that’, but I’ve decided it’s a self-regulating thing. If you can make a sensitive topic funny, and do it well, then that’s fine; but if you’re just ranting it’s sloppy and pointless. But any topic should be available to comedy, so long as its done well; otherwise your show fails because you’ve lost your audience.
RM: In saying all this, it is nice to engage with an audience that has some shared experience with you. Particularly in Durham, there are potentially offensive jokes that everyone recognises…
JL: We did a sketch about a ‘holiday to Hatfield’ for example, and even Hatfielders were laughing because it was done well.
Have you ever had to perform in any odd spaces?
RM: We’ve done a workshop in a kitchen…
JL: Fishtank, corridors, we perform wherever!
What would you say is your biggest weakness as a group?
JL: We have to have an audience over a certain number for it to go well… it’s difficult if it’s under 20 as we rely on the audience getting involved. The Castle ball is 240 people, which I’m more comfortable with then an audience of 20.
RM: We definitely have to work harder if it’s a small audience.
JL: Plus Online pizza deals, we cannot resist….
Where would you suggest readers could find some improvised comedy online?
RM: Improv wise, I got really hooked on ‘Improv-A-ganza’. There are about 40 episodes on You-Tube that I’m addicted to.
JL: I watch videos of dogs falling over a lot…
The next show will be themed ‘Hill Vs. Bailey’, Friday 13th February, in the Vane Tempest room at the DSU. Every Tuesday there are free improvised comedy workshops run by the society, 8pm, ER 144. Open to everyone, including people who just want to watch.
Image: Rachel Edwards