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October 19th 2019
More improv shenanigans for me of late, as I completed the last of the 'Performing' courses at the Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT): singing songs. I've also got some more Scratchpad coming up next week, so please come and see us if you can - our last pre-show rehearsal was this morning, and a lot of fun.
Today is a self-indulgent look back on the improv I've been involved with over the last year and a half, in particular my ten favourite scenes that I've been involved in. (They're not all scenes. I'll explain as we go.) I'm not sure how much this will mean to anyone who wasn't there, or even to those who were, but I'm going to enjoy it. I should apologise in advance, because some of my favourite memories are from scenes where people laughed, so this is gonna sound pretty arrogant. Sorry. Here goes, though, in rough chronological order:

Park bench
What was it?
In one of the earlier weeks of Discovering Improv we did an exercise where two of us would stand opposite each other and make sounds and movements, each copying the other, and developing a kind of character without any words. Having established this, we'd sit on the "park bench" and maintain the character.
Who else was in it?
James.
Who was the audience?
The rest of the Discovering class, plus the instructors Steve & Caitlin.
Why is it on the list?
This was a big moment for me, because it was the first time on the course that I'd been one of the first volunteers - James & I were the first pair to go up for this exercise - and also the first time that I'd really let go and gone for it. We ended up collapsed on the park bench, making very odd sounds. Weird? Yes. But a lot of fun, a huge confidence boost, and an early opportunity to work with one of my favourite improvisers (yes, James, that's you). Throughout Discovering there was a great, supportive atmosphere with everyone willing to give things a go - this was the moment I made that leap.

Fairytale: brothers & dragons
What was it?
At the end of the first Performing course, which was about stories and stage, we did a showcase of what we'd learned, in the form of two multi-scene stories. Given a fairytale theme and the setting of a waterfall, we built up a story of competitive brothers who track down, and then befriend, a pair of dragons.
Who else was in it?
Nigel (my brother), James & Lyle (dragons), and Ollie (everyone / everything else)
Who was the audience?
Various friends and family of the people on the course, including six of my friends.
Why is it on the list?
This course was a big step up from Discovering (and in fact it has since been split so that the more advanced elements are in a separate course), and the first time any of us had improvised in front of an audience. It had been mostly focused on making cohesive stories, rather than funny ones, but there were some big laughs along the way in this story - for the next few days I played over in my head the lines that had got the biggest response. Doing a full narrative with four other people let us work together as a team, too, adapting to what everyone else was offering, using the new skills we'd been taught.

Would you like a cup of tea? (1)
What was it?
An exercise, as part of Performing Scenework, in which one person asks the other if they wanted a cup of tea; the other person has to turn this down, and the first person has to keep improving the offer until it gets accepted. As the tea-offerer, I added on a wide range of newspapers, pens and vehicles before the deal was struck.
Who else was in it?
Jonathan D (as the man who was turning down tea etc.).
Who was the audience?
The rest of the group, plus the instructors Steve & John.
Why is it on the list?
I had an absolute blast. I love the team-work aspect of improv, but this was more weighted towards one person showing off - albeit Jonathan's simple refusals were jolly funny, too - and I really enjoyed escalating the offers more and more, working off audience reaction to figure out what would get the biggest laughs next time round. Unlike the previous Performing course, there was specific tutoring on how to get laughs in this one, and that feeling of having the audience (even if only 10 or so people) in the palm of your hand is hard to achieve and difficult to beat.

Would you like a cup of tea? (2)
What was it?
Shortly after the previous exercise we tried this similar one, where the game was basically the same but instead of escalating the offer, we had to keep the words the same - "would you like a cup of tea?" - but instead escalate the emotion.
Who else was in it?
Rachel (turning down the tea).
Who was the audience?
The same as last time. Except Jonathan was in the audience and Rachel wasn't.
Why is it on the list?
I found this one quite a bit harder than the last one, as there was no opportunity for wordplay or quick jokes, which tends to be where I'm comfortable. This version of the game was based around escalating an emotion - I went for joviality - and for the first few iterations I wasn't sure where to take it. Then I did a little dance-skip, decided that was something I could escalate, and (after a couple more) ended up running up through the seats and semi-singing the words. Not my usual cup of tea (pun not intended, but I'll take it), so I was glad it went down well and I had fun stretching myself.

Quick, put the slug in your shoe
What was it?
One of the four two-person scenes I was involved in as part of the Performing Scenework showcase, this was based solely on a phrase provided by an audience member ("Quick, put the slug in your shoe"). Particularly at this time I found it easier to start scenes than to follow my scene partner's lead, so I kicked us off in a teacher / pupil dymanic and we went from there.
Who else was in it?
Nathan, who took on the role of Timmy, a not particularly bright pupil.
Who was the audience?
Friends and family of the course participants, including my parents.
Why is it on the list?
Of the four scenes I was involved with, two went fairly well, one didn't really go anywhere, and this one went better than I could have hoped. Partly I was glad that my parents could see what I'd been up to - and rhapsodising about - for so long; partly it was just delightful to make a room full of people laugh, bouncing off what Nathan was doing. The highlight, though, was Steve (one of the instructors) telling me how much he'd liked one bit, quoting it back to me, after the showcase. That meant a lot.

Shoe shop
What was it?
An exercise in the Performing Characters course, in which we had to bestow characteristics on each other and explore how this made us feel, without a lot of acting things out - we were just sat next to each other - and without detailing anything else outside of the two of us. From an instructor suggestion (if I remember rightly) we were in a shoe shop.
Who else was in it?
Jonathan R, as the shoe shop employee.
Who was the audience?
The rest of the people on the course, plus instructors Steve and Caitlin - it was Caitlin who was running this one.
Why is it on the list?
This was the funniest scene I've ever been in, I think. Jonathan is absolutely hilarious, and we spurred each other on in this one with a range of changing emotions and back-stories. If I'm honest, we didn't really do what we were supposed to do, as we got very meta, but I love that kind of improv - I've discovered that, while I don't necessarily want to break the fourth wall, I love to poke it, and we certainly did that in this one. Caitlin eventually called time on the scene, laughing as she did so. Maybe we didn't learn much from it, but I've rarely had more fun.

Party quirks
What was it?
A classic of Whose Line, and a game which I've seen done by my friend Rich among others, this is the one where someone's hosting a party and the other people have a 'quirk' suggested by the audience. I took part in this as part of the Theatre Throwdown, having emailed to ask if I could be in it - the marketing suggested we were all specially selected, but since no one involved in choosing had ever seen or met me, this was stretching the truth a little.
Who else was in it?
Billie (the host), Ivy & Tom. I'd met all of them for the first time a few days earlier, in our single rehearsal.
Who was the audience?
Members of the public, including some improv friends. The first time I'd been in any improv that was advertised to the public (even if it was free).
Why is it on the list?
Short-form improv is not my favourite style, although almost all the improv I'd seen before getting involved with the BIT had been short-form. To my mind, party games can get lazy and formulaic. That being said, I wanted to give it a try to see what I could make of it, and I was also excited about improvising with people I didn't know, for the first time in a long time. Some of the games went OK (e.g. switch - where the rest of the team had done well but I felt I hadn't landed everything), some of them went well (interviewer and sound effects), but I think this was the most successful. I had been given the quirk of being horny - I was glad my parents hadn't made it to this one - and surprised myself by getting laughs without having to go beyond what I was comfortable doing. I still prefer long form, but there's definitely a place for short form, where almost every line is a punchline.

EscaPROV - dentist's
What was it?
A rehearsal for our EscaPROV show - an improvised escape room - which, in this iteration, involved a group of professors trying to escape a dentist-themed room.
Who else was in it?
Mills, Nigel, Fernando & Ollie.
Who was the audience?
James (the final member of EscaPROV).
Why is it on the list?
We'd devised and developed our idea for an escape room show over a few months, and we were lined up to take part in Scratchpad. It was a lot of fun, and I'd loved working with friends who are all talented improvisers, but I'd never really felt we'd quite nailed it. This rehearsal was the first time that we created something I thought was genuinely really good, and that I'd be delighted to present to an audience.

EscaPROV - horror movie
What was it?
Speaking of presenting to an audience... this was our Scratchpad debut, and the suggestions we got from the audience were for a horror movie theme and a group of Women's Institute members. I was playing the gamesmaster; the other four were playing members of the WI.
Who else was in it?
James, Nigel, Fernando & Ollie.
Who was the audience?
Members of the public! Including some friends, and our final EscaPROV member Mills.
Why is it on the list?
What a feeling! To present something that was completely our own, that we'd thought up and developed together, that used the skills we'd built during courses but was under our own steam. However much I've loved being in student showcases, this was another level. From the feedback afterwards - as well as the laughter during - we knew we'd had a good first night, even if it was clear that there were things to work on. That's the point of Scratchpad, after all. So much fun, and the start of something special, I think.

Bartender blues
What was it?
Part of the Performing: Singing Songs showcase, this game involves a bartender (me) fixing the problems - suggested by the audience - of four others. All, of course, in song.
Who else was in it?
Mills, Alex and Nathan.
Who was the audience?
Friends of the course members, plus anyone else who wanted to come.
Why is it on the list?
If I'm honest, I didn't feel that I'd quite figured out a lot of the singing course. It involves a combination of simple song structures - e.g. verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus - and a range of different games. While I had fun doing it, I struggled to connect it to the skills we'd been taught in other improv courses (and I also discovered that I'm not as good at staying in tune when nervous as I'd thought I would be). The definite highlight of the course, for me, was bartender blues, because it actually involved some scenework and interaction around the songs - not so much a game as an excerpt from a musical. I asked if I could be involved in it during the showcase, and Imogen (the course instructor) said yes; it was my favourite game - in a showcase that I enjoyed a lot more than I'd thought I might.

As I warned you, the bits that I've enjoyed the most have largely been bits that have produced the biggest laughs, so this does read a bit like me showing off. But, if improv has taught me anything, I may well be a show-off at heart. The saving grace for my character, hopefully, is that the other reason that a lot of these have made the list is the utter joy of teamwork, especially with friends.
I should also add that, if I'd listed my favourite scenes that I've witnessed rather than the ones I'd been in, I'd have had to use vastly more space than I have above. As well as seeing some utterly wonderful BIT shows - Bish Bosh Bash, Sherlock Holmes, Improv marathon, Steves & Wooster, Big Up Show, etc. etc. - and some incredible shows unconnected to the BIT - Austentatious and Groundlings were both phenomenal - it has been such a great pleasure to see hilarious scenes every week in the courses, from people who until recently didn't know they could do it at all. There's a lot of talent in Bristol, guys.
what am I listening to?
Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
what am I reading?
Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
what am I watching?
Rocketman
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