Having recently staged improvised soap opera The Happening, comedy troupe Impropriety talk to Sean Broadhurst about how it came into being and the art behind improv.
Impropriety recently staged a run of six shows called The Happening.
A unique idea, The Happening was an improvised soap opera parodying the absurdities of those teatime dramas that seem to top the TV ratings without fail.
It was a fascinating experience to see each new episode. For six weeks we had come to know and care about the characters, a testament to how well the actors had settled into their roles and how these roles had evolved. We were sad to see it end, but hopefully, we’ll be able to take in more of Impropriety’s performances in the future.
Shortly before the final episode was staged, we spoke to actor Angie Waller, and director Rosie Wilkinson
Planet Slop: With improv you don’t have a strict plot, and you don’t memorise lines. Does that enable you to be more faithful to your character when you can choose what to do and say, or can it have the opposite effect?
Angie Waller: It’s a different kind of faithful, because when you’ve got a script you’ve been able to think about it over the rehearsal period, or however long you’ve had your script, but when you’re improvising…I don’t know, maybe it’s more truthful because you’re reacting as your character would.
Rosie Wilkinson: I can’t really comment on this because I don’t perform as a character, and don’t know what the difference is when you’re acting in that way or when you’re improvising, but the thing I love about it is how the actors find out things about the characters at the same time as the audience. With improv you don’t have the same concerns like, ‘Ok I’ve got to hit this emotional point here…and because I know this bit is coming up later, I need make sure I hit this, this, and this,’ as you would with a script, it’s more a case of ‘in this moment this has happened, what does my character think of it?’
AW: Because in the moment you’re trying to react as the character but you’re also reacting as a real person, and you might think, well, actually, I don’t think so!
RW: And what’s interesting is that dramatically, I don’t know what goes through the actors’ heads, but, I guess that gives them a decision to make where they can go in one of two directions and both could drastically change the direction the piece is going in story wise and you’ve got the power to make that decision which you wouldn’t ordinarily have.
PS: I guess your relationship with the actors you’re on stage with can also affect what happens. One of the things we noticed was the rapport Angie has with Trev Fleming, and, of course, you two are married so I’d imagine you’ve been performing together for a long time.
AW: It does but there’s also a technique called ‘Gift’ in improv where actors will give each other the opportunity to change a scene. Once, in Bristol I was playing a character who was a bit wishy-washy – it was only my second improvathon. The character wasn’t going anywhere, the story wasn’t going anywhere, but then a character said, “I want you to shoot the mayor”, and handed me a gun which was fabulous because it enabled my character to go on a different path; another character had given me the gift of being able to change it.
PS: I don’t know if you’d agree, but I’ve always thought characters can easily become too contrived if there isn’t enough room for them to develop on their own. We all have preconceptions of what certain people are like and we can fall into lazy stereotyping, particularly with characters we might not agree with or like, how do you deal with that?
AW: Actually, we did a workshop with drama teachers this week and one of the things we told them we’d been taught was “Be true to your character“, so that you’re not just making stuff up, you’re being faithful to your character, if you do that you naturally behave like a real person and it becomes more 3D.
PS: I think we saw that in practice throughout the run with yours and Jess O’Neill’s characters. No offence, but after the shows we’d talk a lot and agreed that your characters were the least funny, but that it didn’t matter because Musty and Tempest Minefield were the two realest characters in the soap. They were believable as mother and daughter and pulled different emotions from the audience.
RW: I think that’s just the story they found themselves in, that mother-daughter turmoil. You’ve been a daughter, so you know how it was to be in that situation with your Mum always telling you, “No!” Obviously, there are certain storylines that allow for a more for that dramatic side of improv to come out. The soap has been quite humorous overall, and I think that’s partly the setting and partly how we’re feeling on the night. We all want to have fun at the moment because, God, the world is bad enough as it is at the moment thank you very much! But yes, you can find yourself in a storyline that allows for that seriousness too, and you can make a conscious decision to say, ‘no I’m not always going to play the joker, these things do happen, so let’s be truthful to how these relationships can be. Sometimes they’re lovely and happy and sometimes they’re not.
AW: We’ve been doing it for a long time so it’s nice you know that you don’t always have to play it silly. My acting career has been mostly comedic; I do lots of children’s’ stuff, lots of caricature so it’s nice to be able to more ‘dramatic’ work.
RW: It can provide some of my favourite moments in shows too, it can get very silly and it’s great when the audience is laughing a lot, but I love those moments when you hear a collective intake of breath when something serious and unexpected happens.
AW: Once a character I was playing got shot, and she’d been pregnant. Originally, I was going to sing but I thought it wouldn’t be right for the scene and I decided to just talk instead. At the end of the show a friend came up to me and said, “Ang, it was brilliant tonight, but that bit wasn’t funny!” It wasn’t supposed to be!
PS: You’ve ended episodes of The Happening on some really sad notes, I’m just glad that you usually end by giving us one last laugh.
RW: It’s great to make an audience cry, but I do try to finish shows on some sort of high note, even if it’s just to sing a song about this sad thing that has just happened. I guess that’s some sort of an ‘up’ for the audience.
PS: How do you control the madness? Not only have you been making it up as you go along, but you’ve been doing it in episodic form, picking up each week where you left off, and making it look easy.
RW: I have a book with a list of characters for each show. It’s mainly to make sure I don’t forget about anyone really, but I write down any important information, like if it’s anybody’s last show etc. We have little chats beforehand too, to catch up on what’s already happened — we don’t really talk about where stuff can go but we’ll discuss what plots we need to resolve and what we have to play about with. But mostly I just decide, ‘I want to see these two do this, so let’s see what happens.’ It works most of the time, though not always in the way I wanted/expected it to.
PS: There are often moments where during a scene an actor will throw a curve ball to one of their colleagues. How do you deal with it when you’re on the receiving end?
RW: It’s one of the tricks of improv but it’s mostly based on trust. Some of us have been working together for as long as nine years so we’ve got a good idea of how to make it work. Being able to challenge each other is also part of the fun for the performers. One of the actors might say something like “Great, describe this thing in rhyme for me,” or “There’s 12 of these, name them all,” and there’s that lovely moment when you’re allowed to let your reaction show on your face before you go “OK“. But nobody ever challenges another performer to do something that they think she/he can’t pull off or something that they’d be uncomfortable with. Again, it comes back to trust, you know that your fellow actors don’t want to make you look bad, it would make everyone else look bad, and that if anyone panics or gets stuck the rest of the group will join in and help.
PS: If you could give any advice to any of the characters what would it be?
RW: Stop killing people! To all of them!
PS: You chose to set The Happening in 1960’s Liverpool, obviously it’s a time of huge cultural significance for the City but what drew you to set your soap opera in this period and what research did you have to do to make it work?
AW: It was mainly to do with here (81 Renshaw St)
RW: The last one we did was also performed here but it was meant to be put on at Mello Mello before it closed. But yes, we hadn’t performed at 81 Renshaw for a while and because the venue had gone through such a huge transformation we thought we’d maybe like to do something musical. We looked at doing something set in the 70’s/80’s around the whole Eric’s scene; we also wanted something that wasn’t too reminiscent of what’s going on in the world now, something with a celebratory feel to it and the 60’s just seemed right.
AW: What often happens is that we get ideas, one of those ideas appeals to the group, and it builds from there. For this, we had two quite similar ideas; one of those was the 80’s music venue idea, but the 60’s being slightly further out of people’s memories was more appealing.
RW: It gave us more room to manoeuvre because everyone knows exactly what was going on the Liverpool music scene back then and it allowed us to take a step back. We knew we could trust the audience to know all those things were going on at the same time, and we could look instead at the people on the fringes. Liverpool has a rich history of collectives of artists finding each other and just doing stuff together, we put that, which is essentially what we do anyway, into a 60’s setting.
PS: There’s a sense in The Happening that the venue is more than a building. The characters have an almost romantic attachment to it. In the world of your soap opera the council often ignores the concerns of the artist in pursuit of investment. It’s a theme which came up often and some parallels can be drawn to what’s been happening in Liverpool for years. Can you give us your thoughts on that?
RW: This is a difficult one. We came into being because of the Kazimier; there was a performance that was held there in 2008 that was in celebration of Ken Campbell; he was the artistic director of the Everyman during the 80’s and played an important role in the general start-up of the Liverpool improv scene. The Kazimier was still quite new at this point and hadn’t done much yet, other than put on a few of their nights, but they took a chance and gave a bunch of idiots a space. So, I suppose it’s from experience really, and being a part of the wider arts scene losing those spaces for music, theatre — all of it.
AW: The Lantern has gone, the Liverpool Actors’ Studio has gone, so many artistic and creative spaces are being taken over, and it’s not just Liverpool it’s everywhere.
RW: I guess the message is to look at the balance of it really. Yes, the city needs regeneration but Liverpool city council is one of the poorest in the country, so they don’t have money to chuck around. Then there’s a development company that can come and build all these new student flats — but do we really need more of those, or could we not have a couple of small scale venues that work alongside those places? There have got to be other ways different to what is happening at the moment.
AW: It doesn’t just happen here though, I’m used to live in Belfast and some of my friends are heavily involved in the creative scene over there and what they say is happening in Belfast often seems to mirror what’s happening in Liverpool.
RW: It’s just harder these days because the arts used to be well funded. John Lennon could be on the dole writing his songs, but couldn’t happen anymore, that sort of support system just isn’t there. But this place (81 Renshaw Street) is great, they’ve been so supportive not just with us but with lots of other grass roots artists and these smaller scale venues seem to be the ones disappearing some are reappearing too though, so I suppose it works in cycles.
PS: What’s been the best/most memorable moment you’ve had in improv?
AW: It’s hard to say really because of the nature of improv. Sometimes you’ll have amazing moments, and nobody will ever see. I remember once we were rehearsing upstairs in Mello Mello. We were on a break. Some people had gone out for a smoke and a few of us stayed behind with the musicians. We did a song together. Afterwards we said, “We’ve just done the perfect song, but nobody will ever see it.” Oh well.
RW: That’s just the nature of improv really. It’s not so much that it’s not meant to last, but more that it can’t be repeated so once it’s done it’s gone.
PS: I think I understand that, reviewing your performances has been like trying to catch water. So then, how do you feel now that the run has come to an end? Is everything to do with The Happening finished with, or do some characters have a chance of returning one day?
AW: Some characters come back. Trev (Fleming) has brought characters back. And people do sometimes bring characters back at improvathons, especially if people have enjoyed playing/developing them, they might come back with a different name but they’re basically the same person.
RW: We’ve tried filming improv, but it doesn’t quite work — really, it’s about being in the room; the reaction of the audience, seeing someone have a different reaction to you, and unless you’re creating it specifically for film, it’s not going to be the same. You need that interplay between the cast and the audience. I suppose that’s the point. This is what we do. We do these shows that happen once and don’t happen again; sometimes you forget all of it other times there won’t be a detail that slips your mind.
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