Want to improve your listening skills, build your confidence or simply tap into your mischievous side? You might want to consider heading down to The Bristol Improv Theatre in Clifton. There are so many lessons to learn from a visit to the UK’s first full-time dedicated improv theatre, which both showcases and teaches unscripted spontaneous theatre.
The Bristol Improv Theatre first started life by hosting regular shows from the Polish Ex-servicemen’s Club on St Paul’s Road in 2015. Two years later, it became permanent tenants of the building. It was shortly turned into a 120-seat basement theatre with a speakeasy-style bar and rehearsal rooms. A brilliant and baffling space. (And apparently a godsend during heatwaves.)
These days it deals with everything surrounding the unscripted art form. Hosting everything from improv jam sessions to big-scale touring shows, introductory classes and local talent showcases.
What is improv theatre?
Until a few months ago, I had no idea either. That is until I stumbled down into The Bristol Improv Theatre one night to catch monthly regulars The Bish Bosh Bash: The Improvised Game Show. Describing it as “utter chaos but in the same charming way as the Saturday morning kids’ TV shows that defined my childhood.” Think Whose Line Is It Anyway? and you’ll have some idea what the improvisational, nonsensical night was like.
But as Kierann Shah, Artistic Director of The Bristol Improv Theatre, describes it: “Improv performance is an unscripted performance where the story is decided between the performers and the audience. In theory, anyone could walk off the street, do some training and that evening we could put them in a show.”
See improv is a fairly loose concept. You might come across a quick-fire game show like The Bish Bosh Bash. But you might also catch an entirely improvised musical like This Is Your Musical. Or narrative-based whodunits like Murder, She Didn’t Write where the audience becomes Agatha Christie. Some shows might be a bit more surrealist, others a little more silly. But one thing is always for certain: you’ll never guess what’s coming next, not even the performers.
It’s not all about putting on exciting shows though. As Kireann goes on to say, “Improv training can be really useful in many situations. Like if you’re a teacher dealing with heckles from kids.” Or, if like me, you think of a witty comeback five hours after the fact or still get nervous presenting to your team each weekly Monday morning meeting. So of course, I head down and give improv a go!
What’s The Bristol Improv Theatre taster session like?
While the improv performances draw big crowds, the Theatre School is equally important. Offering six-week-long courses for all abilities, from those just discovering improv to those wanting to take their talents to the next level, there’s something for everyone. But, if you are not ready to commit, then the one-off two-hour taster session is the best place to start.
I went down one Saturday afternoon racked with nerves, but I needn’t have been worried. Put instantly ease by our instructor Steve (and one of the Bristol Improv Theatre founders), this was just going to be a small taster “exploring the fundamentals of improvisation”. Which turned out to be basically a bunch of silly games. So don’t worry, no one expects you to stand up and perform in front of everyone at the end of the day!
Everyone was there for different reasons. One person wanted to get into stand-up comedy, another to grow confidence at work, while other reasons included a much-needed break from a newborn and helping to face their mortality… Did anyone find what they were looking for? I have no idea, but we all had a bunch of fun trying!
To break the ice, we started with a rapidly moving exercise to learn one another’s names. (These strangers’ names are now all drilled into my brain, so thanks for that!) Quickly, we then moved into word association, a game called Assassin (where everyone tries to protect themselves by keeping their bodyguard between themselves and their assassin) and a sort of circle of copycat silliness, copying each other’s off-cuff sounds and actions.
If you get nervous about making yourself the centre of attention, then that fear should be quickly shed. There’s little time to overthink yourself and, with everyone making utter fools of themself, it’s easy to get stuck in. One of my favourite games was planning a picnic. Using the phrase ‘Yes and…’, to respond and build your picnic, my partner and I quickly had an entire village on our hands. With a music festival, several museums and a lot of baguettes. Sounds like a great picnic, doesn’t it?
Of course, I was far from some slick performer. Words got stuck in my head, ideas went missing and I repeated myself constantly. But nothing bad happened because of it though. People laughed. No one got hurt. Everyone had a good time. And, as Kierann is keen to stress, “No one is going to be pushed to do something they don’t want to do.”
Interview with Kierann Shah, Artistic Director of The Bristol Improv Theatre
Why is there such a thirst for improv in Bristol?
Bristol just has this mass of people who are interested in creativity. There are lots of independent theatre companies in the city. But on show nights, we have people who have never been to Bristol before and just want to come and see something different.
What can we expect to find from here?
The classes focus on a collaborative style of storytelling; it’s about building stories together. But in terms of the acts, I’m keen on having a range of shows on. What I want is for people to come and see something on stage and be like, ‘That’s amazing! If they can do that without a script then what can I do?’
What life lessons can improv teach?
It is about connection, the magic that happens when something is created between performers and an audience that hasn’t been before. That spirit of play takes you to unexpected places that delight audiences. But to follow that mischievousness, you need to be able to listen to your scene partner. Really listening. Tuning in. It’s an immense skill.
There’s also something around the confidence to make mistakes. Someone says something the wrong way and suddenly the show becomes something it wouldn’t. We have this concept called ‘happy fail’. We really like to make people feel that mistakes are low and, even when you’re on stage, audiences love it when you mess up. It’s like when seeing an acrobat fall off a tightrope. When you see them get back up you are more invested.
If you want to give improv a try then there’s no better place in Bristol, or the country for that matter, than The Bristol Improv Theatre. But as Kierann says: “You don’t have to wait for permission from us to set up an improv group. You can do that! There are so many improv groups that started because a few people were like, ‘Okay shall we do this?’” Some professional training might help start you off though. You don’t want to just make it up, do you?
To learn more about The Bristol Improv Theatre head here.