Improvisation workshop: a spot of devising

You may have realised by now that I’m a big improvisation fan. Earlier this year, when the sun had not yet fought its way through the clouds and the persistent gloom still hung heavy in the sky, a group of actors traipsed through a dark winter night to get to an improvisation workshop. It was run for members of the Southsea Shakespeare Actors by the brilliant Vincent Adams of Soop, resident theatre company at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, Havant. Soop run regular improv workshops in Havant and Southampton.

Last week, the sun beaming down on us, we once again headed to the Southsea Shakespeare Actors’ HQ for another evening of improv antics. Our band was a little depleted in number due to the England match, but we still made up a respectable gathering.

Vincent Adams, photography by Dan Finch, courtesy of Soop

Vincent Adams, courtesy of Soop

Vin started the evening by asking us to each write down the topic for a political speech on a piece of paper. These were then folded, collected, and placed on a table at the back of the room to be used at various points throughout the workshop. By the end of the evening each of us had had a go at one of the topics. We selected a piece of paper at random, then had to speak for 45 seconds on that topic, in the form of a political speech. The piece of paper I chose said the importance of rabbits, prompting mention of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, the latter signifying the importance of the arts in Britain, and my pledge to focus on the arts where the current government has made more and more cuts, with a brief less than complimentary mention of Michael Gove thrown in.

We also played a few games including hidden agenda and the one word game, but the highlight of the evening was getting to do a bit of devising, and direct it. We all walked around the room at a speed on a scale from one to five, one being as slow as possible without stopping, five being a very fast walk. Once we had run through the five speeds with Vin, we then chose one of these and moved around the room at our chosen speed. One by one we were asked to continue while everyone else froze and gave us a few adjectives to describe the kind of character or mood this speed portrayed.

We then decided as a group on a setting for our devised piece – a cruise ship. We wanted somewhere where you would get a group of random people together who may not necessarily all know one another, but in an enclosed environment, rather than in the openness of a street. Vin went round the group asking us who we were – I decided that, as I’d chosen a speed of 5, the head of entertainment would be a sufficiently stressful and hectic position to match this pace. Of course at this stage we no longer had to move around at our chosen speed, it was more to give us a starting point for a character.

Vin asked me to play a directing role as the others got into position for the first improvised scene. I decided on a few key moments of action that would each form a scene, and we gave the first one a go. Vin gave them three minutes for the first scene, then we stopped and decided what worked and therefore we wanted to keep, and what needed changing here and there to make the whole piece work better. It was a fantastic experience, getting a glimpse into the process of devising and how a director approaches this kind of performance work.

The workshop lasted for two hours, and in those two hours it was as if I completely forgot the outside world existed. In that safe and wonderful environment of play I was in my element, and it was quite a shock coming back out into the daylight and the ‘real world’. I left HQ feeling tired but happy, and with plenty of creative ideas dancing round in my head.

SOOP of the instant variety

Saturday night is always a difficult one. I’m at that age where a night gracing the dance floor in Liquid accompanied by several Tequila slammers is all just a bit too energetic, but equally I’ve not yet reached sitting in front of the TV with my slippers on and a nice cup of tea. So when my friend Bex suggested a spot of improvised comedy I was both intrigued and glad to do something a little different on a Saturday night.

Soop Theatre logo

We headed to The Cellars at Eastney for ‘Instant Soop!’, a live improvised comedy show by SOOP, the resident theatre company at the Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, Havant. The company’s website declared that each show is slightly different as it’s based on suggestions from the audience, creating a kind of personalised theatre. We grabbed a drink and bagged ourselves a good spot where we would be close enough to be part of the action.

Now, I’d rather not give too much away, as I really think these shows are best when you don’t know what to expect. To be fair, though, they really are shaped by what the audience says, so you can never know exactly what’s coming! The very funny Vincent Adams, co-founder of SOOP and a fellow SSA member, was the host for the evening, acting as a conduit for the suggestions from the audience and keeping a loose hold of the reins.

On stage the four actors took part in a variety of exercises involving lightening-quick thinking and a willingness to go with the flow, wherever it may take them. This kind of theatre only works if you have the audience on board, willing to come along on the journey with the actors and really throw itself into it too. The modest-sized but enthusiastic audience at The Cellars was with the actors every step of the way, and as the evening progressed the laughter became louder and freer.

An Instant Soop! promo shot - the cast at The Cellars was slightly different

An Instant Soop! promo shot – the cast at The Cellars featured Rachel Carter and Nathan Chapman, both on the left

Antics on stage ranged from conversations using words from the reading material supplied by the audience to group therapy expressed through the medium of song, with music supplied by talented musician Matt Blackwell. For the therapy scene each audience member was given a piece of paper on which to write a suggestion for a problem, and the host chose two to be used. I was thrilled when my ‘I can’t stop licking plants’ suggestion became the subject of a song, and delighted at the skill of the actors as they thought up rhyming lyrics on the spot. Rachel Carter, musical director for the company, is a wonderfully talented singer, and her beautiful voice carried a surreal air of serenity amidst the madness.

My favourite scenario of the whole evening was probably when the group acted out various scenes from one particular audience member’s life. A bearded Ed Owen-Jones playing a teenage girl was hilarious if not strangely convincing (a testament to acting skill and the audience’s suspension of disbelief, as said actor looks just like Alfie Boe). The younger sister being told she would have to wait for puberty until she grew a beard like her big sister made me snort into my merlot.

To be honest the evening was over all too quickly, and I could happily have sat there for another hour or two watching further hilarity ensue. Actor Daniel Scott and the company’s creative director and co-founder Nathan Chapman joined Blackwell, Carter and Owen-Jones to make up the evening’s five performers. Along with Adams and his intelligent wit, they made a perfect troupe, and I look forward to seeing them in action again.

Catch Instant Soop! next at the Spring, Havant on Wednesday 16 October, or check out SOOP’s website for more information about the company, including other upcoming shows. Hilarity guaranteed!