We recently welcomed improv performer, actor, director, and writer, Pete Courtenay to our screens for our online Artists Talk. Here Pete tells us his thoughts on his talk and shares what mischief took place…
I was very flattered when I was asked by my friend Jo to do an ‘Artists Talk’ on Improv. She came over to explain how it was to work. It all seemed quite simple. She would run the tech side of this live stream Zoom event, do an intro and then I’d talk for twenty mins or so. After that there’d be a Q&A.
I said it might be fun to make it a little more like an interview. A playful interview, in which it could go in any direction and we could have some fun. After a moments hesitation, she agreed.
About fifteen minutes before the live event we met in the virtual world of Zoom to check tech. I asked her if we were still ok to run this like an interview. After a moment’s hesitation, she agreed.
I hadn’t really prepared anything to say and was looking forward to playing.
Those that had bought tickets slowly arrived in their little Zoom boxes. Jo did her intro. Now it was time for interview fun. I had secretly made a ‘startled Leek puppet’ for her to interview instead of actually seeing me, which I’d kept concealed.
She hesitated a moment….and I saw the faintest glimmer of mischief in her eye, quite subtle, but definitely there. Then she said:
‘Right, I’m going to mute myself now and hand over to Pete for the next twenty minutes.’
She then purposefully hit the mute button and sat contritely looking back at me, eye brows slightly raised. She’d played the ball straight back at me with heavy top spin.
First rule: never plan anything. You WILL be wrong footed.
Second rule: Accept your partners offer and go with it.
In fact, it was a perfect improv moment. I love those.
I stared at the ‘Gallery view’ screen for a second, trying really hard not to laugh at the delightful cheek of being ‘out played’.
My mouth started working. I have no memory of what I said.
So I’ve written this.
Improv is as simple as saying and doing ‘yes’, and, as complicated as people. It’s a wonderfully counter intuitive, inexact science that is constantly changing, morphing and expanding. Companies and Guru’s all over the world are forever finding new and exciting ways of looking at this Art Form and pushing the boundaries of spontaneous performance…
Improv is also extremely flexible. Within just a couple of weeks of Lock down all the major improv companies and institutions had adapted the whole genre to Zoom. They reinvented teaching and performance.
At it’s heart though, is a rediscovery of ‘play’. That joyful thing we’re supposed to give up when we stop being children, become adults and find things like golf to keep us amused.
As we grow older we invest in bigger, more expensive toys,
and electric bottle openers.
We buy ‘kit’ for sport so we can become more successful in competition and computer games so we can play at killing things in ever more complicated and realistic scenarios.
In school we are taught to succeed,
get the grades,
tick the right boxes,
answer the question in the ‘correct’ way.
Play is slowly and insidiously sucked out of us until it becomes just a fond memory of when we were six and mucking around with our mates.
Improv offers adults and children a great big, fun, crazy imagination game with a stack of rules, where there are no losers. What!!! NO LOSERS….how does that work?!
We have to re learn how to play. That can take time. It is not always easy, as we’ve been programmed to win or, to believe that our ideas are worthless.
We also don’t want to be vulnerable.
God, that would be awful.
We protect ourselves from humiliation by trying to be clever, funny and original.
One of the most profound joys of teaching improv over the last twenty years or so is watching young people and adults slowly realise it’s not about THEM winning. It’s about making your performance partner look good.
It’s about giving back.
There is also something deeply affecting about that shy, underconfident soul who discovers that their idea’s are completely BRILLIANT.
As for vulnerability, improv thrives on it. If you can achieve it, it becomes a great strength. Audiences applaud it, laugh with it and weep at its truth. The very thing that everyone fears becomes a powerful piece of magic that everyone around is affected by.
Told you it was counter intuitive.
As you go more into the depths and detail of the genre it becomes ever geekier. It’s like a religion,
full of factions,
Everyone has different ideas about it. They follow certain improv Gurus. They invent their own way of looking at it. It doesn’t really matter which angle you approach it from, it’s still a great big imagination game that can only work through collaboration.
It is also one of the only art forms where you can go to a show as an audience member and Just before the show have a conversation with your mate who’s performing. They say,
‘We’re one cast member down tonight. Do you want to play?’
You can just mischievously hit the mute button!