The Secrets of Improv: David Ralfe talks to some of the Alcock Allstars

21 January 2008

This week the ADC Theatre hosts Alcock Allstars, featuring Cambridge improvised comedy group Alcock Improv, with special guest spots from acts like Scratch Impro and Pappy’s Fun Club.

Alcock and Scratch take suggestions from an audience and weave them into comic sketches, songs and sometimes longer narratives. Is it all truly spontaneous? “It’s 100% original,” insists founding Alcock member Will Pearse. “It’s not funny if you’re repeating things.” “People would know,” adds Jessica Barker-Wren. “I’d feel as though I was cheating and it would bring the energy down.”

Though Pappy’s Fun Club aren’t, strictly speaking, an improv group, “There’s a gentle level of improvisation going on all the way through,” they tell me. In fact, Fun Clubber Ben Clark tells us, “If it’s going well we have to deliberately mess it up!” “If it’s too well rehearsed then it’s never a good show,” agrees Tom Parry. “There’s always an element of writing onstage.”

But Scratch Impro’s Gareth Kane admits that when he’s doing three improv shows a day in Edinburgh, after a month it can be hard not to fall back on things that have got laughs in the past. “With an Accent Rollercoaster, where you do a scene in every accent under the sun, I’d know that if someone said “throw another shrimp on the barbie mate” in an Australian accent it would get a laugh. By the end I was thinking more about what not to say because I felt I’d said everything so many times before!”

Alcock are rigourous in making sure their performances stay fresh. “We try to notice the patterns we’re getting into and kick each other out of any ruts,” says Jessica. “I went through a phase of always coming on as an animal,” says Will, “perhaps because I’m doing zoology. One of our old members Mark was a scientist, he kept making jokes about neurochemistry. I also went through a stage when I was constantly being injured.” They rehearse with any tried and tested characterizations banned. “In my case, not being injured and not being any form of animal!” says Will.

But what if the audience suggest something you really can’t work with? “I think you just have to go with it,” says Jessica. “Improv is all about connections,” Will explains. “I trust my subconscious to tell me what to do, if I can’t think of something I just start talking and it’ll work itself out. Keith Johnstone called it “the magical Om”! And the “magical, mystic Om” will put something in your head! The reason everyone in Alcock got through the audition was because they can deal with anything.”

But both groups confess it sometimes can go horribly wrong. Gareth admits he occasionally can’t wait for a show to end, if the narrative has completely imploded. “We know it’s bad when someone pulls out a mime-gun and shoots themselves!” he adds. “That’s when you know someone really doesn’t want to be doing the show anymore!”

Alcock play a game where they ask an audience member to explain what they’ve done that day before they recreate it comically. A man once proudly told them he’d put 200 glasses of water in his friend’s room “as a prank”. “That was ridiculous. There was nothing we could do with that,” laments Will. And there was a euphemistic man who was coy about the fact that he’d been convicted for assault that day: as he put it, “I did some bad things and now I have to do good things for 120 hours.” “As a general request, could people who’ve had really boring days come up for that please?” says Will. “That’d be easier. There’s still a lot of comedy in the mundane, in what’s true.”

Gareth agrees and in fact it’s at the centre of Scratch Impro’s philosophy. “If you’re trying to tell a story, which we always are, the comedy will come from the truthfulness of the scene,” he says. Some of Scratch’s shows use “long-form” improv, turning a single audience suggestion into an long narrative, like an improvised play. Rather than playing games, Gareth explains, “We might get a title for a story and then try to find a game within that.” Gareth is a classically-trained actor who, by his own admission, has never liked “wacky” comedy. “I like long-form because it’s closer to doing plays, rather than it being about quick-thinking and quick gags you have to develop characters and relationships. We try to make it a realistic story not stupid gags.”

“Energy” is the word all three groups use over and over again. Alcock enthuse about the moments when, even though they’re improvising, they feel so in tune it’s as if they’re working from a script. And Gareth can’t hide his excitement when he talks about seeing improv groups perform something as difficult as a lengthy improvised comic musical, which he insists is of a high enough standard to pass as a scripted, rehearsed piece. He agrees that one thing people love about improv is the sense that they feel privileged to be seeing something that’s never been seen before and won’t ever be seen again, and that they’ve helped create.

“We really rely on the audience to make good suggestions and be with us and want it to go well,” Alcock’s Adjoa Anyimadu says. “An audience senses that,” Jessica adds, “They think “we’re really part of this” and that’s why they enjoy it.”