For most people, any knowledge of improv probably begins and ends with TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?. But that original concept, that went international in the 1990s, had a lasting effect, going on to influence a small but passionate underground scene of actors, comedians and aficionados who continue to develop the genre today.
The seeds for Impropriety were sown at an open casting call back in 2004. Much-loved and much missed theatre and improv legend Ken Campbell was looking for people to take part in his off-the-cuff show Farting Around in Disguises – a reference to how John Gielgud described acting. Drama student Trevor Fleming went along with friend Paul ‘Tall Paul’ Robinson, and became part of the team that spent time training in improvisation with Campbell ahead of a week of performances at the Everyman.
Over the next few years, Paul in particular worked again with the director, who died in 2008. It was then they decided to pay tribute by keeping the improv flame alive in Liverpool and began by holding Oh Wait – a 2008 minute long “improvathon” for Capital of Culture year. From there, Impropriety was born.
They first took to the stage as a group in February 2009, performing their debut show at Mello Mello on Slater Street. It went so well they were asked back fortnightly and started running weekly workshops for anyone interested in learning more about improv. This slowly built up a pool of professional and amateur performers ready and willing to take part in their different events, which this year have included a 10 week soap opera (the concept of which was taken from a TV treatment by Daisy Campbell, Ken’s daughter) and, just last week, an improvised panto, both held at the Kazimier club on Wolstenholme Square.
Trevor (pictured above) says: “Ken Campbell never stopped learning about the art of improv. He thought it was better than scripted theatre, in that you don’t know what is going to happen and the emotions are real. There’s something immediate and wonderful about it. It’s all about telling your brain it’s okay not to think, and to just say the first thing that comes out of your mouth.
“Ken would say children say the first thing that comes out of their mouths and adults learn to think, and laughs are lost in that moment. It’s about not thinking, just reacting to the other person on stage. Once, we did one scene with two characters playing imaginary Kerplunk and the place was in total silence like they were waiting for a penalty shoot out. When the audience goes with you and accepts it, it’s wonderful.”
There are two kinds of improv – short and long form. Trevor explains: “Short form is like Whose Line is it Anyway, one gag after another, it’s about getting the laugh. Long form is like soaps or an improvathon, there is a lot more room for manouvre and embellishment, for forming relationships between the characters. But it’s all about moving on the plot. So you keep giving yourself problems to overcome.”
And then there’s the improvathons, comedy marathons that usually last more than 24 hours. Impropriety have taken part in several of these across the UK and Ireland and say this is the real test of their ability as performers. “They’re a very important part of what we do,” says Trevor. “It sounds like showing off but there’s a quasi-spiritual aspect to it – that’s if the audience can stay awake long enough. That filter is switched off in the creative part of the brain, and the purest form of improv comes into being.”
But what do you need to do? Can you really ‘learn’ the art of making things up as you go along? “You need to be familiar with the rules of what genre you want to work in,” says Trevor. “You take the rough story and just learn the rules. People say you can’t rehearse improv, but you can rehearse the games, and you’re always becoming more familiar with your performing partners.”
The founder members are committed to making Impropriety one of the best improv groups in the UK. They are expanding their work by offering workshops to schools and businesses, and hope one day to be able to tour or work in radio like contemporaries Showstopper.
“I think there’s a need for something like this,” Trevor says. “Hoof were especially good at what they did, but that’s left a gap in the market that needs to be filled. There’s Sticky Floor at Liverpool Uni, but the only real comedy nights in Liverpool are your Rawhides. None of us are experienced in running a theatre company or setting up business, but we like improv and making it up as we go along. We do the best we can with the skills and talent we have, which I think is the best in the country.”
Impropriety perform their final show of 2010 at Studio Liverpool on Upper Parliament Street on Thursday (December 16). You can read my review of the Christmas Spectacular show, including Liverpool’s first improvised panto, on Seven Streets.