BLOG: What about Improvisation in the UK?

Writer: Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Mark Smith is an actor/director/producer, with a specialism in Improvisation and creator of the Liverpool Improvisation Festival which opens for its second season this month(19 – 21 April), in this blog, he looks at the importance of Improvisation within the UK theatrical landscape.

“Yes and… what about Improvisation in the UK?”

I am writing this in a response to a question I was recently asked about improvisation in the UK. I was asked in a particularly dismissive tone – what about improvisation in the UK!? I understand the question as it can sometimes seem like there’s not much happening, especially compared to other forms of entertainment.

But perhaps the question really stems from a lack of knowledge with only a handful of significant reference points to draw upon – Austentatious, Whose Line is it Anyway and Showstoppers the Improvised Musical. Indeed, improvisation may not have the same level of mainstream recognition as other forms of entertainment. This could be due to limited exposure through traditional channels.

So, is this a case of increasing exposure for improvisation? Raise this and you can start to turn the tide and win over a whole new audience and address the sceptic. Possibly? That is one possible route, and it is great to see the likes of Austentatious selling out shows in the West End, MC Hammersmith, Showstoppers the Improvised Musical and Spontaneous Potter all of whom have or are currently undertaking national tours.

Improvisation is slowly becoming much more present in the programming of some traditional venues and long may this continue. As taxpayers, we seldom see our art form in these types of spaces. But why the shift now? I suspect that with tightening budgets and the rising production costs associated with making theatre improvisation is becoming an ideal solution. The work is readily available – I watched 15 improv shows in Edinburgh (2023) and all were excellent.

However, the reality is that improvisation in the UK is a thriving community with tens of thousands of passionate participants. These individuals dedicate significant time and effort to honing their craft through classes, performances, and workshops. Improvisation fosters a sense of liberation, builds trust and camaraderie, and provides a platform for personal growth, creativity, and making new friends. It’s an enjoyable and rewarding experience for anyone involved.

Improvisation receives very little funding from Arts Council England or equivalents in Scotland and Wales. There are of course exceptions to this such as Improbable Theatre company who are based in England. They either create or use improvisation techniques in the creation of their work. Attitudes to improvisation are slowly changing; however, I was once told by an ACE officer that ‘improvisation is simply watching a staged rehearsal’. This type of mindset still pervades, however, I would argue that the improvisation community is the perfect model to receive funding from ACE certainly in light of its revised priorities within The Lets Create strategy document. Very often improvisation is seen as the poor relation to theatre in the UK and ‘yes and’ I do have a chip on my shoulder about it.

The D.I.Y ethos is strong within the improvisation community and runs on dedicated individuals/teams who work with their community and in doing so create opportunities to share practice and work. Across the UK you will find those who love the form and volunteer their time and in most cases money to ensure that their community participates regularly. I have seen the power of this in my home city of Liverpool and beyond. The

pandemic for all live art forms was devastating, however, the improvisation community took to zoom. I was able to take part in online workshops with participants and teachers from around the world, many of whom I would not ordinarily have had access to.

This is when I decided to become one of those individuals. But how and more importantly why? Well, firstly I spoke with my community and asked if a festival model would be the appropriate way to shine a light on improvisation. The answer was Yes; however, I was left with a ton of other questions. I had been a director/producer creating numerous touring work nationally and internationally with my then company Spike Theatre. So, I had some experience in managing and organising folk to create and generate new work. But why? My motivations were simple I wanted to give back to a city that has given me so much back in return. Spike utilised improvisation in the creation of new plays, we worked with the exceptionally talented teachers and improvisers John Thies and Todd Stashwick from the legendary New York improv team Burn Manhattan. They created Hoof! in 2004 and we toured this show for a decade. It seemed fitting that this would be the last show Spike would perform in 2014 at the Unity Theatre. A sad time, but one I learnt a lot from.

There are multiple festivals which take place across the UK, these are beacons for the improvisation community. The Edinburgh fringe / free fringe for example is awash with companies, but I am also aware that there are significant financial barriers to taking part in pay-to-play festivals. Knowing this, I collaborated with Gordon Millar, former Artistic Director of the Unity Theatre, to create Liverpool Improvisation Festival. His first question, “why?” prompted me to reflect on my motivations. My answer was simple: a love for improvisation and a desire to give something back to my community in Liverpool. The chance to create opportunities for others and the benefit it brings in exposing folk to different types of work only strengthens and develops the scene locally. I was keen to remove the barriers that folk face in the pay-to-play model and thus there is no application cost, and all earned monies go directly back to the artist and companies. In addition, we document all work (film, photography and art) and share it freely for artists (future promotion), audiences (reminiscing and deeper engagement), and researchers (valuable insights).

We are always looking for ways to improve our festival experience for everyone involved. We actively seek feedback from audiences, artists and companies, workshop participants, and our venue partners. We value all insights and publish all feedback publicly, ensuring a transparent “you said, we did” policy. This feedback is vital in helping us meet the needs of everyone who comes to the festival. This year, we are further demonstrating our commitment to continuous improvement by working with an access consultant who will create an accessibility report.

The UK and Europe boast numerous fantastic improvisation festivals. LiF 2024 actively encourages artistic exploration by welcoming debut performances and fresh works, striving to offer a platform for innovative and diverse approaches to improvisation. We’ve expanded to include 13 shows (including 5 world premieres) and embrace a wide range of artistic expressions like clown, comedy, dance, drag, musical theatre, opera, storytelling, and theatre. We’re also offering four workshops led by talented instructors and are excited to introduce a film competition open to global participation.

We open LiF 2024 this month and we can’t wait to welcome the 65 improvisers, audiences and workshop participants to experience a vast array of great work in our fabulous host venues The Unity Theatre and The Joe H Makin Drama Centre.

So, what about improvisation in the UK? In short, it’s a vibrant community flourishing and growing. While it may be younger than the scene in America, the UK improv community is emerging with unique strengths and a passionate base. With dedicated individuals like those across the UK carrying the torch, we are building a strong foundation for this art form to thrive and gain wider recognition in the future. As I discovered organising the Liverpool Improv Festival (2023), the countless hours of effort pale in comparison to the joy of seeing nearly 900 people enjoy the program I created. It was an incredibly rewarding experience that solidified my belief in the value of improvisation and the dedication of the community. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

You can check out the 2024 Liverpool Improvisation Festival line up here along with application details for the film competition – www.liverpoolimprovfestival.com

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