Improv. Getting up on stage with no script and just the directive to “be funny.” We’d warrant a guess that most people would find their bits instinctively shrivelling at the idea. For the past twenty years, MissImp, a Nottingham comedy troupe, have been showing locals that improv is much more about fun than fear, and have encouraged plenty of folk to step out their comfort zones and onto centre stage...
Before this interview, I decided to go along to Sketchshop, a monthly MissImp workshop held above the Cross Keys bar. When I arrived late, I found myself dropping in on the middle of a sketch and sheepishly made my way to the back, nodding to our editor Bridie who’d also nabbed a seat for the workshop. During the first part of the evening, participants were encouraged to share sketches and scenes they’ve been working on, which were acted out by fellow workshoppers or willing volunteers. Being a bit of a chickenshit, I declined.
The second part featured some creative collaboration, with organisers Ben Macpherson and Liam Webber guiding us through prompts designed to spark absurd and novel ideas. In this instance, the results included first drafts about stinky washboard players and evangelical John Lewis assistants. The vibe is comfortable and informal, and no-one is made to participate, but once you get a feel for how friendly and supportive the other performers are, you may find – as I did – that you actually want to pitch in and join the fun.
After the workshop, three more members – Nick Tyler, Marylin Ann Bird and Emily Brady, who Skypes from the US – join us for a chat about MissImp.
Formed in 1998 as an adult education resource by local writer Andy Barrett, MissImp – nee Mission Improbable – has turned into an improv tour-de-force. Right now there are three regular rehearsing teams comprising over forty performers. Their first meeting took place on 20 October 1998, and this year they’re celebrating their twentieth anniversary. They’re kicking the celebrations off with an opening night jam on Thursday 18 October, at the momentarily-defunct-but-recently-resurrected Malt Cross; the original site of that inaugural performance. As Liam says: “It’ll be like going home.”
On Friday 19 and Saturday 20 October, Nottingham Playhouse will host four further shows, all designed to showcase the breadth and depth of improv comedy, with MissImp members working their magic by weaving sketches, scenes and even a musical from just a few audience suggestions. Some original members of MissImp, dubbed affectionately as the “ghosts of improv past” by Marilyn, will also be making appearances during the sets.
Of particular interest is The Vortex, an all-female comedy troupe from MissImp. Asked why it’s important to feature women in improv comedy, Emily, the director of The Vortex, notes that “a lot of time you are inspired by the other people on stage; seeing people like yourself on stage encourages you to do it too, and that’s what I want to do for future generations.”
Marilyn, meanwhile, points out that women and girls are often seen as unfunny, taught instead that they should aspire to being “nice.” She says: “We need to have a platform to show we can be funny, smart and outspoken.” With a proud grin, she explains that one recent course was the first time they had more women than men sign up, and Liam adds that the group is getting closer and closer to fifty-fifty male and female group members.
So, why improv? I ask. Each person eagerly shares what makes the format great, and the love they have for the art is obvious. Marilyn enthuses about the connections improv creates between people, especially bringing together those from diverse backgrounds. She adds that improv “gives you greater flexibility in your thinking, and it’s a great way to meet people. It’s also good for people who think they can’t act or be funny, because everyone can already do it. Life isn’t scripted.”
It’s Ben who brings up the important connection between mental health and creativity, particularly as improv has been used in the treatment of illnesses such as anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s. “When we’re children we play so easily,” he says. “The real world grinds that out of us.” Liam agrees, noting that improv is essentially adults being able to play together once more.
Once you get a feel for how friendly and supportive the other performers are, you may find – as I did – that you actually want to pitch in and join the fun.
As we talk about MissImp, it’s clear that a sense of community is important in the wider scene, as well as within the group; Marilyn jokes about her dual group roles performing and feeding people, and Liam points out they also have a resident improv baker. MissImp has built up an audience of fans who are regulars across the group’s shows and like to show their appreciation when they see members out and about. “It’s wonderful, I love being recognised in Primark,” Nick says wryly. During the interview, each person sparks off the other, and there seems to be a real camaraderie among everyone. There are even two couples within the group of five being interviewed.
What about plans for MissImp’s next twenty years? “We’ll take Derby!” Nick declares, before mentioning that they’d ideally like to do more corporate and teaching work. According to Ben, they’re also looking for a place to call home, something that has yet to materialise despite some close misses, so if anyone knows of a free fifty-seater black box theatre, you know who to call. Future plans also include bringing across renowned comedy personalities for the MissImp courses, and continuing to offer the Colin Barnfather Memorial Scholarship, which provides free places on their improv courses to successful applicants, in an effort to further increase inclusion and diversity in the scene.
Currently, if you want to try your hand at improv, there are plenty of opportunities with MissImp. There’s a weekly drop-in, which once a month turns into the awesomely-named Gorilla Burger, described by Liam as “a step-up from beginners, and more like a show with fancy lights” although the team stress that you’ll never be forced to take part; they’re quite happy for you to sit there and soak up the comedy. Or get a bit leery, if that’s your bag.
Nick’s tip is to bring a mate, who can sit and watch, and maybe get lured in themselves. If my experience is typical, they probably will. Creativity, collaboration and comedy make for a hell of a combination.
MissImp’s Birthday Celebration Jam takes place at Malt Cross, on Thursday 18 October, 7pm. Tickets are £5. Drop-in sessions are every Thursday, 7pm, at The Lacehouse. Entry is £3/£5.
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