You see and hear them on stage and it all looks so easy and in many ways it is (when you’ve been doing it for a few years), but the challenges of being in the cast of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical never disappear: the need to be on the ball is always there; to be enormously focussed and attentive to everything that is going on around you, sensitive to every line, look and gesture and always to be listening not just to what is said but how it’s said, noting the tone of delivery. You owe it to yourself, your fellow actors and above all the audience. Only by doing all of those things and more can you deliver a highly polished, yet unique performance night after night and year after year.
Seeing the team in the ‘rehearsal room’ was a revelatory experience
Several of the cast, like Lucy Trodd, have been in the show since it was founded by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery in 2008. “Showstopper!” she proclaims, “has been my constant. The thing I come back to. My drama school. My practice, to enhance my skills as an actor. It has been ever-present in the last 14 years. I've found two writing partners and a husband amongst the members. It's interesting that so many of the original gang have stuck with it. I think it's because it allows so much freedom; you get to do other work, but also within the show you get to be any character you want.”
Over the years others have moved on and replacements have had to be found. This is not like casting just another play, where a part requires certain qualities in an actor of age, height, looks, gender and the ability to perform the role in a way that will match what other actors are bringing to the work. Those elements remain important but here it’s about identifying a range of acting and interpersonal skills, creativity, imagination, sensitivity to others, storytelling capabilities and familiarity with a range of musical genres. Once brought into the team there is then an apprenticeship to be served. It might not be Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours, but there is much to learn in terms of structures, formats, styles, gaining the confidence of other members of the cast, getting to know the mindsets of your colleagues and identifying the unique contribution you can make to the troupe.
So how is all this achieved? The nature of the show is at the heart of the process. It’s called improvised because that is precisely what it is, yet audiences lining up for the show nearly always question the extent to which this is possible and often have lingering doubts about the authenticity of the claim. “How can actors and singers just be given the title and perhaps the setting of a musical and create the narrative, characters and songs complete with accompaniment on the spur of the moment? It has to be rehearsed!” Well, in some ways it is, but not in the conventional sense that a play might be rehearsed. There really is no script, nor even a selection of scripts that the actors have in their heads and can apply to a title or genre and perform. On hearing the challenge each will start having ideas of content and form, especially for the opening, but it will be up to one of them to push or initiate that for the others to follow. As self-confessed ‘old-timer’ Susan Harrison points out, “An attraction of the show for me is working alongside such unique and brilliant people. The talent of other company members still blows me away and I feel lucky to collaborate with them”. These aspects are rehearsed, or at least experimented with in what for want of a better word could be called workshops or experimental labs. Will the show emerge with a solo opening, vocal or spoken, or will it be a rousing chorus number? Will they all be on stage for the start or slowly come together from the wings or behind the screen? They have seconds for this to go through their minds before initiating the action and for the show to be underway. Then it’s a question of exploring and developing the storyline. Which remark will one of them latch onto for development, or will a point just be left hanging to pick up later or even to be repeated but left as a permanent mystery? Who is going to be allowed to emerge as the lead, or in their words the protagonist, and what qualities does each character possess and what histories do they have? Should one of them be a pet dog? It’s improv, which means the possibilities are endless. The skill is to whittle them down and create a coherent and credible production. No matter how much people might doubt, every performance really is a brand new completely improvised show.
For those into the technical aspects of improv, there’s a vocabulary that describes interactions and statuses within the art. Knowing about these can actually enhance your appreciation of a show. Tennis players face questions about their game: ”Am I going to stay on the baseline? Shall I go to the net? How many aces or drop shots shall I go for?” Improv actors similarly have a bank of techniques and strategies deeply embedded in their minds, along with a host of tropes; the skill is knowing when and if to use them. Making such judgments is the key to success because every situation you are given is different.
Improv actors will talk about Endowing (assigning attributes to another performer`s character), An Offer (an action or something spoken designed to advance the scene, usually intended to be taken on board in a strategy known as Accepting). Accepting An Offer and then doing nothing with it or replying with an open question is known as Wimping; it puts the ball back in the other person’s court. Of course, an actor might accept but then use Shelving; not taking it up immediately but returning to it later. And so it goes on. There is certainly more to it than might meet the untrained eye, but the aim is to use the power afforded by identifiable strategies with such subtlety as to make them invisible.
Seeing the team in the ‘rehearsal room’ was a revelatory experience, but no clue as to what might unfold with a new title on the night; that’s Improv, which Del Close once likened to ‘building a 747 in mid flight’. All an audience will see is the performance and there are plenty of opportunities coming up to do that. With an abundance of accolades earned over the years, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical returns to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year for its thirteenth season. It comes directly from London where it became the first-ever long-form improv performance to have a full West End run and to be nominated and win an Olivier Award! That was after it had completed a nationwide tour earlier in the year. Totally improvised and completely different every night, it’s become one of the most impressive and appealing shows at the Fringe.