American improv comedy troupe Baby Wants Candy are among the most familiar veterans of the Fringe. For years they have been peddling high-class musical improv to appreciative audiences, many of whom must have wondered how on earth they manage it. Now you can find out by trying it yourself at one of the group’s workshop sessions.
Baby Wants Candy are improv masters, and in teaching others they only make their mastery more evident.
I went along to the general session for beginners, in which the basics of the art are laid out by one of the group’s senior members Albert Samuels, with their Chicago Musical Director Dan
Wessels on the piano. The format is simple: everyone gets up on stage and tries everything at least once, as far as is possible. Gradually adding layers of complexity and outlining different lyrical frameworks, the pair gently guide the group through the whole process of improvising songs, from three-line scenes which set them up, to fully-fledged chorus numbers by the end of the class. It is easy to poke fun at American improv, the seriousness of the thought behind it and the impossibly energetic rehearsal. Clearly, however, when it comes to teaching others, a foundation in this tradition really helps.
Both teacher and pianist are excellent, entirely helpful and supportive with advice, suggestions and clever musical accompaniment. The environment they create is one of comfort and good humour, in which one feels genuinely able to stand up and sing. It is an exhilarating experience, which somehow stops well short of being terrifying, and it was wonderful to see how much everyone had to contribute. Despite the different levels of ability, moments of real hilarity and poignancy occurred throughout, often suggested by Wessel’s constantly inventive musical underpinning, which is supported and given space by Samuels. I cannot remember when I last learnt so much about an unfamiliar art form in such a short space of time.
As well as being a fascinating learning experience, the workshop is a great advertisement for the company. The only secret that the hour reveals is that there aren’t any. The techniques are simple, the structure remarkably limited. Everything depends on the skill and experience of the performers to construct an entire musical from one opening number. Once you’ve tried an hour of musical improv, you understand quite what an impressive feat that is. Baby Wants Candy are improv masters, and in teaching others they only make their mastery more evident.