Dublin’s improv scene is growing beyond slapstick with truthful stories, new talent, and fresh concepts, reports Hannah Lemass
I have a terrifying, thrilling, adrenaline-fulled hobby. It’s called improv.
Short for improvisational theatre, improv is a show performed without scripts or a set plan.
You are probably familiar with the television program Whose Line is it Anyway?, a long-running show that started life on BBC radio in 1988.
The programme was televised in the UK until 1999, then was adapted for American audiences in 1998 where it ran until 2007, only to be revived in 2013.
There is also an Australian version of the programme that began airing in 2016.
For those who don’t know, Whose Line is an improvisational showcase where a panel of comedians performs rapid-fire sketches and jokes based on theatre games, audience suggestions, and prompts from their host.
The type of improv seen on Whose Line is known as ‘short form’ improvisation and is less focused on narrative and character development than what’s known as ‘long-form’ improv.
Every improviser has a preference but the Ungrateful DoDos, one of Dublin’s freshest improv groups, has a definite passion for long-form.
I went along to see their second performance at The Tightrope, an intimate comedy club tucked away upstairs at one of the Camden mile’s favourite bars, Anseo.
My Visit to Tightrope
The Tightrope is something of an improv sanctuary, with performances from at least two different groups on Sunday and Monday nights. It’s a place where both seasoned acts and new talent can showcase their improv skills for a friendly, enthusiastic and like-minded crowd.
With just two empty chairs and a black backdrop to set the scene, performers at the Tightrope create an endless number of unique spontaneous characters and scenarios.
There is a buzz of excitement among the crowd before any Tightrope show, and this night is especially anticipated as it’s the 4×20 show. Four newer groups show off their fresh styles in 20 minutes sets.
In an unfortunate turn, one of the acts couldn’t make it. What’s one to do? Improvise an improv group of course!
Host Mark Cantan had to form a completely spontaneous group to fill the set time. The result was a delightful scene about a farcical assassination attempt named – by the audience of course – ‘The Sweet Bubble that shot Rick’.
The Ungrateful Dodos closed the show. In lieu of taking audience suggestions to inspire scenes, the group handed out Cards Against Humanity to members of the audience.
At the top of each scene, the cards were read out and the scene formed around the often outrageous scenarios. Such as a film called “Being fat and stupid” and A soiled mattress epidemic solved by “Jedward.”
The crowd lapped it up. “I thought it was a very inventive concept to structure a show… [it] was hilarious and entertaining,” one audience member said.
Damien ”Riggs” Murtaugh, an improv performer who attended the show, was very enthusiastic about the Cards Against Humanity concept.
“What I really liked about it was that it was new. I haven’t seen any other group do it. Because improv is in its infancy in Ireland we need people to be brave and try new things. It can be hard thinking of ways to ask the audience for suggestions, especially as some people find it intimidating,” he said.
An interview with a Dodo
Following the performance, I caught up with Marlon Simeon, a member of the Ungrateful Dodos to discuss how the group was formed.
I’m surprised to hear that Marlon has only been doing improv for a little under a year. He tells me that he was interested in trying any form of theatre and through Twitter, almost by accident, was put in touch with Neil Curren one of Ireland’s leading improv teachers.
“I needed something else… I said I want to do something theatrical… improv wasn’t the first choice… I was hooked the first time I got up, my first scene. My first laugh. I made the right decision and I kept coming back for more,” Marlon reminisces.
Improv is used a lot in the corporate world to train workers to be problem solvers and creative thinkers, but another lesson the improviser takes away is the importance of teamwork
Marlon’s group is made up of four players including himself, Grace Mulvey, Debbie Cheevers and Darren Lee. They met in a beginners improv class and progressed through the levels together, developing their skill and friendship along the way.
“I’m the biggest fan of the people in my group. Debbie is the first person I did my first improv exercise with. I thought ‘oh my god this girl is just as crazy as I am.’ And then I saw grace and Darren perform… I think the four of us kind of gelled together humour wise,” he said.
Trust and support in the scene is very important so the formation of a group can take time. Once you find the right teammates and learn about each other’s style and humour, scenes start to flow more easily.
Marlon explained that “On stage with just one look, we know where we’re going with this [scene]. Part of that is personality and part of it is practice. You have to cultivate that as well, and really talk to your team.”
My own debut long-form improv performance will take place later this month, so out of personal curiosity, I have to ask Marlon about the transition from classroom to stage.
“Obviously [I was] nervous. Like oh my god am I going to be funny? I said [to myself] well if you’re not going to be funny then just be honest.”
Interview with Marlon Simeon of The Ungrateful Dodos improv group, video by Hannah Lemass
It’s a common misconception that improv has to be funny. In fact, the golden rule in long-form improv is DON’T TRY TO BE FUNNY. Laughter will arise from truthful storytelling.
In Marlon’s first performance he was in a scene in which he had to come out to his father. He said that the powerful moment was “almost instinctive” and very truthful to the real feelings of that experience.
“Inside it was very cathartic because when I came out my dad had passed away. So I never really came out to my dad. So through improv that kind of happened naturally… It’s very magical how [improv] sort of disarms people and brings the truth. It feels comfortable, you forget that you are onstage.”
The history of improv
It’s difficult to say exactly for how long improv has been performed on this island, but the longest running comedy improv group is almost certainly Dublin Comedy Improv founded in 1991.
Dublin Comedy Improv is a short-form group with a similar format to Whose Line is it Anyway. A rotation of 9 extremely talented short-form improvisers including Ian Coppinger, Joe Rooney, Dermot Whelan and the occasional guest play out scenes based on audience suggestions.
Ian Coppinger and Dermot Whelan even performed in Who Are The Improv Allstars Anyway? at Vicar Street last year alongside Whose Line legends Colin Mochrie Steven Frost and Brad Sherwood.
The year 1991 may seem like a long time ago, but when you consider Improv’s long history internationally you realise how young improv is in Ireland.
Improvised theatre itself has historic roots. In 16th century Europe, the Commedia Dell’Arte was very popular. The travelling troupes of performers improvised dialogue in public spaces in a style similar to the modern equivalent we see today.
The classic improv theatre games tat inspied the short form style were developed by American drama teacher Viola Spolin during the 1930s and 40s. She ran workshops for Compass, America’s first improvisational acting company active from 1955-58.
She also ran workshops with her son Paul Sills who co-founded the Second City in Chicago in 1959. Second City is one of the world’s premier improv enterprises ‒ recognised for producing alumni such Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Steve Carell ‒ inspiring generations of improvisers.
If you are interested in seeing some improv there are several places where you can take in a few shows.
The Tightrope at Anseo hosts improv shows from a variety of different groups and performers every week on Sundays and Mondays from 8 pm.
You can catch the Ungrateful Dodos at next show at the Tightrope on 15 May.
And, as always Dublin Comedy Improv will be at the International bar on Monday nights from 9 pm.
Finally, if you are thinking of giving improv a go yourself then check out Stoke Improv for courses run by Kelly Shatter, or Neil Curren’s Lower The Tone. Both have courses available to suit all levels of experience.
Featured image by Hannah Lemass