Falling out of love with Improv

A man once told me that his relationship with Improv was abusive. It took his money, destroyed his self-esteem and he kept coming back, apologising and begging for more.

It’s not an uncommon story either, and although I don’t particularly like his turn of phrase, I agree with the sentiment. Improv can be the best of times and the worst of times, like an indecisive watchmaker and during this absolute creative drought that’s been semi-forced upon the arts by COVID I’ve been doing a lot of reflection. This short blog post is about a time when I very nearly fell completely out of love with the artform and nearly gave it up all-together. It’s a true story of frustration, jealousy, confusion, and ultimately happiness.

January 2019 and I am riding high. I’ve been doing improv for little over a year and have just come of the back of a number of consecutive shows with a local group. I’m enjoying my time on stage and working with the players, after a couple rough shows the chemistry is clicking and I feel like I have an idea what everybody on stage will do, there or thereabouts. Whatever it is, it’s working. I’m not getting much feedback apart from the after-show natter where we’d all grab a drink and laugh about the funny moments. But I’m not worried, I’m getting time on stage.

And then I’m not.

A few months pass and I’m not being given any time on stage. I don’t think I’m not as good as I was but a few weeks earlier, but apparently I’ve not done enough to earn my place. Well, I can only assume that as no one has spoken to me about what I’ve done wrong, or rather not done right. No feedback , no communication, I’m just not getting on stage.

I speak to a few other people on the team who also seem to have been frozen out. They don’t know why they’ve not been asked to perform either, just that they’re not being asked. No one has given them a reason why they’re no longer good enough to be on stage but they’re just expected to accept it. Or, worse in my opinion, they’re expected to be available every gig on the “off-chance” they’re needed with no guarantee of stage time, despite giving up evening after evening, week after week.

I’m not completely frozen out. On a few occasions I’d get a message couple days before a show (or on more than one occasion the day before or even on the day) and be told that I was needed. I’d almost always say yes, of course, because being on stage is a drug. But afterwards I’d just be frustrated. I didn’t like my role as substitute with no communication.

So, in May 2019 I seriously thought about quitting improv.  I had seen people with less experience with me take my place on stage, I’d started to see the inherent classist problem with growth in the community, and also slowly realised that many of the people in charge were either incompetent, offensive, neglectful or in some cases all three. I’d lost sight of what I loved about improv, buried beneath issue after issue, politics, misogyny, and ego.

I spoke to a group of friends about this malaise I was suffering with and discovered they were feeling something very similar. I spoke to people outside my immediately circle and aired my grievances with them and they agreed that something wasn’t right. If I had lost the spark then we needed to do something to bring it back.

In June, Tiny Stories Improv performed our first show at the Box of Frogs Jam in Birmingham. The people I was on stage with were all very close to me, I trusted them implicitly and I had no pressure to be funny. We could do what we wanted, making a good improv show for the audience, and, above all, having fun. It was a rough show, with moments of dead air, panic, and thrill. But a week earlier we had barely filled a twenty minute rehearsal and here we were, doing a 40 minute slot and working hard to make it good.

It was everything I had missed. We got laughs, lots of laughs, had a mix of raw, harsh emotion, with the rollercoaster of comedy and sadness, and felt like we’d earned the reaction we’d got. Coming off the stage I was tired, sweaty, and very, very, happy. The people on that with me that night had helped me find the spark again, and I’d like to think found it in themselves as well. The debrief was brilliant, all laughing at the highlights from the performance, talking about what we thought hadn’t worked so well, promises to rehearse this and that, and a sense of release.

I’d gone from wanting to quit the artform to being totally rejuvenated in just a few weeks. Not just with Tiny Stories either, it helped every part of my improv life. I couldn’t fix the issues that plagued the scene, but I could help to grow and develop it. I couldn’t assuage the personal politics that bled through, but I could try to ensure that the groups I was involved with were relaxed and weren’t led my ego (as much as possible).

Tiny Stories Improv, the jams that were taking place at Deacon Street, ImproVine, the Same Faces, the courses and lessons hosted by MissImp, the whole Sheffield scene; everything I was involved with in improv throughout late 2019 and 2020, it wouldn’t have happened if the people I cared about hadn’t been there for me when I was so close to quitting. The Leicester Comedy Festival shows, selling out gigs, and meeting new people, none of it would have happened.

I’m not sure what the moral or lesson of this is. 2020 and 2021 have proven themselves to be hard years where we’ve all wanted to just flip a table and give up. I think I want to say that you shouldn’t give up, but it’s more nuanced than that. Giving up is fine and valid, but before you do, take a step back, talk to people and ask for advice. Voice your concerns, voice your grievances, and see what changes are made or that you can make. It may give you a new perspective.

So, what the fuck am I?

So, Winter 2020 was a fun time for many reasons.

  1. I like the cosy aesthetic of Christmas
  2. Cold weather means snuggly jumpers made of happy
  3. Thick socks
  4. The ritualistic shouting at the full moon
  5. I got a new hat

But probably the best thing to happen was my public announcement of being a pharmacist baffler. But as lots of people (lots of very lovely people mind you) have asked me questions about it, ranging from “what’s going on?” and “have you changed your pronouns?” through to “where do you get your shoes from?” and “Why are you an abomination unto God?”. So, in an attempt to clear a few things up for everyone else and even myself, I’m going to write down my feelings and rationale.

What the fuck am I?

The thing I think I know I am, at least for now, is not trans. I have my days where I feel more femme than normal (and look great) and days where I feel more masculine, but I don’t want to be a woman. I’m quite attached to my penis and it’s probably the most masculine part of me. As much as I want to lose more weight and have a more feminine figure, that’s more to help make me look better and feel better in my body. Plus, I’m still a chubby sod.

No gender dysphoria, no trans, no dice. Just feel comfortable and right wearing clothes that society deems feminine. The comedian Andrew o’Neil phrases is nicely so I’ll paraphrase what he says – it’s like when you’re at a BBQ and are chilly, so someone lends you their coat to wear and you suddenly feel all warm and cosy. It’s like that. It just feels right.

Does that mean I’m a transvestite? Maybe, sure, I guess? Not a big fan of the word, it has too many connotations that I’m not comfortable with, mostly to do with kink and fetishes, and whatever I am is nothing to do with that. But until I have a better term, I think Genderfreak will be what I go with.

At the moment I feel very happy being a bloke and identifying as such. Will that change? Haven’t a clue, literally don’t know. Will it stay the same? Reread the last answer.

Key point that I missed during the first writing of this: clothes aren’t gendered. When I wear a dress or tights they aren’t women’s clothes. I bought them, they’re mind. What’s gendered is the marketing that bombards us, not the product. There’s nothing inherent in our clothes that gender them, nothing but societal norms, and those are tenuous at best.

But there are a few things I do know for certain. I have some of the best and most accepting friends, who have supported who I am, have given me advice, listened to my ramblings about gender and identity. I am definitely happier in my skin and more comfortable being me. And finally, I look fucking hot in a dress, fishnets and heels.

Thank you for being brilliant, all of you.

P.S. – Fun joke I have been told by someone who has been a rock during all this.

What’s the difference between and TV and a TS? About three years.

Improv has an Improv Problem


July 2020

I’ve been thinking about trying to write this for a few months, held back only by the thought that actually putting words to paper might push me to finally quit a hobby that over the last two years has completely taken over the social element of my life.

To summarise who I am, and what I perceive myself to ‘be’ to improv, I ‘run’ a small indie troupe called Allison – one of several groups in the UK who thought it would be unique and quirky to use a random woman’s name to describe ourselves, and perform regularly with Fat Penguin Improvised Comedy, one of the two major improv schools in Birmingham.

Recently there’s been one niggling question in the back of my mind. And it’s ever more prevalent in the cold light of lockdown – now that the dopamine drip, which gives a little burst of…

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14/48 Week 14 – End of an Era

So, as lockdown carries on and all my creative outlets are drying up, I’ve taken to writing a 5 minute monologue based on the weekly 14/48 Work From Home theme as if they were for the festival.

Here is my script for the Week 14 theme ‘100 Yesterdays Ago’


 

A greenroom, adorned with a few personal effects, a bag half opened, and some clothes strewn over the counters. The lights are on, but no one is currently in. The sound of an audience screaming, and cheering is bleeding through the walls. The gig has clearly gone well.

The door slams open and someone storms in, throwing down their guitar and rips off their jacket

Jo

I’m sorry, but first of all, fuck you! I can’t believe you actually wanted me to play that derivative crap.

Another person hurries into the room

Jay

What? The crowd were chanting for it all night, how could we not give them what they wanted?

Jo

Because it was literally my only stipulation before the gig. It’s the one song I didn’t want to play and the one song I genuinely cannot stand.

Jay

But it’s a classic/

Jo

No, it’s popular. Huge difference.

Jay

You have to give the public what they want though, you know that.

Jo

Ha! If that was the case, we’d never play the ones from the first album, would we? Look, look at this setlist! Those first half dozen numbers, hardly classics, are they?

Jay

Well, some people love them

Jo

Do they? Do you? Are you telling me they’re some of your favourite songs?

Jay?

Well, maybe not favourite/

Jo

“Baby it’s you”, “Ask me why”, “I saw her standing there”? They may have their place but it’s not on a greatest hits collection is it. But we play them anyway – so sod ‘what the public think’ because that clearly doesn’t matter. Especially given the number of actual classics we leave out.

Jay

What’s your point?

Jo

My point is that the only reason you said yes to playing ‘Yesterday’ was that you know I hate it.

Jay

No, of course not.

Jo

Really?

Jay

…Fine, a bit.

Jo

I knew it!

Jay

But only because you added that one to the setlist when we played Crewe.

Jo

You’re still angry about that?

Jay

Yellow submarine is a kids song for children and/

Jo

And is the most famous song ever recorded.

Jay

You’re literally a Satan.

Jo

It’s the weed to The White Album’s heroin. You have to get on that path somehow.

Jay

So is ‘Yesterday’!

Jo

No, Yesterday is an interesting tune ruined by having lyrics so bad they’re taken directly from a 14-year old’s poetry book. Hell, I’d even prefer the original lyrics about scrambled eggs over the weak, depressing gumph that Paul wrote.

Jay

You done?

Jo

Never! It’s so bad it actually removes the sheen off so many more songs. You start looking at the lyrics more critically. I used to adore ‘While my guitar gently sleeps’ then boom suddenly you notice that that it’s just a guy looking at his messy floor, ‘She’s a woman’ contains the worst rhyming couplet since Chaucer, and don’t even get me started on All you need is love.

Jay

That’s a proper classic though, everyone loves it!

Jo

Love is all you need, on repeat, for 8 fucking minutes!

Jay

If you hate it so much, quit.

Jo

Fine.

Jay

Good. We don’t need you anyway.

Jo starts to pack up his stuff, never looking at Jay

Jay

Yeah, pack it all up and run, like you always do.

Jo

Good luck finding someone who will be fine singing Yesterday while not being able to sing A Day in the Life.

He leaves

Jay

They’ll be able to do a damn-site better job than you! No one walks out on the UK’s third best Beatles tribute act (in the Northeast) and doesn’t regret it.

Silence

Jay

He’ll be back

The door opens

Jo

Forgot my charger.

Jay

Oh it’s just over there, behind the guitar case.

Jo

Where? Oh, right thanks.

Jay

Yeah.

Jo

Cool. Anyway, umm, I’m off then. Get bent, etc, etc.

Jay

Yeah, same. Drive safe.

Jo

Oh thanks you too man.

Leaves

Jay

Well, that showed him.

Picks up his guitar and starts singing A Day in the Life

     Nope, maudlin rubbish.