Co-founder of the critically acclaimed hit show Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, Adam Meggido holds the world record for the directing the longest improvised show (55 hours non-stop!). The award-winning writer/composer took time to chat to Exciting Stuff about why improv is so special to audiences, and how the Showstoppers create their made-up musical magic every night without running out ideas…
First off, let’s get the most important question out of the way: is it ‘impro’ or ‘improv’?
I say ‘improv’. I say ‘improv’ for no other reason than I prefer the sound of the word. I don’t engage in the political ramifications as to whether you have a ‘v’ or not. It doesn’t matter to me.
Why do people like going to see improv theatre so much?
Because it’s live. This is the vital thing about it. All theatre is live – it’s just that sometimes it doesn’t feel live, because it’s not being done very well. But improv reminds you at all times that it’s live, and anything can happen, and the audience get to share moments of creativity with the performers. It’s not been pre-planned, it’s not rehearsed. And so the shared danger can be exhilarating. It’s also humorous in a different way. People will laugh at things in improv that they won’t laugh at if it was scripted, and vice-versa. There’s also the immediacy – they get to shout out, and get to see it happen immediately, which is something they don’t normally get in the theatre. So it’s live, it’s dangerous, it’s edgy and it’s fun – it’s what theatre should be.
Why has improv grown in popularity so much recently?
There’s a number of reasons why it’s going through a resurgence – because it’s always been there, it’s always been around, no-one pretending we invented it – but about 10 to 12 years ago, a number of groups formed, so in a matter of a few years, you’ve suddenly got Showstopper, Mischief Theatre and Austentatious all forming at the same time. And there’s also the fact that it’s austerity friendly – you don’t actually need any money to put on an improv show. You just need a space, and a bunch of people who’ll do it. Then there’s the burst of social media, so around 2005 to 2007 you’ve got this sudden growth of improv, in credit crunch Britain, and you’ve got the explosion of social media – and suddenly you’ve got this thing you can do for free and you don’t need money to advertise it. So I think these were hugely contributing factors as to why it took off in the way that it did, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
How did you come up with the Showstoppers’ unique blend of comedy, improv and musical theatre?
I didn’t start improvising until I was in my thirties, my background was traditional theatre. I met the legendary theatre maverick genius Ken Campbell in 2004/5. Ken had just come back from Canada, and he’d seen a group called Die Nasty, they were doing an improvised soap opera, and he was so impressed with them, he just went “let’s just improvise”. So we did, and we didn’t know what we were doing. At all. We were just making stuff up. Because Ken kept wanting to put music in, he got this guy called Dylan Emery, who played piano for improvisers – and as we carried on working with Ken, we realised we had a group – some people that he knew, and some people that I knew – and we could put them together and basically tried to create an improvised musical.
It’s quite impressive how you create so much on the fly every night. How is it done? What’s the secret?
That’s a very good question – it’s a question we’re asked a lot, because people want to know “How do you do this?” Improv in general is a craft that anyone can learn. I didn’t know this when I was first watching improv in the 1980s, watching “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” – I just thought some people can improvise and some people can’t. I didn’t realise there was a skill you learnt, a craft, a methodology. Just like you would learn if you were an actor, where you have different methods you can learn when you are working with a script, there are different methods you can learn when you are working off-script as well – it’s just a bit more murky because of the whole put-the-script-down thing.
But it can’t be as simple as that. The Showstoppers produce a full-length musical every night – it must take some rehearsal. Surely you plan things or prepare routines in advance?
We liken rehearsing for Showstopper as a lot like being in a sports team. When a football team get together to meet for training, they aren’t practicing the final match, because they don’t know what’s going to happen when they get out on the pitch. Instead, they use their skills against the odds to try to win a game. So what we do is train in the skills that are required, and then we work with the audience to try to create a musical. So it’s about skillsets. Nothing is planned or prepared in advance – but we train very hard.
What specific skills do you practice?
The great old improv acting guru Del Close from America said that improvising a scene is like building an aeroplane while you’re in mid-flight. So you’re in the middle of a scene, and the scene is actually happening, but you are also crafting it from within. To do that, you need to learn about storytelling, movement and ensembles, tableau, and how to stage yourselves. You learn about timing, scenes, and scene lengths, archetypal characters… these are all things you would learn if you were doing any form of drama, it’s just that we’re doing them on the fly. Then as a company, we work a lot physically, assessing our movement skills, and being conscious of the stage picture that we are always presenting, so the actors in the middle of it are aware of what they are actually doing.
So it’s quite technical then?
Almost all of the work we do in training, and in the rehearsal room or practice room, is about finding connection, and finding ways to keep us connected, and to keep relaxed under all sorts of pressures. And that’s a lifelong journey, we just keep doing that, over and over again. And then we have new people coming into the company all the time, so we have to start again.
It sounds like there’s a lot to learn.
There’s one overriding note I give to people when they’ve joined Showstopper, and we’ve done training and preparation, and we’ve been looking at improv teams and story structures. After a while, I will say “here’s the one thing you need to know: pretend you’re in a musical”. Because everything ultimately comes from that.
What about the musical aspects, like the multi-part harmonies? Surely they take a lot of preparation.
The weird thing is we have never, ever discussed harmony. Not once. The group are innately musical enough to know what to do. The only time I think about it is when I might look at the cast for a particular show, and work out what to do. For instance, Matt tends to go really high, so I’ll pull back a little bit and not hit the really high notes – but on another night, I might look around and go for the high notes because I know no-one else will. But we don’t discuss it at all.
How many of you are there now?
We have a squad of about 16 players, and about 12 musicians, 3 lighting operators and 2 sound operators – it’s quite a big team. That’s because sometimes we need to play in two different continents at once and so we can split into two teams – and every team needs to be backed up. So, for instance, we would need to send two pianists to Hong Kong, in case something happens to one of them. You can’t just hire out a local musician, they’ll never be able to do what we need them to do.
How do you decide who goes into which performance?
We rotate the players as much as we can – and different gigs require slightly different casts. It changes slightly, depending on the nature of the gig. And of course, going back to the sports analogy, you have consider players’ form – when they are sizzling, and then suddenly they lose their form for a bit, and have to sit down because they are tired, and then they have to get back up and get back into it. We all experience that as well.
How do people join the Showstoppers?
We do auditions. We want people who are going to contribute something new to the company. We don’t want them to be the same as us. We don’t want Showstopper clones, that would be really dull. We want someone to come in and make us go “oh you do that! We’ve never had that before!” They’ve also got to be able to really sing, and nowadays we want people who look like they actually belong in a musical. When we started that wasn’t the case, but now that’s how the show has developed. They have got to be people who are really into musicals – they’ve got to love musicals. There’s no point doing the show unless you love musicals… because you need to know about 350 of them – people are going to shout them out at you, and you’ve got to do something. So you’ve really got to love your musicals.
What does Showstopper! offer to other improv performers? Any tips?
Obviously, we also know a lot of what’s going on around us in improv, and that scene is growing all the time – so there are more and more people we meet who are improv trained, which is nice. But I wouldn’t want anyone to learn improv from watching Showstopper, because the majority of improv that is taught in the UK is either short form or long form – and has either a Keith Johnson or Del Close influence. Not all of it, but the majority of it. Showstopper is trying not to be anything like that, it’s trying to be a musical, it’s trying to be a story, so there are things that storytelling – particularly with musicals – require of you that actually go completely against what an improv teacher will train you to do. “Yes, and…” will because very problematic in storytelling, if you don’t understand the principles behind it. So there are some marked differences in terms of what we do.
Watching you perform, it’s quite amazing how you can all communicate your ideas without saying a word. Is it because you know each other so well?
You can do a show a with people you know very well – there’s people in this company who I’ve worked with for fifteen years – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I will know exactly what they are going to do. In fact, it can make you a bit lazy sometimes, because you start thinking “Oh I know Ruth will do this”, or “Phil will do that”… and then they don’t, and you are startled or surprised. So as much as familiarity is important, it can sometimes be a bit misleading.
How is it done then? Do you have secret methods or signals to tell the other performers what you are going to do?
A lot of people think we have secret signals. When we took the show to the West End, we had a terrific producer on board, and he came in to watch one of the rehearsals, and during the break, he came up and said “I thought you’d spend all your time working out all your secret signals”. We said “no, we spend our time trying to get better at improvising a musical, we’re not going to waste it on secret signals.” There are no secret signals, there are just signals that everybody can see. So if I’m improvising a song together with someone, and the musical phrase is coming to its end, and it’s time for someone to sing, if they breathe in, I know they are about to sing. If they don’t, then I think “oh I better do it”. Likewise, if I breathe in, they’ll be thinking “oh Adam’s going to do it”. Ultimately, it really is all in observation. It’s not really a magic trick, because there’s nothing behind the scenes, it’s a craft, just like musicians. We don’t question that jazz musicians can get together and jam, we take that for granted, but improv has more of a novelty around it, as it’s less known.
How do you keep going and keep coming up with ideas? Or making new things out of repeated suggestions?
Every single member of our company would say something different to that. But for me, it’s about not focussing on the creativity. If you consciously think about what you are trying to create, it’s all much more of a strain. If you’re relaxed and you’re attentive, and you’re responding truthfully in the moment, then the thing creates itself around you, so it’s the difference between channelling something, and physically consciously forging something. The more I do of this, and the more I think it’s just about being there, relaxing and not worrying about repetition. We’ve done so many musicals now, many of them have been set in the same place. “OK, so this is our tenth musical set in IKEA? Let’s not worry about it, let’s begin and at some point it will open up to an original story. We’re not starting in the same way, with the same song as in show #631 because we can’t remember it.” So it’s really just about relaxing and being there. If you dry up and can’t think of anything to do, there are other members of the company who will. We can ask the audience. We can do what we like.
How important is the audience’s input to you?
A lot of long form improvisation have performers who come out and they ask for one word at the top of the evening, and then they do long form presentations based on that. I just feel it’s missing the delight of engaging with the audience constantly through the show. It’s a matter of taste maybe, but we would always rather do that. Plus the audience are always directing improv, even if they aren’t shouting out suggestions. As a performer, you are using your “clown radar” to pick up their reactions, to work out if you should do less of it, or more of it, or move to a different tempo or rhythm. Audience reaction is so vital. There’s one improv show I do that I don’t rehearse unless we have an audience in the rehearsal room, because there’s no point. It just becomes self-serving after a while, self-indulgent. And that’s why it’s always a bit depressing when you see improv groups who don’t yet quite know how to engage their audience, they’re just tagging each other and doing the things they’ve been taught very beautifully, but they don’t really know how to open up across an audience. That’s the equivalent of actors on script getting dull and a bit tired.
You also do a Kids Show – what do you change for the younger audience?
The Kids Show’s amazing. In the Kids Show, we only take suggestions from kids. Adults are not allowed to suggest anything. And we do whatever the kids tell us to do – and we ask them a lot. The kids can get up and be in it, we’ll teach them songs and dances throughout the show. It’s a really fantastic show.
Have you had any ideas from the audience that you cannot work with?
Well, yes – but we tend to filter those through the character of the on-stage writer. So if the audience gives a suggestion that for some reason we don’t wish to engage with, the writer will just not do it. If they give us something that is challenging, then that’s hilarious and great. And sometimes the challenge is very interesting in theory, but in practice, it’s not going to be funnier than the moment it was suggested, and you won’t want to spend two hours doing it – so there’s a certain filtration system that is done to cultivate good drama. The audience can suggest whatever they like, but we’re not going to take the first suggestion all the time, because it might not make good drama, so we work with the audience collectively and collaboratively to make something that we think is great.
Has there ever been a time a scene has totally failed?
Yeah, loads. But then it just becomes funny. If you don’t worry about it, then it’s funny – and something arises out of that moment. Once you let go of it, the audience will probably laugh, and then you can play off the laughter, and you can rebuild, and you rebuild something else. The show has never come to a complete stop, where we’ve come out and said “ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had to stop the show, none of us can think of anything to do”. Something will happen. The challenge as always is to be consistent, so even on your worst night, we can still deliver a show – and that’s a big, big deal for Showstoppers. We turned down seven contracts to the West End before we signed with the Apollo Theatre in 2015/16, because we just felt we have got to be consistent. The company has to be absolutely consistently delivering every night. So we waited and we waited a good couple of years and we trained really hard, and we waited for our chance, and thankfully we got it right. We got the right chance, and we got the consistency just at the right time.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ended up doing?
There are so many, I almost can’t think of them. It happens so much of the time. It’s just funny – sometimes you are doing something so absurd, but with great commitment, and you suddenly catch yourself, going “What am I doing? This is crazy!” Those are really rather wonderful moments, and they are always quite good fun. I remember once there was a show we did I suddenly caught sight of how ridiculous it was. I was playing David Cameron riding a llama through the streets of apocalyptic London singing a song in the style of David Bowie – and after a couple of lines, I just burst out laughing. But the audience share that with you. It’s called Showstopper, and I like a bit of anarchy, but I don’t like it if it’s all wild, anarchic and surreal. I like it to be a proper musical about people who are usually in love, and trying to work out their difficulties and their differences – with some weird, anarchic moments underpinning it, it’s a balance that works really well.
Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is currently on tour.