How an Improv Course Helped a UK Actor During Lockdown

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Photo Source: Backstage. Pictured – Naomi Wattis

Back to the Front is a series where actor Naomi Wattis test-drives an array of different acting and performance courses to help get you ready for a return to the acting frontline. This week, she samples The Free Association’s online Improv course.

If this year’s events have taught us anything at all, it’s that sometimes life throws us things that we weren’t expecting and we just have to improvise. And where might be the best place to hone your flexibility, adaptability, creativity, and openness to trying new ideas? An improv course could be a very good place to start.

Whats the mission this week?
The Free Association (FA) is a school and venue in east London that specialises in Long Form Improv. Long Form is a narrative style in which you build scenes as a team that has spawned award-winning shows such as Austentatious and Show Stopper.

The Free Association runs a tight ship with a structured syllabus. The first course is Intro To Long-Form, and there are five more levels to complete beyond that. After Advanced Harold (whoever he is), there are other more specialised workshops and the opportunity to join one of the house teams who perform regularly at the FA’s two London venues.

Whats the deal?
The Introduction to Long-Form course is normally eight weeks but during lockdown, it runs for six two-and-a-half-hour sessions with a conversion course in person once we’re able to congregate again. It’s the Free Association’s entry-level course and the gate through which you must pass to qualify for the rest of their syllabus. There are twelve participants and we take part over Zoom. The course costs £180, though diversity scholarships are available – more information on these here.

Our teacher is actor, writer, and comedy person Briony Redman, who is supportive and bursting with positivity throughout – even when we probably don’t deserve it. She gave us permission not to be funny (this seems to be a recurring theme in comedy workshops) and promises that if we just let ourselves play, the funny will soon come along. She is not wrong.

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What do you learn?
There are three modules covered over the three weeks of the course. First up is listening and building together. The key here, as the name suggests, is to really tune in to the nuance of what is being said by your scene partner as the more detail you can pick up (not just from what is said but by how it is put across), the more specific your response will be. Listening is the most important part of improv and the bit that needs the most work.

Second up is yes and (and specifics). Yes and” is a well-worn trope of improv, and for good reason. Without accepting the offer made to you in a scene, the energy can go out of it very early on. But equally important is the “and” part of the trope – so in this module, we focused on making a strong offer back and learned not to get trapped into using vague words which put all the decision making back onto our scene partners.

And finally, we look at emotions and making choices as we learned to make bolder choices with not just what but how we were making offers in scenes. In comedy, specificity is king – Victoria Wood famously spent time working out which was the funniest biscuit to use in a joke (FYI: it’s a custard cream).

Whats the verdict?
What is art if it’s not improvisation? Allowing the muse to take you where it will? This course provides us with some helpful tools to guide the muse somewhere productive. Our culture is steeped with improvisation. Films from Bridesmaids to Apocalypse Now have used it. And who has done an audition lately where they have not been asked to improvise?

If the practice of improvisation is already a regular part of your training, how can that not be an advantage?

This class has given me some brilliant performance practice – and let’s not forget that in improv, there’s no typecasting and I can play anyone from Donald Trump to pepperoni on a pizza. It has also shown me life skills in rolling with the punches and responding positively to life’s curveballs (there have been a few lately). On top of this, improv is insanely fun and offers a wonderful escape from daily life. There’s never been a time that we need that more.

For further details about the Free Association and what they offer, you can visit their website here.

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