I’m sitting in the darkness of the Prince Charles cinema. Beneath me the ancient seat sags into an unsupportive half-pipe, the timber frame pressing against the back of my thighs uncomfortably. I hardly notice. My world shrinks to letterbox format as the gloom enfolds me. I stare at the screen in anticipation. The air is thick with potential. Everyone around me is making jokes to one another, turning in their seats, sharing popcorn. Someone offers me a revel, thrusting the packet between the seats at elbow level. In the artificial night of the auditorium we are all naughty children again. Or perhaps we never stopped?
This cinema is full of improvisers.
And the film we’re about to see isn’t some Hollywood blockbuster about an ordinary man who has to become a hero when the leaders of the free world are held to ransom by a sketchy religious extremist with a suitcase nuke. It’s a micro-budget indie film called Don’t Think Twice. And it’s about improv. About an art form that, for better or for worse, has come to define the last decade of my life.
Weeks ago I had casually mentioned on social media that there would be a showing of the film as part of the upcoming BFI London Film Festival. When booking opened the next morning, half the seats were immediately bought by the UK improv community. Sitting either side of me, in the rows behind and in front of me, are members of Austentacious and Showstopper, Do Not Adjust Your Stage, Duck Duck Goose, The Maydays, Big Now; my short form students sitting beside people from my very first improv troupe. Immediately either side of me are my wife (10 weeks into an improv introductory class) and my best friend (who has been performing regularly with me since we were 16).
Sitting in neat little rows — teachers and students, teammates and coaches — people who inspire me, who challenge me, who push the art form forwards. Throwing popcorn and drinking beer. My little community of artists, geniuses and poets.
We are waiting to see how the film-makers will treat this thing that we love.
The projector flickers into life and, unheralded by trailers, the film begins …
And for the next 93 minutes it’s lovely to sit in that cinema, with that particular group of people and laugh and cry over the ridiculous choices we’ve made. Don’t Think Twice splits the room down the middle. For every knowing in-joke or moment of carefree improv exhilaration, there’s a moment where reality is allowed to intrude and slap us in the face. “Your twenties are all about hope” says Chris Gethard’s character, Bill around the film’s mid-point “and then your 30s are all about realising how dumb it was to hope.”
Afterward we retire to a pub to drink and discuss — talk about which characters we most relate to, try to nail down the futures of the people that the film leaves deliberately opaque. Some of us are depressed, feeling exposed and unhappy — that they have somehow wasted their life.
For my part, I feel exhilarated — that the minutiae of my everyday could be spun into such wonderful, heartfelt storytelling. Previously I’d read a lot about how the film was embedded deep in the New York scene but to me the context fell away almost immediately — it was about group dynamics, collaborative and spontaneous creation, a treatise on the universal symbiotic relationship between commerce and art. What defines success and failure outside the personal yardsticks we hold in our hearts?
Because I see my own history in the grainy black and white photos of improv groups that line the walls of the film’s fictional theatre, Improv for America. That’s MY twenties. That’s MY thirties.
And that WILL be my forties, fifties, sixties because I know:
I will study and perform improv until the day I drop down dead.
I will continue to fail at every aspect of the craft gloriously and consistently. I will fan this spark inside me to a roaring flame and like Prometheus I will give it away as best I can, a gift I neither created nor mastered.
And this, I think, is what Don’t Think Twice gets absolutely right — the thrill of creation, the moments where it feel like flying and, above everything else, the people you share it all with.
Forming a line in the darkness, lights dancing in front of us.
Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my website — take a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.