I was talking to Joe Samuel on my podcast the other day. Yes, I have a podcast. Let’s not make a big thing about it. Joe made a point of clarification that has stuck with me ever since. He wasn’t an improv musician, he was a musical improviser.
It’s an important distinction. Joe is an extremely talented musician. He navigates the world of pitch, rhythm and harmony as easily as the rest of us flip through a children’s picture book. He can hear you sing a note and know it’s an E-flat with as much certainty as you or I can look at a freshly-mowed lawn and pronounce it green.
He has worked for decades to play the piano as well as he does. And it is all that work, combined with his undoubted natural aptitude, that allows him to confidently modulate the key every time I slide out of tune whilst making up a song about fish finger sandwiches (or whatever).
The point being — he’s not a supporting musician for The Maydays. He is A MAYDAY. Probably the most important improviser in the company. He is improvising along with us and adds an incredible amount to any given show.
He sets mood. He initiates action on stage. He makes people fall in love. He edits scenes. He is constantly making us offers and responding to the offers we give him. He’s not an add-on or a nice extra. He’s an essential part of the fabric of our show.
We, the improvisers that clamber up on stage and say words and move our hands around, need to start treating the other improvisers with a little more respect. I’m talking about the musical improvisers, the technical improvisers — the people who frame our onstage antics and make them into actual theatre.
One of my old Harold coaches used to tell me, if you can make two great edits in a set then you’ve more than earned your place on the team that night. Our Project2 technical improviser, Tom Bacon, does that flawlessly for us multiple times per show. He also improvises with the incredible RH Experience and if you’ve ever seen the speed of their shows, you’ll know that Tom might make anything between 50 and 100 pitch-perfect editing choices per night. Good edits can save floundering improvisers, they can underline a perfect out-line, they can make bad jokes funny and clichéd sentiment sublime. That takes skill and timing and razor-sharp improv instincts.
My friend, and former Project2 onstage improviser, Jonathan Monkhouse is an extremely well respected technical improviser. I’ve seen him whip up sunsets at a moments notice, responding to emotional moments with subtle lighting changes and perfect technical grace notes. Hell, he’s even photoshopped together a film poster on the fly for a fictional movie mentioned on stage and projected the thing behind the actors before the scene finished. All this while still paying close attention to the flow of the narrative and nailing the edit.
We seem to be especially blessed in Project2 with these genius improvisers. Our musician, Fred Deakin, is a bonafide legend, a Brit and Mercury award nominated musician who has sold over half a million albums and headlined festivals across the UK. The scope of the cinematic music he blesses our show with adds an epic level of scale to our science fiction tales that we just didn’t have before. Last month, I was tuning a radio on stage only to hear Fred create the entire soundscape using samples, tone modulation and his own voice through a head mic. It’s staggering to be supported in this way. It looks like magic.
It is magic.
Fred also created our logo. He designs our posters. He produced our last show “Thirteen Cycles”, liaising with the theatre and helping to create incredible augmented reality effects in collaboration with a whole load of other artists and technical ninjas (chief amongst them, Rob Armstrong, the Nursery Theatre’s Media Producer who actually created custom software to allow us to control the effects from the stage).
Also think about all the volunteers who run jams, send emails, book rooms, sell tickets, host nights and clear up after the audience has departed. They do that so you can have your moment on stage, bathed in the attention of a room full of people as you pretend you’re a penguin.
So please, please treasure everyone in your wider team or company. Consider hiring a dedicated technical improviser to rehearse and play with. Allow them input at every level, treat them as fellow artists.
Because they are. They lift you up. They make you look better. And they don’t even ask for a share of the spotlight.
Because they’re the ones that switch the spotlight on.
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.