Why you should go to a European improv festival
I’m going to be entirely honest with you now. I’m in two minds about this blog. On the one hand — travelling to improv festivals all around Europe has been one of the most enriching and exciting things I’ve done in the last few years and I really do want other people to experience just how wonderful they can be.
On the other hand, particularly from a UK point of view — I feel like I’m part of some awesome semi-secret club with all the improv cool kids and I’m a little reticent to let everyone else in on the party.
But hey, I’ve written this blog now, and you’re reading it — so my better angels must have won out over my less generous demons. We’re through the looking glass here, people, we’ve passed the point of no return.
So here’s why you and your group should apply to some European festivals.
Meet the international improv community
You like improvisers, right? Sure you do. They’re great — all bright and kind and generous with their time and talents. Now imagine hundreds and hundreds more improvisers — improvisers of every size and shape and gender expression — some with interesting and potentially alluring accents. That’s what the European festival scene is like — LOADS of new people to have a chat with. And because they’re improvisers too, they’re like a ready-made friendship group. They are welcoming and non-threatening and they all speak English better than you do. I love this aspect to the festivals. You travel hundreds of miles from home and sure enough there’s your community ready to meet you. I have been consistently delighted and humbled by the people I’ve met on my travels. I’m excited to create new things with them and proud to call them my friends. Even if you’re a little shy and not used to starting conversations with strangers, at one of these festivals you’re golden.
Just talk about improv.
I mean, that’s why we’re all here anyway, isn’t it? Watch as eyes light up, drinks start to flow and conversational topics ricochet around the bar like a pinball machine. Relax. You have arrived. There’s nothing to fear anymore. We’re going to talk about improv until the sun comes up.
Experience different styles of improv
The other great thing about this multitudinous melange of diverse improv talent is this — they probably don’t do improv the way you do improv. That means you’re even more interesting to each other. And it means that when the shows start you get a gloriously undiluted insight into the depth, breadth and sheer potential of our art form.
Fed-up of Harolds and narrative musicals? Feel like you might scream if someone says “New choice” again? Well then feast your eyes on comedic acrobats doing silent long-form or sets inspired by the characters of commedia dell’arte.
Or an improv version of the classic board game — Atmosfear.
Shows in the dark, shows in different languages, shows of breathtaking and heartfelt lyrical beauty. At European festivals your sense of what improv is will be challenged, flexed, stretched and prodded. It’ll be knocked into new shapes and new configurations. Sure, you won’t like all of it. Some of it will inevitably leave you cold, but the point is you won’t be able to rest on your laurels. Improv is a living, breathing act of creation in constant flux. How silly we are to try and force it into little labelled boxes?
It’s great to be reminded of this. To share shiny new ideas. To be inspired to make something new.
Learn from the best
You know who else likes coming to Europe? Really exceptional improv teachers from all over the world. They helpfully congregate in one place so you can learn from them. Study with Jill Bernard, Joe Bill, Patti Stiles and Katy Schutte all at the same festival and save plane tickets to Australia, Minneapolis, Chicago and London. It just makes financial sense. Then watch some more shows and grab a beer with an improv legend in the bar afterwards. Generally festival teachers are in their element and more than willing to have you talk their ear off about any aspect of the craft.
I’m not a comedian but I doubt you can be 6 months into your stand-up career and reasonably expect to spend a drunken evening debating audience dynamics with Eddie Izzard. In improv it’s not just possible, it’s pretty darn likely. Improvisers, even exceptional ones, don’t really seem to care about hierarchies.
Play in proper theatres to hundreds of improv-literate humans
My group, The Maydays, recently played at a couple of wonderful European festivals. There was a moment, as we ended our show and almost 300 audience members started a thunderous round of applause, where I remember standing on stage, taking a breath and thinking to myself…
Remember this, Christopher. Remember this every time a show stalls five minutes in and you play the next twenty minutes to almost complete silence. Remember this every time 8 people in total come to a gig you’ve been planning for months. Keep this moment in your heart and use it as rocket fuel whenever you feel untalented and slow and pathetic.
Now, leaving aside my glaringly obvious self-esteem problems, I think there’s real magic going on here. The privilege of acting on a real stage in front of people who want to see your show is astounding. It’s mind-blowing. To perform for such a generous and informed audience, to be affirmed by your peers and your heroes — it’s quite the ride. Add in theatrical lighting, a musician, sound effects and a good PA and your show can become unrecognisable (in a good way). And sure, not every show goes as well as you’d hope — but, as Katniss Everdeen would have said were she to become an improviser rather than a dystopia-toppling revolutionary, at European festivals, the odds are ever in your favour.
Discover what happens when the improv stops
Finally, I want to talk about those small islands of time between all the improv.
There is A LOT of improv.
I think I’ve made that clear.
But then there are the times when the improv stops and (who’d have thought it at an improv festival?) it’s actual those unplanned moments that have resulted in some of my most precious memories. I’ve set off in search of golden Greek shores with my team mates. I’ve played rounds of mini-golf where the theme started off being “the band Kiss” and ended up being “Christmas”. I’ve climbed the Acropolis at sunrise and watched the morning light as it crept over a sleeping Athens. In contrast in Finland, we stood in broad daylight as the clock struck midnight. I’ve participated in numerous impromptu street parties, told my life story to a stranger as we walked around Dublin and drunk extremely strong cocktails out of a glass statue of a bird (!)
It’s so weird. I love it.
Someone very wise once said to me that a true friendship is being able to turn to another human being and say Do you remember when…? That’s all it takes.
Do you remember when I was complaining I was hungry in that park and you randomly gave me a pitta bread full of french fries because you’d somehow accidentally paid for two?
It’s those silly, throwaway moments we have together, one after another, that forge the life-long bonds. My time travelling around Europe performing improv has given me so many of those memories, so many moments and people I cherish. I feel very lucky.
So see you there next year, yeah?
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 find more of my improv writing here.