Improvising

This is a long story. I came to improvising late, courtesy of the late Ken Campbell. He asked me to participate in Shall We Shog? at Shakespeare's Globe in April 2005, for Shakespeare's birthday; and if it had been anyone else asking I would have politely declined, like many actors. But I trusted Ken - whatever else happened, he was always passionate there should be a bloody good show at the end of it. A thing, as he called it, if it was any good. And since the Globe show had dancing dogs, a competition for the fastest recitation of 'To be or not to be' and strong teams from Liverpool, Newcastle and London, it was certainly a thing.

 That work segued into a series of gigs above pubs and in small theatres, and a series of performances called Decor Without Production at The Royal Court Theatre as part of their 50th birthday celebrations: improvised 'new' material by Pinter, Beckett, Sarah Kane and others were aired on whatever set happened to be there, as well as the now famous Play of the Three Christs, and an attempt at a Maori haka blended with Middle Eastern keening. See the archive page at: http://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/ken-campbell-decor-without-production These shows and more honed the crew that went to Edinburgh in 2006 with In Pursuit of Cardenio: an attempt to recreate the lost Shakespeare & Fletcher play, The History of Cardenio, its plot taken from Don Quixote, first translated into English in 1612. Myself, Sarah Hadland, Sean McCann, Adam Meggido, Lloyd Stephens and Keddy Sutton, with Dylan Emery on fiendish musical  accompaniments, did our best to keep up with Ken's brilliant but constant changes of temperament and direction; including a fresh fascination with obscure theories of Shakespearean authorship, including 'The School of Night'. The School of Night was a group of aristocrats, poets and natural philosophers (scientists avant la lettre) who met to discuss new ideas and stories - and, so the theory goes, a guy in the  corner called William Shakespeare would write it all down. One of the more tenuous of Shakespearean authorship theories, it gave Ken the idea for a modern School of Night, an esoteric underground group who would be able to improvise anything: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Nick Cave, H.P. Lovecraft. An author could give us their commissioning fee, the myth goes, and we would write their play for them while they got on with the business of writing the play. The School of Night with Ken went on to appear - sometimes with me, in my alter ego as Ganzfeld Man, sometimes not - at the London Terror Festival (the musical entertainment The Rape of the Pumpkin Queen a particular high point), the Hay and Lewes literary festivals and beyond. Since Ken walked off on to  another plane, the School was re-formed in a thunderstorm at Latitude Festival and has been invited to perform at The British Library, Elsinore Castle, The Old Vic Tunnels and the English Theatre Hamburg, among others. See http://theschoolofnight.com/.   Two other improvised projects were born from that same impetus and core group: the musical element of The School's experiments morphed into what is now the highly successful Showstopper! The Improvised Musical - from our first attempts at making up a whole musical at the tiny Hen and Chickens Theatre in January 2008, Showstopper! now tours all over the country and beyond (Ireland, Belgium, Mumbai and the Far East), has had sellout runs at The Edinburgh Festival for seven years running (Spirit of the Fringe award 2009), and in London's West End and Udderbelly, and a primetime series on BBC Radio 4. And then there is The Improvathon. Since Ken first linked us up with the wonderful and preternaturally talented folk of Edmonton, Alberta's Die Nasty company and their annual fifty-hour Soap-A-Thon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die-Nasty), we have been trying to catch up with, or rub up against, their brilliance. We first attempted a 36-hour long-form show in December 2005 at The Inn on The Green, Portobello, under the aegis of  the Yoda of impro, Mr. Dana Andersen; hubris of the highest order, since none of us (except Sean McCann) had yet even seen the Edmonton crew doing a long-from show, let alone attempted one ourselves. So in September 2006, Lucy and I, with Sean and Maya Sendall, travelled out to Canada to do just that: to take part in their fourteenth, then 53-hour, epic endurance trial. The first fully official London Improvathon took place at The People Show Studios in Bethnal Green in January 2008, and has continued (first at  Hoxton Hall, then The Park Theatre) annually to date - its seventh manifestation was in January 2012, its setting, an intergalactic cruise ship. Improvisation has become such a part of my life that it's almost impossible to keep extending this list - what with all the things mentioned above, and teaching impro for various drama schools and colleges, I can't imagine it ever going away...

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Or, if you prefer your history in list form, it might look like this (this is just my contribution, you understand, not an exhaustive history)-
2005 Shall We Shog? At Shakespeare’s Globe; two ‘Décor Without Production’ gigs at The Royal Court; monthly appearances of The Ken Campbell Impro Show at the Inn on the Green, Ladbroke Grove, culminating in the first, 36-hour proro-Improvathon; and Ken Campbell’s Black & White Impro Show at the Lewes Live Lit Festival.   2006 Many workshops with Ken, mainly at Metal in West Hampstead, as well as more gigs (four this time) at The Royal Court and The Inn on the Green. Also, poetic impro in London at The Poetry Shack and Apples and Snakes; a Royal Court 50th anniversary gala at the old Atlantic Bar with close-up impro and Josh Darcy ventriloquising Osborne; a triumphant run for In Pursuit of Cardenio at the Edinburgh Fringe, where the new ‘School of Night’ is born; two Buzzwords gigs for Lloyd Stephens at the Wheatsheaf; a Halloween special for Terror 2006 at the Union Theatre; and a trip with Lucy to complete the 53-hour Soap-A-Thon in Edmonton, Alberta, following which David Belke comes to London to run long-form workshops.   2007 Private impro sessions showcasing The School of Night at Sue Rose’s studio in Swiss Cottage, and long-form research at The Actors Centre. Impromptu gigs at The Drill Hall and The Deptford Arms; running a workshop for new impro group The Institute (members included Cariad Lloyd, Lucy Trodd and Paul Foxcroft); and my last performance with Ken in Jeremy Beadle’s extraordinary library of alternative literature (The Beadleian, as it is known).   2008 The birth of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (following a summer workshop at the Actors Centre) – following try-out gigs at The Hen & Chickens and Kings Head theatres, we also appear at The Wheatsheaf and the Carnival des Phenomenes in Clerkenwell before our first Edinburgh festival at The George Square Theatre results in a residency at The Kings Head, our home for some time thereafter. Also this year, the first full London Improvathon at The People Show Studios in Bethnal Green; a guest appearance at the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough; an appearance with The Institute at the Canal café; and various events in London and Liverpool to celebrate Ken’s life (the Memorial Caper at The Clerkenwell Theatre in October, a memorial show at the Kasimir in November plus a guest cabaret from The School of Night, and Liverpool’s first Improvathon).   2009 The second London Improvathon, Pack up Your Troubles, at the People Show Studios; Showstopper!’s continued and growing success at The King’s Head, Greenwich Theatre, Edinburgh again (winning a ‘Spirit of the Fringe’Award) and then The Leicester Square Theatre; The School of Night’s slow re-formation without Ken at The Latitude Festival and then The Jermyn Street Theatre (with special guest John Sessions); and workshops at The Actor’s Centre, Drama Studio London where I still teach, and the acting company of the theatre Royal, Bury St.Edmunds.   2010 The Third London Improvathon, We Are Not Amused, now at Hoxton Hall. Showstopper! makes a BBC radio pilot, and continues in London at The Drill Hall, Udderbelly London, and then back to The King’s Head theatre (twice a week now), as well as touring all over England and Ireland. The School of Night perform Hard Bardics at The Jermyn Street Theatre, then appear in the Slapdash Festival at The Old Vic tunnels. Showstopper! is commissioned to record a series for BBC Radio!   2011 The Fourth London Improvathon, Studio 50, at Hoxton Hall. As the radio series is broadcast, Showstopper! continues to tour and makes its full West End debut at The Ambassadors Theatre. We also start to run workshops alongside gigs. The School of Night visits Hamburg.   2012-present Showstopper! continued to play the Udderbelly and Edinburgh every year, as well as touring the UK, Ireland and beyond and The School of Night made appearances at all kinds of venues and festivals - Lichfield, Grassington, The Jermyn St Theatre and St.James Studio, and residencies  at Austin College, Sherman (Texas), working with students on literary improvisation as part of their Medieval & Renaissance Studies Week, and at DAMA College, Kuala Lumpur.   In 2015, Showstopper! was the first long-form impro show to run in the West End, and went on to win an Olivier award for Best Family Show or Entertainment. In 2016, The School of Night appeared at the bardic omphalos, Stratford-on-Avon, as part of the Fairy Portal Camp.