Our guest blogger for this week is Alan Marriott with a retrospective piece. Now residing in Canada, he co-founded London’s Grand Theft Impro and created The Impro Musical and Impropera (a fully improvised opera). He has worked with or taught: The Comedy Store Players, Dogs on Holiday, Brickbats Volunteers, South of the River (with Steve Frost and Jeremy Hardy) and The Top Dog Players. A partial list of Alan’s former students include Eddie Izzard, Alan Davies, John Sparks, Gordon Kennedy, Niall Ashdown, Fay Ripley and many more. Keep an eye out for his upcoming book, “Genius Now!”
Well… Here I am back in Vancouver. As a Canadian who has been non-resident in Canada for almost 25 years, that statement might just mean a bit more to me than to you.
I came to London, England in 1985 to study at the London Academy of Music and Drama (LAMDA) and what an amazing time it was. Nights spent watching shows in London’s famous West End, days studying with experts in every aspect of theatre (to use the English spelling).
I had come from Canada with a pretty fair degree of experience in improvisation and I had the great fortune to be part of the early explosion in improvisation that happened across Canada in the early eighties. I cut my teeth with Vancouver Theatresports’ at its original home, City Stage and, as well as taking part in many, many TS matches, I also was cast in the first plays produced by VTL (Theatresports Hamlet and Suspect).
With my London training finished and nothing particularly pulling me back to Vancouver, I decided to stay and spread what I knew about improv to the English. I’ll never forget teaching a nutty Covent Garden busker called Eddie Izzard in his beginners class. Eddie was completely raw, manic, loony, and wonderful to watch. When I see him doing a comedy set, I always think how much his improv was like his stand up.
In 1985, London had a vibrant comedy circuit with tens of small venues tucked away in little rooms above pubs. The acts were weird and wild, often dangerously so (like Chris Lynam’s closing routine of dropping his pants and inserting a lit Roman candle between his naked cheeks). This was the heyday of Britain’s ‘alternative comedy’ circuit that spelled fame for people like Ben Elton, Lenny Henry, Jerry Sadowitz and many others.
Alternative meant turning away from the perceived racist values of older comedians and finding comedy from different sources. This created a huge pool of talented, funny people looking for some kind of extra edge that would get them noticed by bookers and then later, TV producers. A lot of them thought improv might just give them that edge. The Americans were doing it, weren’t they?
Kevin Carr, the artistic director of Marginal Bard, asked me to help cast, train improvisers, and play in a very different improvised version of Hamlet than the one I had previously done in Vancouver. Shortly thereafter, I set up London Theatresports with ex-Loosemoose Theater actor Barry Cook in 1987, first at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, South London and then later was asked put together a sponsored (Moosehead beer, of course) tournament at the Donmar Warehouse. There was almost no other improv in London at that time. The Comedy Store Players (with Mike Myers) had only just begun doing shows to tiny houses at the old Comedy Store venue in Leicester Square. Only three years later, ironically after Myers had returned to Toronto and joined Second City, they would become the nucleus of ‘Who’s Line is it Anyway?’ The remnants of Keith Johnstone’s ‘Theatre Machine’ (Ben Bennison, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Ric Morgan; all utterly brilliant improvisers) had all moved on to other things. This left a vacuum that Theatresports and Hamlet Improvised quickly filled.
It was like the early days of Vancouver all over again. Actors, comedians, street performers, social workers! Everybody, it seemed, wanted to learn about this new thing called impro.
Previous Guests: Charna Halpern, Jill Bernard, Marcel St. Pierre, Josh Fulton, Brendon Bennetts, Terence Bowman, Gil Browdy