Improv with John Cremer and the Maydays

Last night I attended a workshop about improvisational comedy organised by London Toastmasters. The workshop was led by John Cremer, an improvisation teacher and performer. In the first half we were shown the techniques used by improvisational actors. The second half was a performance by John Cremer’s improvisational group, The Maydays. What follows is a summary of my notes from the workshop section.

John began by highlighting two skills that members of Toastmasters International often have trouble with: impromptu speaking and humorous speaking. He described how the basic rules of improvisation could be used to create humor and engagement. He stressed that these rules are not about being slick, clever or funny, they are about being in the moment.

Stage Craft

John chose four volunteers. This group remained on stage for the entire first half and were used to demonstrate all the techniques.

The first thing the volunteers were asked to do was practice stage craft. Each person had to deliver a line using a “four step process”. 1. Stand in the centre of the stage. 2. Deliver the line. 3. Receive the applause. 4. Return to their original position. The line they were asked to deliver was “I was on holiday”, which was suggested by an audience member.

Next they were asked deliver a single word, “elephant” (again, suggested by the audience), but this time with an attitude.

This exercise got the volunteers warmed up, and the audience used to shouting things out and applauding. John stated that the volunteers now had experience of acting, and the jump from acting to improvising is small, you just need to take away knowing what to say.

Three Line Play

The volunteers were asked to improvise a series of three line plays. This involved a pair of people taking turns to deliver lines. This is what the first pair said:

A: Jake, we’re standing on the stage

B: Yes we are

A: And everyone is looking at us

John offered a couple of guidelines to help the plays along:

1. Avoid asking questions

Asking questions forces the other person to do the work. Instead, make a statement that others can react to.

2. Do it with attitude

Allow yourself to overreact. An extreme attitude can turn a bland statement into something interesting:

A: There’s a bucket on the stage

B: Oh my god! (recoiling)

Three techniques

There are three fundamental techniques of improvisation that work together “like a mathematical formula”:

  1. Listen – To yourself and to others.
  2. Say Yes – Don’t dismiss other peoples ideas. Incorporate them and build on them.
  3. Commit – Stick with it through the silence and confusion.

John gave the volunteers the chance to practice these techniques through a series of improv games:

Say the most inappropriate thing at ..

The audience provides a scenario and the improvisers take turns saying the most inappropriate thing for that situation.

A wedding: “I object!”

A road accident: “Anyone got a spatula?”

QVC Shopping channel

The audience provide a bizarre product with strange features. The improvisers pair up and pretend to be a pair of QVC Shopping Channel presenters selling the product.

The games were great fun to watch. John was keen to point out that even if you broke the rules it was still funny. “You can’t do this wrong!”

Final Thought

I had great fun at this workshop and watching the performance in the second half. If any of you get the chance to attend one of John’s workshops I would highly recommend it. Thanks to John Cremer, The Maydays, and everyone involved in the organisation of this event!

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One Comment

  1. Freddie Daniells
    Posted September 4, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    excellent review – thank you!

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