Edinburgh is continually gaining ground as a powerhouse of theatre and comedy; a city of culture that’s a proven leader in arts development. But there’s a lesser-known area in which it’s developing talent at a rate of knots. Improv.
During the Fringe, improv comedy is a programming mainstay (many of the major players at the free shows in particular are Edinburgh-based troupes), but for the rest of the year it’s something of a minority, despite being one of the the most challenging, exciting and entertaining live art forms there is. One-off, never to be seen again performances are created by improvisers who develop the skills needed to create shows that are entirely made up. No script, no props, no safety net. And over recent years, Edinburgh has become a national – and even international – hotspot for it.
You’d expect anything requiring such intense support and teamwork to foster a strong sense of community – and the improv world has this in abundance. The hub for this community in Scotland is The TBC Improv Theatre, based in Monkey Barrel Comedy’s Original Room every Sunday night. Conceived by the successful theatre company To Be Continued.. (TBC) who enjoy sell-out runs and five star reviews each fringe with their show Absolute Improv, the theatre has a varied line-up and is dedicated to showcasing new and upcoming talent alongside well-established groups. While there’s a focus on home-grown troupes, visiting acts from all over the world are often featured and some groups are now performing full improvised musicals with live musicians. The theatre runs workshops as well as beginner and advanced courses for those wishing to have fun, while learning and honing skills that are as valuable in everyday life as they are on the stage – and graduates get the chance to debut in a Sunday night show. Many people are terrified of improv, even experienced actors, yet there’s a wonderful childlike simplicity in make-believe – releasing inhibitions, engaging the imagination and trusting both yourself and others. As a form of theatre it’s often overlooked by the unaware general public (whose only frame of reference is often Whose Line Is It Anyway?), achieving cult rather than mainstream followings. Yet improv results in the kind of brilliant humour that just can’t be achieved with a rehearsed piece.
Monkey Barrel Comedy (who have an improv course starting in January as part of Monkey Barrel Polytechnic) also plays host to the award-winning hit show Spontaneous Sherlock, as well as the newly launched Spontaneous Potter selling-out every performance and enchanting Scotland’s very many wizard fans. Will Naameh, of Spontaneous Sherlock/Potter and founder member of another major group on the improv scene: Men With Coconuts, can also be found at comedy clubs around the country as his (improvised) rapping alter-ego MC Hammersmith. It seems other clubs too are more open to including improv on the bill – while it might seem risky to book an act without set “material”, the reward that comes with spontaneity and surprise is tangible. There’s something both satisfying and delightful in seeing players riff on audience suggestions and it’s one of the many factors that makes improv so darn magical.