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An Actor on Improvisation

17/08/2016

As a seasoned veteran of many years of murder mystery performing I rarely stop to dissect the strange alchemy which translates into a fun night for our guests. Indeed, the specialised skills required for a successful evening ensure that it’s not a job for just any actor. One of the key feathers in a murder mystery performer’s cap is a word which strikes fear into the heart of many thespians: improvisation. That’s right, the illusive art of making things up on the spot, which are both funny and importantly, don’t break the world that we’ve been trying to create.

I should perhaps point out that all of our murder mysteries do have full scripts; I have helped write some of them personally! We use improvisation to truly tailor the experience to our guests. This is one of the most important aspects of our murder mysteries; we are constantly monitoring and assessing our audience’s reaction to the evening and adjusting the performances that we give accordingly. It could be that all of the guests one evening are faintly sozzled on adult pop after a hard afternoon of conferences; the show and the humour that they enjoy could be vastly different from one favoured by those at a charity fund raising gala. It is our job to edit our script on the fly and create brand new moments to fill those gaps.

I frequently play Lord Lovelace, the larger than life host of Lovelace Manor and some of the most fun I have ever had on stage has blossomed out of improvisation. The final rehearsed interrogation of the evening is held between the Reverend Frost and the Lord and it is safe to say that it is slightly different every time! We are always in mind of the destination but the route to reach it can take many strange and surreal turns. There is a strange calm that descends when improvising; a sense of heightened awareness expands from behind one’s eyes and smooths out any wrinkles of anxiety about performing. Without wanting to sound overly pretentious (and probably failing) it is like there are two brains working at once; the analytical brain keeps track of the technical aspects of performing, where to stand, who can see, which audience members to focus on, whilst the creative brain is allowed freedom to steer the ship. It is a liberating experience to trust that whatever comes out of one’s mouth is the right decision.

On a personal level, the ease with which I can improvise is born out of the familiarity I have with my character. I know him incredibly well and have helped shape the strange booming teddy bear that he has become. I know how he thinks and the kind of surreal flights of fancy that he can get away with, which makes it all the more joyous when the second brain produces a perfectly formed pun or bon mot from nowhere. There is a genuine delight to be had when witnessing a positive audience reaction to a joke that didn’t exist seconds before and is generally all the more satisfying because it didn’t require any great mental effort to conjure.

Improvisation is successful when the audience can’t see the joins. The most hilarious spontaneous flourishes are worthless if followed by a few seconds of head scratching confusion as the actor struggles to remember where they are in the scene. The art of it comes into play when several disparate threads of script, technique and improvisation are woven together to form one unbroken comedic tapestry. The end goal of all our murder mysteries is that the audience walks away feeling included, impressed & entertained and improvisation can provide a crucial catalyst in achieving this.