On Originality and cheesecake

I don’t travel to improv festivals very much anymore, mostly cos of having two very energetic kids. That and setting up a new company with some pretty ambitious goals. I never did as much as Heather, but whenever I did, regular as clockwork, I would have a crisis when asked to submit my classes. What on earth should people want to learn from me? What could I offer which wasn’t obvious, which made a contribution to the conversation? Which people would want to take? It’s the curse of the newer teacher – you want a class title that stands out from the crowd. You want people to talk. I think it was inevitable, but definitely feel glad that I am somewhat past that point now. I haven’t yet reached the point of just calling every class ‘good improv’, but it might happen one day. 

But here’s the thing about new classes with new titles and new ideas that stand out. It’s not just that they sell. It’s way worse: they also work. Teaching a class of experienced improvisers an unfamiliar way of playing will, almost magically, create great improv. If the teacher sets it up clearly and the players are open-hearted, you have the improv equivalent of saying “Two times two is four. What does two times two equal?”. The answer comes back full-throated and confident. Security and novelty are a heady combination. 

I think that’s because of one of my Three Least Sexy Words in Improvisation. Indeed, probably the least sexy one of all: coherence. Art works when all of the elements form together to make a whole and the whole is composed of parts that match. When you introduce a new filter to how you play, coherence happens automatically. After all, we are all doing the thing we were just told. New experience is a short cut to common experience.

The real question is not, I don’t think, whether one can have a good time with a new idea, but whether, when and how often that idea can be applied after the workshop finishes. Can I take this thing out into the improv wild and do something with it? Can I use it regularly? Or is it the equivalent of a kitchen gadget too specific to get regular use? Did I just buy an avocado slicer when I already own a knife?

In the spirit of which, please allow me to introduce to you:


The Iron Rule of Improvisation:

“Any Old Bullshit Works Once.”


Now, like ‘You Only Live Once’, this can be read negatively or positively. The positive is that you can have a good time (and make some good improvisations) from just about any stimulus. Improv based on the periodic table, the name of your first pet, or IKEA product names. That’s great. Improv is a resilient, flexible art form mostly performed by passionate curious people. That means it sometimes works when it has no right to. 

The negative is that you can’t always tell the bullshit from the gold. If everything works the first time, you have to do it a few times before you know whether that was a fluke.

That is not to say that all new ideas are bullshit (artists should always be pushing the envelope), but that any idea in such an ephemeral, unstable art form as improv has to be repeated and tried until we know if it is worthwhile. It’s only through seeing the repeated and repeatable value of something to many people that we can tell if it’s bullshit or not. 

In Skin in The Game, Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes the Lindy effect:

“Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. This heuristic became known as the Lindy effect.”

His (grouchy, stubborn) point is that, given a limit on resources (especially time), we were best to lean on older, more storied ideas, one that had been tested by repetition and time. He quotes King Alphonso X of Spain: “Burn old logs. Drink Old Wine. Read old books. Keep old friends”. 

This comes down to confusion which I think we often make in improvisation: we mistake the interesting for the important. And they are fundamentally not the same. A new conceptual framework, set of ideas, or parameters is very appealing, especially to a set of people who have chosen an art form of the ceaselessly, breathlessly new. But we are wise to keep an eye on the old as well. SAfter all, it has survived this long. 


When to ignore your instincts

Hands up if you have heard something like this in an improv class: ‘Say the first thing that comes into your head.’ ‘Go with your gut.’ ‘You know the answer.’ ‘Just see what happens.’ (The last one is even the subtitle of our level one syllabus.) How many hands are up? Everybody’s? I’m glad. If you dip your toes in improv, you would be forgiven for thinking it is all learning permission and getting over that time when (at 14) you were told you couldn’t sing, or draw, or that your poetry sucked.

Now when you start improvising, this idea is very important. If you come from an education system that teaches compliance (and if you are reading this, you probably do), learning to trust the quiet voice inside is important, even subversive. It’s one of the reasons why improvisation can be so transformational. It re-asserts the value of the individual, and that creativity sits within and serves us all. That’s undeniably beautiful.

This idea has a fine and noble history. The journey of modernisation in the post-enlightenment West has been the gradual expansion of the circle of those who are considered ‘fully’ human. From men with historical position to those without, to women, the poor, those of the global majority, alternative* sexual and gender identities, the neuro-atypical. Gradually, and not without setbacks, more and more people have become part of the mainstream of thought, given rights in law and in practice. It’s called humanism.  It’s not a perfect process, nor is it finished, but you would be hard-pressed to not think it is wonderful. More and more people are now considered to be people. And it is an idea that is (as it always has been) under threat. Information capitalism and the surveillance state, with their abilities to nudge and massage opinions stand ready to take it apart, to make us better cogs in the great greed machine. But this is not my area, so let me get back to IMPROV.

Because, like my courgette plants, this beautiful and liberating idea can get out of control in an improv class. (The ugliest behaviours are often over-extensions of the best ones.) What happens if all you ever do is trust your instincts and other people are more fun to watch? What if their scenes are (whisper it) just better? Might it be that the ‘you’ which is being expressed is worth less? Might it be that you are not enough after all? Better book another masterclass!

There is a bit of a problem here with learning improv from skilled performers. An experienced improviser who performs regularly will (and should) speak to you from their experience. They will tell you what serves them when they get onstage. And if they have years and years on the clock, most likely accessing their instincts is what they need to do. The graft and grind of simple, technical improvements are probably far behind them. They listen to their instincts because they have trained them. (This, incidentally, is the reason why I have made a point of never improving past the level of ‘perfectly decent’ at improv. If you are struggling with all this, so am I. My instincts suck. It keeps me honest.)

It all comes back to a great divide in artistic creation: the formalist versus the romantic. Formalism holds that great art comes from the most elegant use of the formal expectations that surround the artform. You learn what others have done and are in relation to that tradition, part of a great sweep of history. Romanticism says that greatness comes from inspiration within. The best expression of the person in paint, words, or notes. Just know, says the formalist, just be, says the romantic.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will detect me setting up a false binary. The truth, of course, is that to be creative you need formal skill and romantic inspiration both. Each fuels and serves the other. Skill allows you to express yourself as you want to, and a drive brings you back to the grind. “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working”, says Picasso. (He was an awful man, but hella quotable.)

Because here is the uncomfortable bit. At a certain point, your instincts will no longer serve you. The very ‘self’ which was delightful to express will become the thing that stunts your growth.

Instinct is the positive word for prejudice. It is composed of low-res, simplistic heuristics which work most of the time. They are, as Ramachandran puts it “a summary of how we have reasoned before”. Note the last, dangerous word. I do not want to be restricted to how I have reasoned before. I want to try new things and learn from them.

So when (as I sometimes do) I say ‘fuck your instincts’, I am of course being provocative. But I also mean it. Your instincts are wonderful, powerful things. But they are not You. You are not bound to them. You can ignore them sometimes. What they offer are just options, and there is great power in just not doing the thing which you always do. You might learn some new instincts, or make those you have more precise and nuanced. You might completely unlearn something that isn’t serving you. Try improvising as you wouldn’t. Fuck your instincts.

* I am using the word ‘alternative’ knowingly here, as in alternative to the cis-het-monogamous norm which was being expanded from.

What’s in a game?

Game is a word that gets used a lot in improvisation. A lot. And being a wordy kind of guy, I am always cautious of words that get overused.; they get rough around the edges, lose their function. I like my words precise. Let’s start by defining the four most common uses of ‘game’ in improvisation. I am sure there are others, but this is a good start.

  1. Short-form games – familiar to anyone who has ever seen ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’, these are pre-set structures originally created as training tools, but which are great to watch. Maybe each line starts with the last word of the previous line (to work on listening), or you can only say a set number of words (to work on brevity and subtext). They often make the audience feel like they are in on the joke, playfully torturing the player. These games are not always scenic. In fact, there are many categories, including line games (where players stand in a line and step forward to contribute a line or idea), naive games (where a character must guess a particular piece of information) or elimination games (where players are, you guessed it, eliminated one by one). These games are very accessible and can create a solid show even with inexperienced players.
  2. Games slots – a part of the Harold format, game slots sit between the sets of three scenes and often involve the whole company. Games pull together the strands of the piece, break the rhythm of two-person scenes and can give a new angle on what is going on. These can be set games (even short-form games as above), or created in the moment. A memorable recent game saw the players come on one by one and name what Pantone colour they were and the name, then swirl and mix themselves into a painting and describe what we could see.
  3. Game of the scene – a way of playing scenes often associated with UCB in the US and the FA in the UK. ‘Game’ in its simplest form means scenes in which a particular aspect of a character’s behaviour is repeated and escalated. You might choose a trait, say ‘happy’ and connect it with a person, say an astronaut. The game of the scene is to find more and more ways for the astronaut to be happy. ‘I can’t believe I am finally going into space. Wheeee!’, ‘Look at me, mum. I’m eating freeze-dried ice cream!’,. The fun of this is to find the most extreme expression of happiness as an astronaut (‘An alien is coming out of my chest – just like in the movies!’’) and that is often the end of the scene. While it is definitely not the only way to play (some people find it very restrictive), it makes for very funny scenes.
  4. Just Plain Games – a much larger and vaguer category, which can include basically anything you might play in an improv class. Big booty, Zip Zap Zop, 8 things. You know the ones. Improv Encyclopedia has hundreds, of varying quality. There are word games, circle games, failure games, rhyming games, physical games, abundance games, and games where you create games.

But what makes them all games is a restriction of freedom. You don’t just do whatever you like, you follow the rules, whether they are set beforehand or created in the moment. Indeed, you could say that the rules of the game are the game, and by playing by them the game is created. By this way of thinking about it, a game and an exercise are the same thing. A game just sounds more fun.

Outside of improv, of course, the word game is often associated with some form of competition. But they are still restrictions of freedom. By agreeing to play rugby, you only throw the ball backward. In chess, your pawns move one square forwards (unless it is their first move or they are taking an opponent’s piece). In a computer game, the restrictions of freedom are hidden behind the code, but they are still there. For all the fact that we ‘play’ a game, they are governed and defined by a list of things you can’t do. The difference is that board games, computer games, and sports normally have win/loss conditions, or at least indicators of how well you are doing. But by playing the scene of the happy astronaut, you still give up the right to be sad, or confused, at least for now.

To many people, this way of thinking about a game feels like a straitjacket. Stop telling me what I can and can’t do, this is meant to be my fun time! Surely, in improv, you can just do whatever you like? Well, yes, you can. But others might not want to play with you. Because games are a social tool. In playing a game, we are setting expectations with the people we are playing with. Creating a micro-culture, using the rules to find each other and cooperate.

Because the counterintuitive thing is that giving up part of your freedom can feel wonderful. Steeping into a game (games must have a start and an end), we take a short holiday from the terrifying complexity of reality, with its ill-defined rules, infinite players, and unclear criteria for success. We agree to a smaller, organised playing field and a set of people we are playing with. The choices are fewer and oddly, that increases the joy.

Too much of a good thing

A couple of weeks ago, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was teaching a Harold class. New-ish to it, the class had just worked their way through the form. It had been fun, but difficult. Memories were stretched, brains overloaded. And as we finished, haltingly, unsure if the question was allowed, a student put up her hand and asked: ‘Do you actually enjoy openings?’ She was not being difficult, or obstructive. She was just confused.

Now I’ve done improv in a lot of countries and with people from many more. And improvisers are (nearly) all lovely people. They are kind and open, determined to have fun and tend to accept you where you are and for who you are. Improvisers have been my colleagues and friends, people that I have sat up till dawn with and laughed until my ribs hurt. One is the mother of my two children. But improvisers have also broken my heart

Because too much of a positive can become a negative. Too much helpfulness becomes stifling, too much morality becomes rigidity. Too much love becomes obsession and too much attention to detail, perfectionism. Danger lies in an excess of the habits and patterns of improvisation. Sometimes we need to know when to not.

So below I have listed three behaviors which are easy for improv to slip into. Behaviours that come from holding a good thing too tightly, from assuming that if a problem is not solved, the solution is to do the same thing, but harder. Behaviours that can worm their way into your groups, classes and communities with the best of intentions and from the gentlest of people. But behaviours that can cost you dear and hurt you deep. I like clean threes and subverting Bible tropes, so let’s call them ‘The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse’.

Toxic Positivity

By no means restricted to improvisers, toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how difficult and challenging a situation is, one should maintain a positive mindset. That not doing so is a personal failure. Keep calm and carry on. Choose love. And if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Now there is, of course, a lot of good that comes out of staying positive. Hell, the chances are that a part of your early improv training was saying yes and, finding what there is to like in somebody’s offer. Positivity is neglected in our culture and negativity often confused with intelligence. Joy is powerful and sometimes a choice. Sometimes.

The problem comes when positivity is all that is permitted. When we police the emotions of those we play with and gently diminish or exclude the person who does not LOVE EVERYTHING. In a beginner’s improv class, we might encourage by celebrating what happened simply because it happened, but as we gain in understanding, we have the right and the duty to say when something sucks and ask why. To express our dissatisfaction or anger. To say when we feel like we suck and we hate everything and then not solve it, but see it as part of the experience. 

Toxic positivity ignores the complexity and texture of a process. It decentralises a part of ourselves and requires us to pretend to be tooth-achingly happy. And it’s as dangerous as being endlessly negative.

Toxic Sincerity

There are two brands of toxic sincerity. Over honesty and over seriousness. I will not spend much time on the first except to say that it’s not always the best idea to say everything that you are thinking and feeling right away. Sometimes you need to take a beat, consider your options, act smart rather than fast. It’s overthinking that’s bad, not all thinking and anyone saying you should never think when you improvise is probably trying to suck you into a dependency culture. Obsessive, immediate honesty can lead to a community that fetishizes trauma.

And although improv should always be delightful, but that does not mean that it can’t sometimes be uncomfortable, like glancing over the rim of a volcano. In the right circumstance and with the right boundaries in place, one can play an offensive character or a stupid one. In playing (and playing with) things that have hurt us, we can take away their power. After all, if one can treat the frivolous with gravitas, then one can be light-hearted about the serious.

Over-seriousness is a tricksier thing. After all, if we are making something that aspires to be more than simply funny-ha-ha, we need to take things seriously, to play scenes about things that matter and treat our scenes themselves as if they matter. Things matter when we decide they do.

But, at least for me, part of the delight of improv is a sense of lightness and delicacy. We never have to stand by what we say, or even repeat it. There are no decisions that are locked in and repeated eight nights a week. We try out an idea for one scene, see how it feels, shrug and move on, always learning.

Toxic Agreement

Improv is a social act, a re-connection with simple groupish behaviour that we are taught is dangerously subversive. That is (some of) the fun of it. Just doing things together. There is such joy in losing oneself in the task, breaking down the boundaries of the skull. It’s the biotechnology that means a group of small, weak-limbed primates can take down a mammoth, raise a barn or play a test match. And working together often means being a little dumber yourself, trusting the iterative, piecemeal process and not trying to control it. You give up the luxury of individuality to be part of something bigger.

But. That means that the first voice can get to determine the tenor of the conversation. The fastest brain sets the direction of travel. If all we can do is ever agree, then we can waste our time on something we are all gradually losing our commitment to. Sometimes if something doesn’t work, you Warhol it and make the accidental wonderful, sometimes you say ‘hell, no’, discard it and remember that creativity is inefficient.

These three behaviours are tempting because, in smaller doses, they work. Be positive, sincere and agree and you will probably create some good improv together. For a night or two, even a year or two. It’s easier than dealing with the complex, ever-changing. But if you do not have the space to be cynical, to be flippant and to disagree, problems will grow underneath the surface. Not saying what you think pulls you apart from each other, makes the moments together less genuine, less together. Noticing and dealing with these three behaviours can be the thing that keeps your group together. Not noticing and not dealing with them, can tear things apart. Antiseptic stings, but sepsis kills.

I would love to end this blog with five simple steps (or better, three!), but doing so would miss the point. All of the above behaviours simplify and reduce. They make complex problems seem simple by erasing some of what we think and feel. There is no simple solution. That’s kind of the point. Acknowledging your own impulses and making spaces for others takes time, and sensitivity. Off-the-peg solutions don’t work.

Because I do enjoy openings, but I get that some people don’t. They can feel formless, pretentious, a task rather than a treat. So we talked through what the student might dislike about openings, and found some possible ways in, some places to start. And the conversation helped more than just her. I hope it made the next objection easier to raise. The next Harold was better. That’s the way it goes.

How to Speak to Humans – Part 1

This week, I was lucky enough to attend the 2nd annual edition of Acteon’s ‘Speak to the Human’ conference. Acteon are a consultancy that do all kinds of interesting and innovative things. Like creating a health and safety campaign for Channel 4 which was also a Barry-White-style music video. They contacted Joe and I last year because they had wanted to create a piece of music that would capture the spirit of their conference. I knew immediately that I was going to like these people.

When we explained that we could improvise songs live on the day live in response to what was happening, there was some disbelief and (I think fair to say) distrust. However, after some reassurance that I have done this once or twice before (In the West End with The Showstoppers, concept albums with Fred Deakin of Lemon Jelly, and of course The Maydays’ Happily Never After), Acteon took a leap and let us bring the music. 

As the title of the conference was ‘Speak to the Human’, we wanted to show the power of music to do just that. This is a subject very dear to my heart. From when we were very young, my Dad would record songs intros onto a cassette so we could play ‘Name that tune’ in the car. That love and curiosity have always stayed with me. I see life events through the lense of music; heartbreaks and triumphs have a song attached*. I hear conversations musically, looking for changes in dynamic and rhythm, trying to find my place in the orchestra, not dominating or disappearing. And having done so much musical improv means that I sometimes imagine an underscore in some real-life situations. Music, and the language of music, is everywhere for me. Not just what I do, but in the way I see the world. 

Back to this year’s conference. With the audience, we reimagined the James Bond theme as a Nursery Rhyme and the Shake’n’Vac jingle as thrash metal. Later in the day, we transformed people’s group work into a mini-musical, and then rounded off proceedings with a song based on the delegates’ word cloud of the day. It left me with lots of food for thought about how I might continue to use music to speak to the human and how music speaks to me. 

(It also reminded me that after last year’s conference, I had a conversation with public speaker and improviser Steve Bustin. Steve had the great idea of doing an audio ‘audit’ (an audio-it?) for organisations; what do people hear when they walk into your building? What’s your hold music? What’s the acoustic like in your regular meeting room? We’ll come back to that.)

Part 2 of this blog will explore this year’s conference theme ‘Harnessing Disruption and Navigating Change – which I believe improvisers know one or two things about.


*Below is a short selection from the soundtrack of my life. In no way is this comprehensive (a full list would be weeks long).


Bobby’s Girl – Susan Maughan

Grandma Jean Urquhart singing while cooking. She had a belief that pop music wasn’t real music but made an exception for this song.

Woodpeckers from Space – Videokids

Saturday afternoon Scotland living room dancing and thinking this song was the funniest thing ever.

Captain Dread – Dreadzone

School Camping Trips. Dorset, always Dorset. Once I peed in my tent and didn’t tell anyone.

Teardrop – Massive Attack

Late teen late night after parties from raving in Sussex Fields. Mind altering substances may or may not have been involved.

Pitseleh – Elliott Smith

A painful break up that I thought I’d never recover from. Tried to escape by running off to Japan and this was the only album I had to listen to on my mp3 player.

Wraith Pinned to the Mist and other games – Of Montreal

Living above pub days with my friend Matt. Lord Kitchener also gets an honourable mention here.

One of those days – The Electric Soft Parade

Fondly remember singing on this track and doing a live session for BBC Radio 6 #humblebrag

I hope that I don’t fall in love with you – Tom Waits

The song that I listened to when Jules and I were getting together.

Something Stupid – Trashpour4

The song I listened to after Jules and I got together

Fancy – Iggy Azalea

We listened to this at bathtime every night for the first year of Iggy’s life. I’m pretty good at the rap now.

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Slugs, change and what to expect in the next year

After our announcement last week, I got quite a few emails. Some were requests, some ideas, some questions. And quite a few were asking me how I approach the slug problem. 

Let me explain. On the patio, I have a little germination greenhouse where, too early and too enthusiastically, I planted trays of kale, herbs, leaves, and lettuces. They came up nicely, got planted out and then almost disappeared to the slugs in a short, distressing week. Walking back up from my evening class in the office, I would pick a fresh crop of slugs, dispose of them, and find the same an hour later. As Iggy would say, “Daddy sad.”

So I went to war. I strimmed the grass, I surrounded the beds with herb plants. I sprayed two litres of strong coffee around. I put down slug pellets and beer traps. A short Google will give you many ways to repel the slimy little beggars. The evidence is thin and contradictory, but the principles seem sound. Give them fewer places to hide, fill the garden with things they dislike, and, where necessary, murder them. Try many things, but never assume you know which one is working. 

Last night as I walked up from the office late, I shone my phone torch onto the raised beds. Not a slug in sight. The Chinese kale is growing pretty high. The rocket is recovering, the mixed leaf ready to harvest. I am feeling more confident about planting out my squashes and cucumbers. It seems I have won.

But neat though that is, it is not the end. I am anticipating a summer of tomato blight, powdery mildew, aphids, drought, and persuading a two-year-old to not eat that. Because a garden will never do exactly what you want it to do. Your carefully researched measure will fail or succeed completely independent of how much work it took. And a new problem will appear just as you master the old. It’s an ecosystem that you are a part of, not a puppet you control. Often the next step will emerge not from your brain, but from what is there. Some things will grow that you never expected to, some things will refuse to. Humbleness must be constantly refreshed. 

And that’s how Heather and I want to approach the expansion of AndAlso’s classes and the new relationship with the Maydays. Both in Brighton and online. With energy, sure, but also with humbleness. Anyone who has ever met us will know that we are not short of ideas. Date night descends into a brainstorming meeting and a beer after class will have us scribbling notes. We’re going to try a bunch of things, see what grows, and accept that some plants just don’t like the climate. So below you will find ten things which we plan to do over the next year. I expect six or seven of them will happen.

  1. A new syllabus for Brighton classes
  2. Experienced player classes
  3. A Brighton scenework drop in 
  4. An expansion of online classes
  5. More retreats and intensives for people not in Sussex
  6. Blogs and podcasts
  7. A Brighton venue (more on that very soon)
  8. A jam night
  9. Weekly themes for drop ins
  10. That thing you suggest at our survey right here
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An announcement about the future

Hello. This is an announcement from AndAlso and The Maydays

This is a statement from the Maydays and AndAlso Improv. We are two companies with a lot of crossover, in our aims and our people. We love improv, as an art form and as a form of self development. In fact, the founders of And Also met as members of the Maydays. Improv can be a small world like that. AndAlso and the Maydays have been talking for the past few months and we’re really excited to tell you all about it. So, here’s the plan. Starting very soon, AndAlso will be taking on the education side of the Maydays. The Maydays will remain a performance company, free to concentrate on their award-winning shows.

The Maydays started in a room above a pub, and a lot has happened since then. The Brighton improv scene has become one of the most vibrant and exciting in the UK. The Maydays have expanded from a drop-in started by John Cremer – still going almost 20 years later – to a community of classes and residentials, performing at international festivals and packed Fringe runs, and a residency at the Komedia in Brighton. And that’s just the things achieved by the company itself. Individual company members and alumni have become actors, writers and speakers, as well as parents and dog owners. We want to celebrate all this history, while continuing to evolve, and saying yes to the opportunities ahead. That is a core part of the improv ethos, after all. 

By comparison, AndAlso is a tiny baby. It came out of the community around Heather and Jules’ online classes during the pandemic. Then there was a retreat for the people who had only met as faces on a screen. It didn’t even have a name until the middle of last year, or a website until December. But as Heather and Jules were directors of the Maydays and the Nursery respectively during their collaboration (one of the largest globally during the pandemic), we think our students are in good hands.

This change is a clarification and re-focussing. It is a commitment to the ambition of both companies, and to finding ways to support each other, have great fun and do great work. The Maydays will focus on continuing to be the improv performance company you know and love. AndAlso will be an education company. Simple as that. For shows: The Maydays. For classes and training: AndAlso. You’ll see the familiar Mayday faces teaching for AndAlso, as well as some new ones. This separation is simpler and clearer and will allow the two companies to progress and improve, providing more and better classes and shows for you, the very people reading this.

This arrangement will take full effect in September, but you will start to see changes well before then. Not every detail is finalised (how could it be?). So we’ll be looking to you over the coming months and years to be a part of it. Please tell us what we’re getting right and wrong. But, for now, thanks for reading. And if you have any questions or something you would like to say, you can of course contact us on either mayday@themaydays.co.uk or hello@andalsoimprov.com. Or both.

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I am not your therapist

‘I love improv’, said a student, looking me intently in the eyes, ‘It’s so much cheaper than a shrink’. We are leaning on a bar after class (his third). He bottom-lips beer froth off a thick mustache and looks towards the dartboard,  considering what he could buy with the money he has saved. A potters wheel maybe, or a greenhouse. He wouldn’t be the first to imprint on me like a baby duck, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first person to compare improv to therapy. (Two of the people who came to our retreat are members of teams with the word  ‘therapy’ in their names.) I am a decent enough improv teacher passing on the work of smarter and wiser folks, and improv done well is transformative.

Now I see why he said what he said: for many (including myself) improv can have a sense of coming home, of finding your people and the way of being that allows you to face and express yourself. Improvisers often refer to their teams as families. I am out of London now but used to love the sensation of going to an improv venue alone and seeing people I knew anyway. It felt (apologies for the word) natural. Healthy. A village organised by shared passion rather than geography.

I have absolutely no statistics for this, but I would think that neurodiversity and mental illness are significantly higher among improvisers than among the general population. It’s a community based on fluidity of identity, accepting people where they are and forgetting what’s outside the room. It gives a sense of power and agency, and that will almost inevitably attract a certain kind of person. Try finding an improviser who has not been bullied or excluded at some point in their life. It’s a tough ask. So hello, I have generalised anxiety disorder and suffer from depression. I take my pills, meditate and exercise where I can. I try to laugh at myself, be a good dad and get decent sleep. Some weeks, it works. 

To be clear, my issue here is not with therapy. Therapy is great. Shout out to Karen, who I see Thursdays at 11 am. She’s calm, insightful, and doesn’t take any of my bullshit. What troubles me is therapisation; the concept creep therapy ideas into other areas of life, and with it, the expectation that those other things can replace or even emulate therapy. 

Among them: improv. It’s so easy for what we do to get shot through with the language of actualisation and boundaries, of doing the work and trauma. As our awareness of mental illness grows, these words are more than ever in the public discourse. That normalises the discussion of mental illness. But it also risks reducing the impact of the words through overuse. Badly understood terms badly applied can be dangerous. 

Improv is a wonderful context to challenge yourself, but for us improv teachers there is a real danger that we let this go to our heads: when people tell us it’s like therapy, we can swell in the chest and the ego. The pandemic exacerbated this danger. Working from home and locked down with people whose eccentricities they were normally able to avoid, improvisers flocked to online classes for a little bit of normal. Checking in and out became the norm and we improv teachers were suddenly unlicensed and untrained keepers of sanity. At times it went well and at times it didn’t. We all did our best. Now things are open again, it is essential we establish the difference between one thing and the other. Improv and therapy should be kept firmly separate. 

Because improv is cheaper than therapy the same way that a yoga class is cheaper than a hip replacement. They involve the same part of the body, but the difference in scale is so great that few useful comparisons can be made.

So I am not your therapist. I do not know how to deal with your compulsions, phobias, and bad habits any more than I do my own. If you actually think you need therapy, then I recommend this: therapy. It’s hardly the point, but it will also make you a better improviser.

An Improviser’s Guide to Stoicism

Stoicism is one of those words that, through careless usage, has come adrift from its origins. Like ‘awesome’, or ‘literally’. With a small ‘s’, it just means enduring hardship without displaying emotions. But with its imperious capital letter, Stoiscism is a rich and immediate philosophy. It doesn’t deny or minimise emotions, rather it keeps a wry distance from them, understands that they are temporary and contingent. The Stoic does not feel nothing, but understands that they have a degree of control over what they feel. “You can always choose”, Marcus Aurelius writes, “not to care”.

And Marcus Aurelius had things to care about. He was an emperor who presided over an unstable and violent period of Roman history. He fought wars against the Marcomanni, the Quadi, and Sarmatians. He survived betrayals by his close friend and an assasination attempt involving his own sister. In that context as much as any other, not caring is not a choice, but a constant practice. Stoicism and meditation go very nicely together.

I always think that the most Stoic of all improv exercises is my friend and yours, the good ol’ ‘one word story’. Ideally, one where you shout ‘Hurray’ (or ‘We fucked up’) when something goes wrong, and start again. Some stories work gloriously, some fail gloriously. Some are just fine. But however it goes, there is a liveness in knowing that the story could be taken away from you at any moment, for a reason you might never know. That’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves of when we are improvising. How lucky we are to be doing it. And that most scenes are not our best work, nor are they our worst. They happen and we might learn something, but we should not attach too much self-worth to them. 

A core element of Stoic philosophy is the meditation on death and impermanence. What we are doing doesn’t matter. It will pass away soon, as will we and all who remember us. It’s easy to make that a negative, but it is also very freeing. Few things that we do really matter on any meaningful scale. If we will be dead soon, and so will everybody who remembers us, can we ever really say this tiny scene matters? Could anything matter less? The arrogance of it! 

In Stoicism, the highest aim is ‘virtue’ or living well. Not in luxury or fame, or covered in glory, but so that you stand by your choices. Virtue means training yourself to be able to respond with agility and grace. Frustration comes from surprise, which can come from rigid expectation. If you have a certain way you want a scene to go, you might miss how it does. If there is a learning point that must be delivered, we might scream past what really needs to happen in that class. Stoics go slowly and discard plans when they no longer serve. 

After all, if you wanted to guarantee what is going to happen onstage, you might as well write a play. In improvising, we deliberately subject ourselves to lack of control. The frustrations and surprises are the feature, the delight. We come to improv because of this very unpredictability, the involvement of that most unreliable of tools – the other improviser. Whether we have lives that require care and planning or personality types that seek it (guilty!), we are initially, headily drawn to the fluidity and fuck-it-why-not-ness. We must make sure the structure and rigidity we were escaping don’t creep back in. 

So improvise like a Stoic. Care a little less, love what happens a little more, and take yourself a little less seriously. Prepare rigorously and then discard your plans. Love what you do and also be professional. Be very serious and also very stupid. (I like to say that I am never joking and also never serious.) It’s not ‘but’, it’s both. It’s right there in the name of this company. Trust that you contain multitudes. We all do. 

Practically, what does this mean? How can you be more Stoic in your improv? Stoicism is an immediate, practical form of philosophy. It demands to be actively engaged with. Try any of the following things:

  1. Reflect on your improvisation before and after. Whether you keep a journal, meditate or simply run over the scenes in your head, it is not a betrayal of anything to remember what has happened and consider what you might have done differently. Not better, differently. Even better, write it down. For yourself, not for others. Read your journal back sometimes, to see how foolish you are
  2. Take another person’s perspective. I don’t just mean be empathetic and present with someone (though those are important), but try to see where they are coming from. Simply put, just shut up
  3. Choose not to care. Just make the decision, and then make the same decision again when caring slips back in
  4. Play ‘one-word story’ more often, especially with experienced improvisers
  5. Eat slowly
  6. Read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Three Least Sexy Words in Improv

Come to my improv class (we tell you) and be (we promise you) finally, truly free! Step into the void and discover that others will catch you. You may even catch yourself. You were worried about tripping, but instead you soar on liberated wings. Dream with me, little one.

Improv classes abound with the language of joy, heart, inspiration. And I see why. The business of neoliberalism is to keep us working and the business of the internet to keep us distracted. Put them together and we are constantly distracted from the work we should be doing and always, terribly guilty. Under those circumstances, we could all do with some joy, heart and inspiration (JHI). There are few feelings as wonderful, elusive and wonderfully elusive as working in sync, the fluid and paceless unfolding that makes a show feel both surprising and inevitable. It’s the dragon we are all chasing. Plus, JHI sells.

You have felt it coming, so here it is: But. 

Improv is hard. It’s really really hard. It is unrecordable and unrepeatable, gone almost before it has happened. It collapses easily under the weight of analysis (oh, physician – heal thyself!), and as soon as we think that we have mastered a skill, not only do the goalposts move, but the rules of game change and then someone changes the physics of the whole ruddy universe.

In a small measure of balance, allow me to offer you the following three things. When inspiration just won’t come, and chasing it seems exhausting, try these simple ideas instead. The Three Least Sexy Words in Improv. As inevitable, effective and boring as exercise, a varied diet and reading a good book. 


Make your shows hang together. That’s it. Make moments part of the same scene. Then make each scene be part of a show. When designing a show, work out a format which will make scenes which are part of the same show. When choosing people to play with, do so in order that your moment will cohere into scenes and from there into shows. This does not mean create a monoculture. That will fail, festers and destroys friendships. Make things which build bigger things. 

If something seems random, odd, an outlier, return to it, deal with it, hold it to you until it is part of you. A random selection, while momentarily, chaotically delightful, will not sustain your attention. The business of the mind is to find order in chaos and, where necessary, make that order more orderly still. Be silently structural. Create (just enough) order onstage.


Watching a show, an audience will often have a thing which they want, even need. Be the person who gives them it. They will thank you. If a question needs answering, answer it. If a scene is drifting away from its roots, return it there. If something is not happening that needs to, make it happen. If something is being avoided, say it.

When you start to improvise, you learn that you control less than fifty percent of a scene, but when you advance, you might learn that fifty percent is a lot. It’s almost half. How many other situations are you a full fifty percent in control of? Do not wait for the improv to happen, be the person doing the improv. 


I still snort when I remember Paul Foxcoft entering a scene with the line “it’s me, two other bears”. The current characters were, of course, Goldilocks and one bear, and the show had a cast of three. Job done; now we can play. Obvious has a habit of looking like genius, and no improviser at the end of a scene wishes their partner had been less clear. So when you have detected an incoherence, take responsibility for it as your own, then deal with it as quickly as possible. Subtly has its place, and elegance will come with practice, but for now, clarity will do. Get it done.

Where (comes the reasonable question) is the space for inspiration? Inspiration is great when it strikes. I do not discount it, and I may write about it next week (if the mood strikes), but when it strikes it must find you working. Working coherently, responsibly and efficiently. Exercise, a varied diet and reading a good book. 

These three multi-syllable, latinate words sound dry and a bit like work. They are not telling you to follow your bliss, or that each improviser is a starchild born with a unique shard of the infinite in their breast. But they will serve you. My mistress, when she improvises, treads upon the ground.