An Abundance of Abundance

I am a big believer in the idea of abundance. I don’t want to go all Tony Robbins or anything but having an abundance mindset has always served me well. At the very least, it has certainly served me as an improviser. Or perhaps it has developed because I have been improvising for so long. In any case, practicing abundance through improvisation is a great way of stretching those muscles of imagination and creativity, and as Maya Agelou says You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” 

Free associating

When one first starts improvising, one of the first things to get used to is just ‘saying stuff.’ Opening your mouth and letting whatever falls out be enough. This can be hard after a lifetime of trying to say and do the right thing so any exercises that help loosen you up and get used to free associating are helpful. Here’s 3 of my go-tos. 

Point and say

  1. Alternating hands, point at as many things in the room as you can in one minute and say what they are out loud
  2. Alternating hands, point at things in the room. Start by saying nothing and then always be saying out loud the last thing you pointed at.
  3. Alternating hands, point at as many things in the room as you can in one minute and once again out loud say anything that they are NOT.

Word association

A very simple and extremely effective tool for starting the process of improvising or creative thinking. Great in a small group or even a pair when passed around like an imaginary ball. When you ‘catch’ the ball repeat the word you just heard, when you ‘throw’ it, say any associated word that comes into your head. I aways coach this to use the speed of the ball throwing to remove any time for thinking. 

Invisible box

In pairs, one person has one minute to pull as many imaginary objects as they can out of a large invisible box in front of them. Their partner is their cheerleader, giving words of encouragement or even prompts if helpful. E.g What’s that tiny/shiny/squidgy thing?

When both players have had a turn, there is the opportunity to do a shared version. Firstly at speed where you notice each other getting stuck and save each other. Another version is slower but pulling out associated objects. E.g you pull out a cup of tea, I then pull out a slice of cake and we sit down to afternoon tea.

A word on going blank

In people’s first ever improv sessions the universal fear seems to be this idea of going blank/drying up/not having anything good to say. Now, I cannot guarantee that they will not go blank, however I would say that in my experience it’s often not that people don’t have an idea but that they have lots of ideas that they quickly judge and discard before they say something. This is why I will always try to eliminate thinking time. It can seem like you have more time to think of something, but often it has the effect of giving more space to hate your idea and edit yourself.

The good news is, improv really can help silence that pesky inner critic. Plus most of the time, improv is highly collaborative so it’s never up to just one person to come up with all the ideas.

Developing Further

Once you have got a little more comfortable with free associating, it can be helpful to then start improvising category based games so that your brain starts to get used to clumping ideas together or accessing similar ideas quickly. 3 of my favourite exercises for this are

8 things

Person a gives person b a category e.g flowers and person b names 8 things in that category while person a counts them off e.g 

Person A: Daisy

Person B: 1 thing

Person A: Rose

Person B: 2 things

Person A: Petunia

Person B: 3 things

Etc. etc. At the end I like to get both players to chant ‘Those were 8 things’ while doing air punches, but hey, that bit is optional.

You can also have the category giver ask if their partner would like easy, medium or hard e.g easy = colours, medium = clothing designers, hard = number 1 singles of the 1980s.

No more BLANK

We think Jules invented this game but there are no original ideas and everything has already been invented so who knows? Anyway…

Players stand in a circle. 1 person names a category and gestures to someone across the circle who names something in that category and gestures to the next person and so on. If a player gets passed to and they cannot think of anything else in that category they joyfully shout ‘No more xxx’ and then start a new category. So it might go

Person 1: Makes of car (gesturing to next person across the circle)

Person 2: Toyota

Person 3: Nissan

Person 4: Mitsubishi

Person 5: No more cars! Things you could eat for breakfast…

I’m gonna need

Another circle game in which people make teeny tiny lists of 3 things. Person 1 walks up to person 2 and and says ‘I’m going to need a xxxx, I’m going to need a xxxx and I’m going to need a xxxx. Person 2 then takes the last thing on the list they just heard and uses it to create a new list for the next person. Here’s an example:

Person 1: I’m going to need some jelly, some ice-cream and a party hat

Person 2: I’m going to need a party hat, a top hat and a bobble hat

Person 3: I’m going to need a bobble hat, a pair of skis and a lot of snow

Etc etc.

Quite fun to have lots of these happening at once in a circle.

A word on getting things right

With category based games there can be the temptation to try and get things ‘correct.’ I believe that it’s the attempt at getting things right that is fun to watch. Also the letting go of it quickly when we realise we do not have to access to the information that we need in the moment. My favourite bits in these kind of games are when people surprise themselves, get creative or make things up when they don’t have the ‘right’ answer.  

Patterns and Re-combinations

Then once we’re getting into our categories we can try some more complex idea generation games. I say complex – these are still hopefully super simple but with an idea on developing the pattern recognition muscle a bit more

3 in a circle

Also known as ‘I am a tree’ this classic game has people stepping into a circle to make pictures of 3 ideas. When each person steps in they try to make the shape of what they are describing with their body.

‘I am a tree’

‘I am a branch’

‘I am a bird’

The first person (the tree) chooses which idea to keep ‘I’ll keep the bird,’ and the tree and branch leave. 

‘I am a bird’

I am a goldfish’

‘I am a pet shop’

‘I’ll keep the pet shop,’ says bird person. (and the bird and goldfish step out)

‘I am a pet shop’

‘I am a pot shop’

‘I am a pitch and putt’

And so on. The idea here is to try and pivot as much as possible to develop each picture so we don’t stay in the tree and forest world for too long e.g

‘I am a tree, I am a branch, I am a bird’ ‘I am a bird, I am a twig, I am a leaf’ ‘I am a leaf, I am a trunk, I am some bark’

Lists of lists

One person names the title of a list and the other improvisers populate the list e.g

‘Things not to do on a first date’ 

  1. Talk about your ex
  2. Propose marriage
  3. Crying

Then another improviser uses the last item on the original list as an item on a new list or lists


  1. Things you do when you’re sad
  2. Alternative words for shout
  3. Things that might happen as a result of chopping onions

You can alternate lists and items or do a full round of each or do it organically while you are on a roll or reach a dead end. But a fun way of moving back and forth between ideas. Can also be great inspiration for scenes or longform.


Far greater people than I have attempted and failed to explain this game clearly so here’s a great write up form the good folks at improv resource center (yes I did spell that right, it’s American) – safe to say, it’s an absolute banger of a game.

A word on being obvious

With all of these games it is super helpful to be ‘obvious’ Your obvious is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s idea of obvious. So what may seem simple and easy or even boring to you can be a delightful surprise to others. Keith Johnstone writes a lot about being obvious. It’s a whole other blog probably.

Thinking and writing about abundance and variety has made me realise how closely this sits alongside the idea of self judgement and the inner critic. As I said at the start I believe in abundance. In over 20 years of doing and teaching improv I have never yet met a human who isn’t chock full of brilliant and bonkers ideas once they get used to accessing them and sharing them, rather than keeping them locked up until a better one comes along. I hope games like the ones I’ve described here help you share yours (or have an abundance of laughter).


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. 


5 Animals that are like Improvisers

This week is Animal Week at AndAlso (that means all our drop-in classes will have this theme). So to celebrate, here’s a list of 5 animals that are like improvisers. Both as performers and as characters.


(or ‘Peapocks’ as my 2-year-old Iggy calls them)

  • As performers – Improvisers can incorporate the vibrant and flamboyant displays of peacocks into their stage pictures, creating attention-grabbing and visually stunning performances.
  • As characters – There is much drama to be explored in characters competing for attention or admiration, much like peacocks displaying their feathers to attract mates. A bit like theatresports, in fact!


  • As performers – Octopuses are known for their problem-solving abilities and adaptability. Improvisers too, have the ability to ‘hold on tightly, let go lightly’. In other words, bring a strong offer to a scene, but adapt where necessary.
  • As characters – Octopuses can change their appearance and mimic other creatures. We too, can change voice and posture to inhabit other characters and creatures. Check out Susan Harrison and Andrew Gentilli’s show Beings if you want to see the ultimate example of this.


  • As performers – Ant colonies work together seamlessly. Improvisers also require high levels of trust, collaboration, and coordination, where we rely on each other to achieve a common goal.
  • As characters – Ant colonies have complex social hierarchies. This can be used to create characters with distinct roles and statuses within a group. For more, check out my previous blog on Status.


  • As performers – Cats are known for their grace and agility. Improvisers can aspire to embody these qualities and play with elegance and confidence, even when the inner critic is telling you to do something different!
  • As characters  – Cats are independent animals. Why not use the cat as inspiration for solo scenes and monologues?


  • As performers – Bee colonies operate as a single, interconnected unit. We improvisers might call this group mind; using flow state and strong collective consciousness to make decisions as a group.
  • As characters – Improvisers can explore relationship-based scenes with themes of cooperation and interdependence. Characters don’t always have to like each other but it’s useful when they need each other.

I have limited myself to 5 as I feel I could go on for far too long making comparisons between the animal kingdom and the realm of theatrical and comedic improvisation. Let me know which obvious ones I missed, and have fun getting animalistic!

Playing Status

If you ask an improviser to define status, I suspect many would struggle to pin it down. But I’m also willing to bet that most of them could show you status in a heartbeat. Because status, like stories and songs, is everywhere. It happens all the time in every interaction we have. We just sort of know how to do it.

Think about your status in your job, a social club you’re in, or even your family; you probably have a sense of where you sit in the pecking order. I have a friend who is so aware of status that every time she enters a room she ranks people in her head, numbering everyone off and working out where she sits in a group. If you don’t think about your status perhaps you’re the effortlessly high-status one? This isn’t intended as a slight. You can be a generous beautiful soul who is extremely high status (like Barack Obama in this clip here). And you can play a low-status person who is unpleasant, selfish, and unkind. If we detach status from being negative or positive, it may help us play with it even more in our improv workshops, rehearsal rooms, and shows.

Personally, I think status is a great tool for establishing relationships and dynamics in improvisation. So let’s get into it.

Status Indicators

Playing at the extremes of status can be a great way to start. We often share this list of status indicators to break down how one can improvise status.

High StatusLow Status
Talking SlowTalking Fast
Complete, clear sentencesBroken, qualified sentences
Pause mid-sentencePause at the start of sentence
Symmetrical, open bodyAsymmetrical, closed body
Straight spineCurved spine
Smooth movementJerky movement

It’s certainly not an exhaustive list and there are always exceptions. But if someone says be high or low status, the list above is a good place to start.

The Three Types of Status

The above are great shortcuts for showing status, but what if we’re looking to play a more nuanced version, or a character that will sustain for a show rather than a scene?

In Will Storr’s book The Status Game, he talks about 3 status ‘games’


Perhaps the type of high status we see most often in television and film, this is the type of status most often discussed in improv. Think about ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Succession’ or films like ‘Goodfellas’, or even ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. Status through dominance is the uglier side of humanity. Great for playing villains, but I would recommend exercising extreme caution in an improv setting where players do not know each other well and have not set boundaries and expectations for the group.


In this version of status, you win by being good at what you’re doing. The fastest runner, the most strategic chess player, the baker with the perfect souffle. I find that focusing on these details can really help with the specifics of building more fully rounded characters, especially in a narrative improv show. There is a potential pitfall though: just talking about the big football game rather than about the interpersonal dynamics onstage can shift the focus away from the scene. Be the best, but make that mean something too. 


Inverting status, where the expected status of characters is reversed can often lead to the unexpected. It’s naturally comic. There are whole character-worlds based on this (‘Jeeves and Wooster’, ‘Black Adder’ and, more recently, Dina and Glenn in ‘Superstore’).

Playing scenes with flipped status is one of my favourite things to do in a status workshop. Here are a few favourites:

  • Low-status boss and high-status interviewee
  • Low-status school teacher and high-status pupil
  • Low-status bank robber and high-status cashier
  • Low-status royalty and high-status servant

Change and the Future

Of course, status is never static. Some of the best characters undergo change and this often comes with a rise or a fall in status. A big change in status can make for great comedy or deep tragedy depending on how you play it. How does changing status several times in one scene compare with one status change over the course of a full show?

As a performer and teacher, I’m trying to keep learning all the time. So In researching for our last course we also read Cecilia L Ridgeway’s book Status: Why is it everywhere? Why does it matter? Thinking more deeply about this subject has been interesting and thought-provoking in a way that makes me aspire to find more subtlety and sensitivity in my status work.

Both Del Close and Keith Johnstone talked a lot about status in their work. But improvisation itself has changed a lot since the 70s and 80s. Thankfully in our communities, there has been a shift towards an emphasis on inclusivity and psychological safety. So I would gently say to any improviser, particularly those in a position of power themselves (as a teacher or coach) to hold an awareness and care in status work. Taking into consideration that we all bring different life experiences into the rehearsal room  means status and power have different connotations for each of us.

As Cecilia Ridgeway says ‘status is everywhere’. Whether we like it or not. Status is pervasive and powerful but status can be challenged and changed.

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.

We have a new syllabus!

Before I tell you about the new syllabus we are creating, let me share some of the most wonderful improv scenes I have witnessed. In no particular order: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, ‘Chris fails to go back in time’, ‘Pick up the letter!’, ‘the Death of the Queen’s Consort’, ‘Two Other Bears’, ‘a Method Director’, ‘Tene mi Brache’, ‘Lots and lots of moxy and a twelve inch dick’, and ‘Proust improvised by those who haven’t read him’. Just a few without thinking much about it. Now, unless you were there for any of them, that list probably didn’t make much sense. It almost certainly wasn’t very fun. Because improv is a very wasteful artform. However beautiful, hilarious, spine-tingling or just plain satisfying these scenes were, they have now passed into the ether, reduced to a memory fragment I struggle to explain the joy of, a story that can (at best) be nodded along to. It’s one of the reasons cooperation in improv can be so challenging. Unless you were there, you weren’t there (man). The most enthusiastic description can only communicate so much.

But what does this have to do with the new syllabus?

Our aim in rewriting the syllabus is not to define the best form of improv, but create a set of habits and ideas that a community can form around. Just because a restaurant specilises in sushi, doesn’t mean the chef hates roasts or thinks fried rice is morally suspect. But you can’t git gud if you keep changing everything. Of course there are many other ways to make things up, but like the rifle in ‘Full Metal Jacket’, this is ours.

So what will the AndAlso style be? Well, we’re working that out, piece by piece. It’s not an instant process and it wouldn’t be interesting if it were. Our influences are the connectedness and group work of iO, the physical boldness of Carpe Haute and Teatribu, the unselfish selfishness of the Annoyance, the rigour of Razowsky, the sheer infectious delight of Jill Bernard. Oh, and the professionalism of the Showstoppers, the relentless open-eyed curiosity of PGraph (and the Hideout Theatre in general), and the freeform sugar-rush of Improv Boston. I could add and add to that list. Heather and I get enthusiastic about things, and we want them all to be part of what we do. It’s a fault and we’re working on it. But as we start running shows and jams, this hodge-podge will boil down into something clearer, less cerebral. In time, things should just start to feel AndAlso-ish.

With all this in mind, we are doubling (you heard that right) the length of our courses to twelve weeks, running in line with the school terms (including a week off for half term). We believe staying together for longer periods of time will build group trust and a shared vocabulary. A plan for a six-level system, means a core syllabus of two years, with teams and advanced classes after that. It’s ambitious, but we don’t expect to do it faster than it can be done. At the moment, we are building the ‘how’ and trusting that the ‘what’ will come.

There is, of course, a danger that all this feels like gatekeeping. A Doomsday cult with T-shirts. (Improv and Scientology are very amusingly elided in a few episodes of Bojack Horseman – you should watch them.) But our syllabuses will not be hard-edged prescriptive. Our aim is to be an inspiration, not a straitjacket. Something that creates just enough agreement for us to work together, always with space for what the teacher brings and what the students love. And to make sure our students get a range of points of view, we will be rotating teachers every term and welcoming guest improvisers from across the world. Heather and I will run the company but never assume that we have all the answers. The balance that is the very origin of the AndAlso name.

(For anyone worried about the affordability of longer courses, we are making fees payable in installments and dropping the concessionary rate to half of the full rate. We will also be making scholarship places bookable on the site without any application process. We have to keep the lights on, but we know money is tight for a lot of people. Again, balance.)

It would be easy here to get lost in the decisions and improvements we have made and want to make. I am excited about them and the details are, in the end, the design. But the heart of it all is this: In any art, you have to build your taste. To see and do enough that you can distinguish between what you do not like, and what is not good. It would be naive to pretend that Heather and my taste will not be a big part of how we build the new school. At least at the beginning. But as we grow, it will create an eco-system (as I wrote in my last blog), where improvisers are able to collect their own best-of lists. This (people will say) is the kind of thing they do there. In the end, it will come from everyone.

Below is the first draft of our level flow, clumsy over-precise titles and all. There is more work to be done on it (especially the titles), and a lot more work to be done on the syllabuses themselves. I present it here so you know where we are. This is where we are.

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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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