“We are the best all-women improv ensemble in India! And we can confidently say that because we are India’s only all-women improv ensemble.”
This is how Shalini Vijayakumar, founder of the eight-woman improv group The Hysterical, opens one of its many sold-out shows in Chennai.
Shalini, Keerthana PV, Monika Dhayalan, Nandita Lakshminarayanan, Neha Jhabak, Saga, Varsha Suresh and Vinithra Madhav Menon of The Hysterical have certainly had a busy year. . Since their premiere act on September 3, 2022 in Chennai, they have performed 17 shows, hosted over 20 open mics, and continue to have their audience in splits. It almost comes as a surprise that not all these women are full-time comediennes; among them, they have an RJ, a freelancer, baker, writer, and even a college student.
Improv, short for improvisation, is a comedic genre where performers act out unscripted scenes and build characters based on audience prompts. The Hysterical involves them in every aspect of the show. Even those who do not know what improv is, take part in this interactive genre of comedy – from suggesting a theme for their games, to the initial ‘action’ that kicks the game off.
One year in, we speak to The Hysterical as they reflect upon their journey, the challenges faced, and plans for the future.
Building a base
While the Indian comedy scene is vast, improv is still a relatively new concept to Indian audiences. Even in Bengaluru , a city The Hysterical were drawn to because of its prevalent weekend comedy culture, early shows drew in smaller crowds of mostly Tamil viewers, says Shalini.
Their content carefully blends regional and non-regional humour, appealing to Tamil and English-speaking audiences. They note that the initial responses to their shows were always positive, though bringing new viewers remains difficult due to the relatively unknown nature of the genre itself. Now, however, they perform in sold-out venues, building a community of like-minded women along the way.
The sense of community they feel as women empowers them, translating into a unique positive synergy that guides the dynamic they share onstage. Female-centric rituals like getting ready together and borrowing each other’s clothes and makeup before the show helps them know each other better and exist as a group. They believe these experiences are entirely unique to women and foster a deep trust between them.
To work towards this, they plan for The Hysterical to exist as a self-sustaining Women’s Comedy Collective that encourages more women to enter the comedic space. While they have already performed numerous public, private, and corporate shows, they also hope to explore and perform other genres in comedy, such as the ever-popular stand-up act. “All of these are spaces we have created within the past year,” says Vinithra, “and moving on, these spaces can only grow.”
“In one year, what we have realised is that a room full of women, feeling free to be as funny as they want without being self-conscious, was something so hilarious that we felt like this should go to many other spaces,” says Shalini.