A peek into the world of improvisation theatre

Exploring diverse issues A performance of Adamant Eves in progress  

Life as usual, flipped in a moment for Shruti Jain when she decided to try out a class of improv. A financial planner and analyst by profession, she wanted to explore her creative side with the workshop. Among several game-changing takeaways, she realised that as in the session, also in her life out there, she wasn’t really listening actively to people. “During an act, I figured that I am nodding and maintaining eye contact but not listening, back in my work it’s the same. This changed my relationship with my clients and I have evolved remarkably as a professional.” Stepping into different roles during the workshops shifted her perspective on people, “I had never thought about how a waitress at a restaurant might be feeling, or my domestic help at home when I said something mindlessly to her. To be able to feel like others is so profound!”

Similarly, for Training and Development professional Avijit Shastri, a brush with Improv transformed his approach in corporate life. “I realised fears are so hardwired within us that it is difficult to break out and let your guard down. While this may take several years with regular HR training sessions, ‘letting go’ can happen easily in just one improv session where you find a safe space to be silly, imaginative, make your team member look good and accept people without judging.”

Blessin Varkey

Blessin Varkey  

Nurturing empathy is central to improvisational theatre for Blessin Varkey who facilitated these workshops. “At its core, Impro is about acceptance. Accepting stories, characters and people for who they are.” As the Artistic Director of The Impro Company, Delhi, he prefers to use the term ‘impro’, tipping the hat to the pedagogy of the ‘Impro System’ pioneered by Keith Johnstone in the 1970s. This is just one of the several schools of spontaneous theatre that have their own distinct formats and approaches.

Not just for laughs

Unlike a regular play that is scripted, rehearsed, prepared and staged, improvisational theatre is primarily unscripted, unplanned and created collaboratively by the players in the moment. Incidentally, the term ‘improv’ has become hemmed to refer mainly to comedy, though there is an array of other experimental, dramatic and narrative-based improvisational theatre. The focus in improv shifts deeply from performance production to process-oriented work.

Balasree Viswanathan of Improv Comedy Bangalore points out, “Comedic improv has taken off in India in a big way, but it also puts improv in a box of being just comedy.” A closer look at the trends in the past five years reveals the possible reason, “Stand-up and improv were taking off together so they got bundled together because people were familiar with the comedy vehicle and mostly shows of both genres were happening at the same event and venue.”

Ankur Sardana forayed into improv during his time in the US. Back in India, he had a brief stint as a playwright before returning back to the world of unscripted theatre, which proved “much easier to begin with less resources, and has powerful potential for developing life-skills.”

Based in Gurugram presently, he founded Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy nine years back, with core team members Anshu Daga, Ankur Nigam, Mayank Mudgil and Sumit Mehta. Inspired by the work of legendary improv aesthetician, Viola Spolin, he reflects, “The shift from scripted plays to improv is also about a way of life. In improv, there are no meaty roles, we work as a team and it is a lot about community-building.” In the recent past, their workshops with children and families have drawn a large number of participants. “It is often difficult to tell people what exactly improv is. We realised that the venue makes a lot of difference. It doesn’t work so well in an auditorium-setting where people come to sit and watch. It needs to be interactive, collaborative, game-like.”

For Sardana, an important aspect of improv is that it should be now and here, relevant to what people are experiencing and for them to bring their lives into it. “Since it is spontaneous, people can share or reflect on the topics relevant to them right now. It is basically a means for people to talk and build communities.”

Gender bender

While improv may have a topical and timely edge to it, the acts can often be gender-skewed and it was important for Madhu Shukla and Balasree Viswanathan to explore this influence. “Prevailing gender stereotypes often overwhelm a regular improv act. For instance, if it is an interaction between a doctor and nurse, it would be assumed that the doctor is male and the nurse is female, similarly for a boss and secretary. And often the women roles would just be relegated to being the romantic interests for the men. This can get quite limiting.” With this in mind they started Adamant Eves in 2017 within Improv Comedy Bangalore, an experiment as an all-women’s group.

They realised that it is easier to explore a diverse array of issues, roles and topics within this format. “The dynamic between team members changes,” says Viswanathan, “One can be more open to taking risks with performative choices on stage. The audience can’t typecast us so easily into the regular characters and concepts, there is a different kind of comfort between the players and we can explore the depth of social equations and emotions without the pressure of punch-lines.”

The group plays around with topics, including insights into gender issues, “Sometimes the topics revolve around gender just by bringing our real lives onto stage. When women are coming to an improv session after being groped, catcalled, pushed over, these emerge as critical issues to explore, with comedy or through non-comedic improv.” Reflecting on whether they are tagged as a feminist performance group, she says, “We are not a feminist improv group by design, but by virtue of us all being women, it is feminist, for sure.”

Inclusive approach

Members of Playground Comedy Studio

Members of Playground Comedy Studio  

Blessin Varkey believes that within the directorial role in Impro, one must also double as an educator. “Impro allows us to experience awareness, acceptance and vulnerability. It also helps us understand what it means to have a ‘learner’s mind’”. He co-founded the Improv collective at the Playground Comedy Studio and also served as its artistic director earlier. Presently spearheading The Impro Company, he believes it is crucial to explore improvisation as an approach and pedagogy in mainstream and inclusive education.

“Impro has also been part of my day job as the head of the Innovation and Research unit at a Delhi based non-profit, where we research and design innovative solutions to assist children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their education, employment and rehabilitation through technology. I’ve been using improvisation with my team, which usually involves special educators, speech and occupational therapists, psychologists and developers during the ideation phase.”

Recalling an instance where impro and education blended seamlessly he says, “My favourite experience of using improvisation, till date was to see a 17-year old, young adult with severe learning disabilities and limited verbal capacity contribute to an improvisational exercise called the one-word story. The story was simple, it was about a lion in the jungle having water. One word story can be really challenging. It’s important to listen, be present and be syntactically coherent. So, to see the boy contribute in the story was a big surprise to the special educators and the vice principal because it opened up for them a whole new range of tools to explore working with students.”

Mental health matters

In their latest Improv show- Unravel, Kaivalya Plays, a Delhi-based collective, unpacks issues of mental health. Improvisation games and exercises alongside audience suggestions provide an entry point into unsettling discussions that probe the stigma around mental health through the production. The ensemble uses spontaneous Improv, theatre exercises and audience suggestions to devise the final performance on the spot. The show aims to create safe spaces for the performers and audience alike to acknowledge and possibly, articulate their own experiences with mental health. Initially commissioned for the Refunction programme by Goethe-Institut /Max Mueller Bhavan the show has evolved steadily from the earlier format and also involves a drama therapist now.

Director Varoon P. Anand was first introduced to “spontaneous improvisation” in 2008 at the Theatre Guild of Ancon in Panama. “Over the years my curiosity about the relationship of spontaneous improvisation with depression only grew,” he shares. “This piece seeks to explore a theoretical connection between the techniques of improvisation and its therapeutic effects on anxiety, depression, manic depression, bipolar disorder and other possible mental health disorders. One of the main concerns with ‘Unravel’ is to maintain an atmosphere of discovery and conversation, constantly engaging the audience and encouraging their participation, but without trying to offer conclusions or “cures” to the symptoms of depression or anxiety.”

Next Up

A relatively nascent genre in the country, improvisational theatre is now teeming with possibilities, players and perspectives. Kaivalya Plays would be opening the Old World Culture Theatre festival at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, in August, attempting to situate improv productions into mainstream theatre festivals, rather than offsets of comedy shows.

One of the most awaited theatre festivals in the capital, an Improv theatre production would be featured as the opening production for the first time. “We are often asked whether the show was really improvised!” says Anand, “Do we have a script? No. Of course we have an overall structure, but the actual show is created with and amid the audience. Come to the show to discover this and explore Improv!”

Members of Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy

Members of Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy  

Improving on Improv

Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy: Introducing Bollyprov- 10 minute on-the-spot movie-style Improv. Six-week Performance-oriented Improv series starting in August.

The Impro Company: ‘Keep Calm and Improv’ series for different groups, alongside special sessions of Impro for the elderly. ‘Not so Blue’ series for young individuals with autism.

ICB: A unique Improv Musical (duet) titled ‘Hum’. Later this month, the musically inclined duo – Balasree Viswanathan and Nasir Engineer would be presenting a feature-length Improv performance filled with games and stories on music and singing, all improvised in the moment.

Kaivalya Plays: Starting Head Space, a series of monthly Improv jams and workshops at Oddbird Theatre, Delhi.

Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy aims at focusing on family improv sessions and shows, to build spaces for children and parents to enjoy, share and express together.

For The Impro Company, deeper exploration of the Johnstonian format for stage would be important along with an emphasis on Impro for the elderly, caregivers and people with Autism.

ICB is organising a mega-festival of improv in Bangalore later this year. Viswanathan summarises, “Evangelising something that’s new can be quite challenging. Now that we have cultivated an audience for improv comedy around the country, we can also move into other formats of improv, that are less explored in the country yet!”

Caught in the act!

A peek into the world of improvisation theatre

Directors share some memorable Improv moments

“Two male actors are on stage. They begin the conversation and we realise gradually that they are actually playing sisters. They brilliantly use the space and the objects around them to give us (audience) the illusion that they are at a camp site. After talking about their marriage plans and their day like any other ordinary women, we realise that they are also the two most wanted criminals of the Interpol! The brilliance of the improviser lies in establishing the ordinary, basic setting first and then collectively working towards building an interesting story.”

Blessin Varkey, The Impro Company

In our Improv theatre production ‘Unravel’, as the audience enter the venue, they are handed a sheet of paper with questions. The questions are seemingly simple, and could also be interpreted deeply. For instance, ‘what would make you happy?’ For some, it’s an ice cream of their favourite flavour, someone wants to be at the beach, while another starts pondering over their true calling in life. The sheets are collected and set aside, they re-emerge later in the performance, as cues for the actors. A stray sigh, random giggles, nervous claps, from the audience indicate that their answer-sheet made its way into the play in a way they couldn’t have imagined. And that’s the impact of improv.

Varoon P Anand, Kaivalya Plays

Corrections & Clarifications: The article had a typo error while mentioning Mayank Mudgil. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 4:53:01 PM |

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