A slice of Indian improv comedy will whet appetites at the Sweden International Improv Festival (SWIMP 2016) over the coming weekend. Bengaluru-based group, The Improv, a six-member team of actors, RJs and comedians, is the only such Indian act to be invited to this festival where they will compete against teams from France, UK, USA, Spain, Italy, Canada, and Norway among others.
Saad Khan is the host of The Improv, and a filmmaker, Siddhanth Sundar who co-conceptualised the act is a film and theatre actor, Sal Yusuf is a British actor and voice over artist, Sumukhi Suresh is a stand-up comedian, Darius Sunawala is an RJ, and Abel Mathews is an actor. In the last four years, team members have come and gone, but they have put up about 110 shows.
But what is an “improv”? Improvisational comedy is another category of comic acts where there are no written, practised lines. The audience suggests a situation and funny acts are built around it; there’s so much more audience participation too.
“There was a time when people prepared jokes and then rehearsed them before coming up on stage,” says Saad. “Even TV shows bring in a studio audience who are given cues, or laugh tracks are used. In 2011 we wanted to put ourselves in front of a live audience and do about five or six situations where we enact impromptu. It stopped becoming about cool lines. It is more about situations and conversations. The core is entertainment, and you need to have your wits about you,” says Saad.
“Comedy as a genre is still being explored in India. Stand-up comedy as a genre is coming of age and going beyond mimicry. Improv is much younger than stand-up,” pitches in Darius. Co-actors need to know each other, and make each other, and the audience look good, says Saad. “It’s not about one-upmanship.”
“It has taken us three years to learn what improv means to actors,” says Saad. “You can never be perfect in improv or spontaneity because it is a persistent, learning art.”
Saad will also be conducting an improvisation workshop for the participants at the festival. Darius says he feels a mix of excitement, apprehension and intimidation going to a festival like this.
“I grew up watching improv theatre and TV. But I’ve only been doing it for a year while international teams have trained and honed their skills for a decade. We have to up our game.”
Sumukhi Suresh, the only woman on the team, started her career as a stand-up comic Centerstages. “I got a chance to learn from some of the best and experienced improvisers since ‘The Improv’ is one of the oldest and most successful groups. Even though there aren’t a lot of women improvisers, I feel comfortable and ready to charge thanks to my learning. Skill is the only way to beat gender bias and I am glad The Improv taught me to chin up and have fun!”
Training for their act has included challenges like selling vegetables in K.R. Market, irritating shopkeepers in Commercial Street.
“We have different learning techniques. It is important to be able to have conversations with strangers,” says Saad.
As the host, Saad goes about asking the audience questions, and then builds a situation around it — say, an afternoon at the beach, or girls at a sleepover.
There are interesting rounds like “switch” where midway through an act, the participants have to switch emotions.
Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre where the plot, characters, dialogue of a scene or story are made up “in the moment”. Improvisers take suggestions from the audience, or draw on some other source of inspiration to get started.
To Sweden with love
At SWIMP 2016 The Improv will be tripping on the Swedish idea of a strict six-hour work day, where working beyond that gets the employer fined and taxed! “We’ve done rigorous rehearsals. The idea is not to be too local because the audience won’t get it. Our acts will centre around Northern European culture,” says Saad. “The beauty of taking comedy into another country is that you carry the flavours of your culture and discover theirs,” says Darius. Their show is sold out.
The Improv is the first comedy group to successfully complete a crowd-funding campaign on Wishberry to be able to go to a festival (nine people, including the producers, have gone). “We had to take the crowd-funding path because we couldn’t put together all the funds by ourselves and we didn’t have much time,” says Saad. Fans and supporters on social media pitched in to raise Rs. Six lakh within 30 days That will pay for air travel and insurance.