I'm standing just off-stage left in costume waiting to go on. One of our improvisers, Steve, is out in front of the audience confidently asking them for suggestions for tonight's show. "Distinguished guests, may I have a suggestion for an event during which tonight's show may take place?" There are some shouts from the audience: "Swingers party!" "The trimming of an aspidistra!" "Going to a bank!" I heave a deep sigh. This is the first show of our Edinburgh Fringe run. We need to be slick, we need to be funny, and what the hell is an aspidistra?
People always joke about us "rehearsing improv". It's times like this that prove how important all those hours spent dicking around in the Bristol Improv Theatre doing workshops are. We've been performing our show Murder, She Didn't Write for over five years. It's an improvised murder mystery that takes audience suggestions to create a bespoke play on-the-spot. The audience not only help shape the show but they also have to guess whodunnit.
As director, my role is rather unusual: in a play where anything can happen I have to guarantee the cast will deliver something entertaining and engaging (that also makes sense!). There are several tricks and techniques we use during Murder, She Didn't Write - tools to have at hand when situations get sticky. I won't spill all our secrets, but I can let you in on some tricks of the trade...
If the audience throw cocks, throw coqs back
It's the group mentality that created Boaty McBoatface and it's the same mentality that means an audience member will shout out "cock and balls" or "swingers party" as a suggestion for scenes or locations. Our response is to take these but cleverly subvert them. The audience have essentially thrown down a lewd gauntlet and it's time to show them what you're made of by serving something back. For example, if we were given "cock and balls" as a scene title we could have it set in a fancy restaurant: "Le Coq and Balls". Here, they only serve chicken and spherical food all presented in various phallic shapes. Or if we had the setting of a swingers party we could perhaps be at a trapeze artist's birthday... who might have secret desires to sleep with some of the guests.
Balance the bizarre
I believe that with the dichotomy of the bizarre and the mundane, comedy naturally arises from the delightful clash of the two at once, so I like to balance a scene with a hefty dose of one or the other depending on the situation given. "A woman depositing money at a bank" is a rather mundane suggestion to work with but add some strange attributes and comedy arises. For example, a woman trying to deposit her Persian short-haired cat along with her cash at a bank has inherent comedic conflict.
Pacing is so important in long-form narrative shows and if it feels like a scene is decreasing in energy or going on a bit there are a number of things we could do if the moment is right. Outside scene interference is always a cheeky get out, where something outside the scene can distract you or move things along or get to another scene. Like looking out a window and saying "Oh my goodness, is that Mr Green pointing a gun at Mr Blue?" or "Look its Dr Gold snooping around my petunias again! Why I'll show him..." But to be honest we have an amazing improviser on lights who can just end scenes whenever he likes by picking what he deems to be a scene finishing line and say in a scene finishing tone: "Well, that certainly is odd, Ms Scarlet hadn't mentioned anything about her husband changing the will." These lines might not seem like scene finishers but they act as plot get-out points where we can cut to another conversation using stage blackouts.
Be the honest idiot
It's inevitable that some smart-arse improviser or audience member will suggest or offer something that we don't know the meaning of. It's part of the intellectual rally between audience and improviser or even two improvisers on stage. Once again I always think it's best to take these suggestions and offers but to be honest with the audience that you have no idea what that is. I was once given the suggestion that I was playing a game of Baccarat with my scene partner and we had no idea what that was. So we mimed playing a game of cards and we slowly let the audience know that we weren't sure how to play. "Well, Mr White, I believe that's four Baccarats, nice work," sweeping pretend cards off the table. "Yes, Ms Violet, you weren't expecting my Back-to-Back Baccarat." "Great move, sir, do you have your Baccarat bat?" Often audiences tend to enjoy this honesty as its part and parcel of making things up on the spot.
Murder, She Didn't Write plays at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from August 2-28 at 5pm, with a late-night drag version every Sunday at 11pm. Tickets start from £6.