One of the stars of the improvised show explains the joy of making it all up as you go along
Power will be in the hands of the audience when they arrive at Notflix: The Improvised Musical at Greenwich Theatre.
Spectators will vie to have their favourite film chosen as the inspiration for the show on June 11, 2022, at the venue and then watch as the cast members leap into action.
But once the performance gets rolling, the power will shift as the all-female improv group creates scenes, songs and vocals with a new narrative, all from their imaginations.
We sat down with one of the stars, Emma Read, to find out more.
how did the group start?
Our amazing director, Sarah Spencer, had this inkling she could make something really great and different.
She put together a mixed gender improv group called Waiting For The Call, and was exploring ideas.
Then she came up with the idea of creating a musical improv show based on a movie suggestion.
when did you join?
At the end of 2017 and, by then, it was already all female. That’s actually the thing that really drew me to the group. We cannot have enough all female things.
In improv and comedy, which is such a male-dominated place, it’s important that women feel they can be funny and masculine and feminine, or a penguin or whatever and that they’re not being predetermined by their gender. In our show, we don’t have any limits.
how did you learn to do improv?
I was training for about three months. I had done it at drama school but never stepped on stage with improv being the premise of a show – that was really scary.
I had to learn how to create music from improv and learn about song structure, rhyming, and rapping. It took a lot of time to get right.
But that’s the thing that makes the audience feel like it’s magic and that it’s coming alive.
It’s a very difficult skill to learn – how to relax on stage when you’re just making up stuff. You have to unlock a weird part of your brain.
was there a moment it clicked?
My first show was in 2018. I think we did X-Men but I sort of blanked it out because I was so nervous.
Then we did Silence Of The Lambs in Yorkshire and I decided to play a completely made up character who was the weird sidekick of the baddie.
I just found a physicality that I thought was funny and remember hearing the audience react to that.
If I don’t over think it and try and be funny or formulate a joke, but just come forward with something that feels honest and natural, that’s when the audience really connects with you.
In that moment I thought: ‘Oh, this is what it is. This is true improv’.
how do you know when to sing?
There’s a lot of eyeballing each other. We don’t start a song unless there’s an impetus. It usually starts with just one person and then, because we’re so versed in song structure, we’ll get the idea of what someone is going for.
Or, if we don’t, we might have a moment to negotiate, which is fun too because a lot of songs have a sort of slow-paced start and then they rev up.
what do you love about it?
I think it keeps me on my toes as an actor – there’s nothing scarier than the show I’m in. Auditions can now be a time of play because if they give me a script I’m like, perfect.
As an actor, there’s so much fear going into a room of people that could give you a job. If you can get rid of that desperation, that’s a step towards getting the role.
Improv is magical. When you see the greats perform, it feels incredible, so organic, alive and present. It’s also scary because you’re watching, knowing that they’re making it up.
So there’s a sort of fun and very intense energy between the cast and the audience, which is so different from a normal West End show.
If you walk into The Book Of Mormon, you know they’ve rehearsed it for months and there’s not going to be a hair out of place.
In improv you could slip up at any time and that scary energy is something I’ve really come to love.
what’s your favourite type of role?
Recently, I’ve loved playing the young ingenue sort of Spiderman vibe.
There’s a lot of heart to them – I love playing the Smee characters – grizzled, second in command but so pathetic with a kind of grotesque physicality.
have you had any disasters?
There are no mistakes in improv. If you’re a good improviser, you make that disaster into a joke, you make it the whole reason the show exists and it becomes the best thing in the show.
People have come to see it because they know that there’ll be mistakes, and it’s what you do with that mistakes that’s key. I have frozen up, but you just make your character have a stutter or be lost for words because they’re so in love or they’re been poisoned.
why are women good at improv?
Because we’re amazing. I think to be a good improviser is to be a good actor and women have an incredible ability to connect and empathise.
We are able to empathize with villains, which makes them more interesting, and create stories based on our own trauma which fleshes out a character.
As a cast, we’re incredibly supportive. We now have two members with little babies and there are not a lot of shows that might be able to support them the way we are.
Because we’re all women, we just decided we would make it work. This is our life.
We all have other jobs and projects – we fit this around that and some people will want to get married and have kids and we’ll make it part of our experience. We want everyone to succeed.
We’re there for each other on stage as well. In improv, if you’re in a bad place, it’s really tough.
We have the ability to recognize when someone is not feeling good, and take them out of it, and use it as part of the show.
As a cast, we will huddle around, take that energy, adrenaline or sadness and use it to create something beautiful.
what musical would your life be?
A woman dog-walking nine-to-five, making up musicals and watching lots of films in her spare time and listening to old R’n’B.
- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London