Improverts improving future of comedy

SEVEN players live on stage. No script. And one hour a week to fill as an expectant audience demands to be entertained . . .

Enter stage right, The Improverts, a madcap troupe of student actor/comedians ready to create mirth-inducing sketches and skits with nothing more than audience suggestions to guide them.

Or at least that's the plan.

Based very loosely on the popular, but now defunct, Channel 4 series, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the Improverts' weekly show at the Bedlam - now in its 17th consecutive year - is one of the few platforms in Edinburgh where real, spontaneous improvised comedy can still be found.

"The thing that has allowed The Improverts to run longer than any other live comedy show is the fact that there is so much variation in what can happen on stage. The spontaneity means that any night can go in any direction," says producer Michael Whitham proudly.

Over the years The Improverts have become something of an institution, changing line-up as terms and students come and go.

The group was founded in 1989 by Canadian Toph Marshall, who went on to become artistic director of a classical theatre company and a professor at British Columbia University.

Whitham, who joined a year ago but didn't start performing until November, reflects: "As the people have changed, so the way the show works has altered.

"To date there have been more than 50 Improverts. The company tends to turn over as people graduate and leave university. So every four years or so, a bunch of new people come in and that keeps things fresh."

Alongside Whitham, the current company is Kerri Hall, Eliza Hooper who also directs, Freya Slipper, Tom Hall, Gwennie Von Einsiedel and Martin Cavannagh.

Whitham, a 20-year-old studying art history, says that his own involvement with the company stems from a desire to improve his acting.

"I started acting with Edinburgh University Theatre Company, and initially it was the acting that I wanted to concentrate on. I went to an improvisation workshop to see what it was like and found I got really involved and enjoyed it. It was so different to doing any other sort of comedy," he says.

All the players insist that everything they do on stage on a Friday night is made up on the spot. There are no plants, no hidden scripts and no ear piece prompts from off-stage. So does it ever go wrong?

"There are no suggestions that we cannot accommodate, but there are times when suggestions don't work out, for one reason or another," admits Whitham.

"But even when as a performer you might think 'that could have been better' as a scene comes to an end, we can always work harder and bring it back in the next sketch."

Each show is made up of eight vignettes, all based on games which require the audience's input.

"Very often you get similar suggestions," reveals Whitham. "If you ask an audience to suggest things that might be found in the attic, you always get someone who will say 'Grandma'.

"If you ask for an animal, you always get badger - I don't know why. So it's when someone gives you something really surprising that it really becomes fun. A scene I did recently involved a news story in which Zeus turned out to be an alien. That was just so out there."

Should you fancy having a go yourself, The Improverts also run a beginners workshop every Saturday at noon.

"We are always looking for new members. Workshops are completely informal and free in order to encourage people to come along. You don't have to be a student, anyone interested in just trying it out is welcome

"In fact, one of our ex-players, Jamie Anderson, is now a professional stand-up and was never a student. He lived in Edinburgh and just came along to a workshop, now he is a member of The Penny Dreadfuls on the BBC's Comedy Shuffle."

• The Improverts, Bedlam Theatre, Bristo Place, tonight, 10.30pm, 3.50, 0131-225 9893


BEING a member of The Improverts can lead to bigger things. Over the years a number of the troupe have gone on to enjoy successful careers, including Miles Jupp, a regular on the BBC comedy programme Live Floor Show and star of Cbeebies Balamory.

Ewen MacIntosh, aka Big Keith in The Office, also made some of his earliest stage appearances with the Bedlam funsters, as did Trainspotting star Kevin McKidd and American female stand-up Maria Bamford, who starred alongside John Travolta in the film Lucky Numbers.

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