Rosa Schiller-Crawhurst finds out the secrets behind the comedic genius of the Oxford Imps.
The Oxford Imps were as characterful and confident in reality as they are on stage. As a highly successful and skilful improvised comedy group that perform multiple times throughout the week, have their own weekly gig at the Wheatsheaf, perform regularly at the Edinburgh festival and are regularly hired for large events, rehearsals are naturally intense and serious – but this does not stop them being playful and experimental.
They appear totally comfortable in each others’ presence – something essential for a company that exposes itself so readily during their performances. The rehearsal lasted a gruelling three hours, and the pace and energy of it never wavered. When I was asked if I wanted to join in with the warm up my stomach clenched – I have never been someone that is comfortable playing ‘team building’ games that involve deciding what chocolate bar you would most like to be (although I must hastily add the Imps warm ups were slightly more sophisticated than this). Warming up for the Imps however was an essential part of the energising process and I was struck by the sheer volume that they created – it was quite a relief when there was a lull in the room.
Something that I had not previously appreciated about the Imps before I saw them rehearse was their acting ability. I had perhaps naively assumed that with improvised comedy, the emphasis of the performance was predominantly about the language they employed to make their audience laugh, but it seems that their primary concern was about building a character that had the potential to make an audience laugh – the language and amusing mannerisms then followed naturally. Their range of characters however was extremely versatile. They switched from playing a suicidal woman on a skiing mini-break, to an eight year old girl transfixed by fossils to a beautiful and yet slightly deranged Shakespearean maiden in Paris in a matter of moments. There are no stock-characters or fall-back lines for The Imps, they’re reactions have to be quick and sharp as throughout the scene they decide when the added layers of complexity in character are going to reveal themselves. If they get the timing of this right, there can be a spark of comic genius, a fantastic one-liner, which often creates a great climax to end the scene with. If the complexity of the character is not revealed or decided upon fast enough the scene can be left floundering as jokes are repeated, or silences last a little too long. This is a rare occurrence however – the actors seem to have the capability to continue rolling the dialogue along until the course of the scene changes enough to alter the dynamic.
The Imps really are laid bare in front of their audience. There is nowhere to hide. None of them throughout the rehearsal returned to a safe, reliable character that was guaranteed to amuse people; none of them repeated lines or tried to recreate the same dynamic in a scene twice. Every piece of acting is an experiment – and an experiment that tries to make a large group of appraising students laugh can be a dangerous one to play. The point of the rehearsals therefore is not to try and work out where the places for safety in a performance are, or to build a catalogues of dialogues or stock-characters – far from it. It is to experiment as much as possible so that when performing, whatever is thrown at them, the Imps have the devices to be inventive with. After every scene they dissect it together and experiment with new techniques. Deciding the mood that their character is going to sustain throughout the piece in the split-second before they started acting proved a challenging technique to use. It could help a create a believable character as recurring traits could reveal themselves throughout and it meant that there was little indecisiveness at the beginning of the scene; the characters settled into themselves straight away. However, in the end it proved to be a rather restraining technique as the comedians were unable to adapt their character to the others in the scene – if two very strong personalities were pitted against each other straight away the scene could feel forced and unbelievable. Although the Imps were keen to create amusing characters, with strange habits or attitudes, what was striking were their sharp social observations. Certainly, their characters were ridiculous, far-fetched and hopeless, yet this didn’t stop the characters from having painfully realistic human qualities which added to the occasionally poignant humour they created – especially during one of their Shakespearian scenes, this one entitled ‘the Tailor of Paris’ which evolved to tell the rather charming story of a dumb knave who in the end successfully seduces the beautiful, yet terribly attired, Parisian maiden from the ‘Rue de baguette’.
The Imps are all skilled craftsmen. They are all natural comedians, but more than that, their rehearsal proved just how versatile the performers really were. For those three hours they were actors, comedians and musicians – able to observe, create and react in a fast and pressured environment, whilst still retaining an air of cheeky playfulness and light-heartedness throughout.