The Oxford Imps have their cake and you eat it

Smiles pinned on their faces and chocolate cupcakes raised aloft, the circle of twentysomethings in matching shirts posed for photo after photo in front of the Clarendon Building. These are the Oxford Imps—Oxford’s best-known improvisational comedy troupe, who, on February 13th will celebrate their 10th anniversary with a special alumni performance at the New Theatre. That venue represents an unusual departure for the Imps, who have held court at the Wheatsheaf every in-term Monday evening since Hilary 2004—480 sets in all (not that anyone’s counting).

According to founder Hannah Madsen, you have to rewind through about 479 of those performances to get to the first moment she realized the Imps might have some serious staying power. “The very first show, we had 60 people come, which is basically filling the Wheatsheaf. That really surprised us. And then the next show, we had a hundred.”

By the end of the year, they had been invited to perform in the fledgling Providence Improv Fest in Rhode Island, USA, and have returned multiple times over the years. On this side of the Atlantic, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has become an annual summer destination, with a weeklong festival in Utrecht ranking as another popular destination. According to Dylan Townley, a past director of the Imps, the audience in Utrecht arrives armed with props suitable for the occasion. If you’re consistently dull you’ll find yourself pelted with sponges; on the other hand say something funny, recalls Dylan, and “ then all of these lovely Dutch people are chucking roses at you.”

The unexpected is the heart and soul of the Imps, with their repertoire varying on a nightly basis. Since their inception, they’ve tackled everything from themed raps to skits about Scottish pandas to full-fledged, hour-long musicals—all made up on the spot. Of course, one can’t just become proficient at churning out instant Andrew Lloyd Webber overnight. A new generation of Imps is recruited each year and “they get trained up for a whole term before going on stage,” says Townley; only once Hilary term begins are the newest members “allowed to strut their stuff.”

So, what does a good Imp look like? “Definitely a team player,” says Madsen without missing a beat. “It’s not always the funniest people to audition that get in. It’s about supporting each other, it’s much more like a team sport  than people realize. We make each other funny. I know that’s a really cheesy thing to say, but getting up there it’s 80% confidence and 20% skill.”

Overall, 138 Imps have made it through the auditions and the weeks of rehearsals and onto the Wheatsheaf stage—a fact the troupe celebrated by baking exactly 138 cupcakes to give away to strangers. And while a few were deterred by the notion of accepting sweets from strangers, the gang soon attracted a sizeable crowd. As more and more people walked up, the posing stopped and the talking began. Once again, the Imps were back in their element—improvising.

The Oxford Imps’ 10th Anniversary show will take place on February 13th,  8:00 p.m at the New Theatre. Tickets are available at the New Theatre box office, the Wheatsheaf on Monday evenings, and current Imps for £10 each, or from the New Theatre Website.

PHOTO/The Oxford Imps