The House of Improv: the cool new kids on the block

Stage

Ruby Nicholson Interview The House if Improv, the creators behind the improvisational comedy show Death By Murder. With the Oxford imps usually dominating this niche scene, Jack Lawrence and Emma Hinnells talk through the ups and downs of putting on their murder mystery show.

How long have you been rehearsing for?

Jack: Probably about 6 weeks total. We did about 4 weeks toward the end of Lent term (Hilary Term), we had nothing over the six break, and then we’ve just been rehearsing pretty much since week .

So what inspired you to do the murder mystery?

Jack: I started running open, free workshops in Balliol at the start of last term, just because I do a lot of improv and I wanted people to do it with. These guys came along, we ended up forming a troupe and I picked murder mystery because it’s quite a niche genre, and its got a really good aesthetic to it, with you know, cluedo-type stuff, and I thought we could have a lot of fun with it and given the type of improvisers these guys were (they were really good at character work) I was like: we could get a really good show out of this. So it’s partly from knowing the people I was working with, and partly from like: oh this would be a fun thing to do.

How important is it being a tight-knit group to create the comedy?

Emma: So important! I think obviously we only met through improv, so we didn’t know each other on a personal level, but improv is so intense as a kind of team sport that you get to know each other – we’ve got to know each other from the inside out. You get to know each other based on the characters you pick, and you learn something very fundamental about each other, but then you have to do small talk afterwards, so it’s been a weird process. I’d say we’re very close as a group.

Jack: We become weirdly close. With improvisers it’s weird because you spend two hours with people where you’re not acting like yourself, and then you leave and you’re like: I spend a lot of time with you, but always as someone else. But yeah we become such good friends – we hang out independently of the show – and yeah improv is entirely predicated on group chemistry. You can get three or four great improvisers on their own, but if they don’t work together as a team it’s a bad show, whereas I think with this we’re all having such fun together, which is why it works.

What are the main difficulties in preparing for an improv show?

Emma: Well I’m new to it, Jack’s been doing it for a while now, whereas this is my first improv show. Once we’re doing it I’m absolutely fine and comfortable and it’s just like we build momentum with each scene and it just feels very natural. But what I find is that the hardest part is in those moments before when you’re like: where’s this gonna go? And you’re just begging for some sort of structure. But it’s basically just a case of getting over yourself and doing it.

What’s going through your head as you get that name and you have to pick a costume and that’s what you’re gonna do?

Jack: Hopefully something.

Emma: I don’t know – it’s hard to say. I normally go with a set of characters that I could use, roles they could fulfill in that situation –

Jack: – based on the story. For example, if one character establishes: ‘Oh, I’m here with my husband’, you’re like: ‘oh, one of us has to be the husband.’

Emma: And it’s like [for this show] because we’re on a submarine, I was like: ‘oh, it could be a captain, could be a crew member or whatever’, so I normally think of it in terms of what role can they fulfill in the scene. And then you get the name and you think about what kind of person that is. But often you can very easily subvert the name you’re given. So ‘Dimitri’ [the audience-chosen name for Emma in this performance] is not necessarily like a thespian’s name, but I wanted to do that character.

How much can you actually plan? Do you have a stock of characters that you can bring out?

Jack: In terms of a stock of characters, we never really end up doing the same character twice. I mean, everyone has a different way of getting into it – for me it’s very physical, and with gestures – I think you’re [Emma] very similar. For other people it’s a voice or an accent. But yeah, the characters are all wildly different – and that’s what keeps it fun. That’s part of the preparation work – you get used to playing lots of different characters on the spot, so we do exercises where you have to come up with a new character every 100 seconds, or just for a minute, you know, like really intense. Basically, the way we do it is just practise doing shows to ourselves and each time it’s a new character. And we also push ourselves to do characters that we’re uncomfortable with. So we notice that sometimes someone will get in a rut, and we’ll be like: oh you always play a high-status character – try playing for example a really shy woman – and we’ll make ourselves go to those places so we have a full spectrum of characters.

Emma: Yeah, and I think that comes with knowing each other well as a group; you know where people are comfortable, and you can say: well actually I think you’re really good at that, but why don’t you try pushing yourself. And it’s often when you’re pushing yourself into characters you wouldn’t see yourself that comfortable in, you find you’re actually much funnier.

If the show runs on what your audience give you, what do your rehearsals look like?

Jack: So, in an improv show, the sort of lingo of it is you have a ‘framing device’, which is how you accept suggestions from the audience and proves it’s improvised. So in this show we had a three-layered one: we have the random victim, we have the names, and then we have the location. So we basically practised doing exactly that ourselves. We all wrote down like 10 different random names to use for practices, and then we’d be like: okay today let’s do one in an amusement park; let’s today do one on a plane; let’s today do one in the houses of parliament, and then we’d just run it for an hour. Just like a football team – you can’t rehearse for a game, but you can practise drills and get better as a team – that’s basically how we did it. And then at the end you say: what was good about that? What was bad about that? Did we lend too much time to these characters and not enough to these characters? So it’s entirely self-evaluating. For this show we had a friend come in and take a look at our rehearsal process, just a few days ago, who loved it. So we were like: yes! Thank you! Because we’re in this bubble where you just don’t know. So there’s planned structure: so we know we’re going to ask for a location; we know we’re going to ask for names – so in that sense, that’s planned. But the shows are all so vastly different from what happens and what characters come out.

The shows will be radically different each night. But someone will die each time, because we’ve guaranteed that.

Emma: Yeah, I think the only thing that’s fixed is we know we’re going to get certain things from the audience. The only other thing that’s fixed is that at the very very end we all need to be in the scene together for a murder.

Jack: oh yeah a murder has to happen. That’s pretty important. So there are other improv shows like an improvised musical, where they’re going to accept suggestions for like: musicals to parody. And there are improvised Game of Thrones parodies where they take suggestions for lines of dialogue. So there’s always some form of structure there, but the rest is entirely improvised. The shows will be radically different each night. But someone will die each time, because we’ve guaranteed that.

What made you join the improv troupe to begin with?

Emma: I saw it advertised on the Balliol JCR Facebook page and I thought it looked really cool. I’d also seen the imps do a show and I had initially wanted to audition for them, but I’d been too nervous, so I thought this was my perfect opportunity. And what’s great about this is that we do the short-form improv games that the imps do, but we also get to do a long-form hour long show which gives you the chance to properly develop a character and to call back on things. It’s just so rewarding as an improvisor to have the time to develop those things and then call back to them.

We don’t audition because you have to see people consistently. Everyone can have a good day or a bad day

Jack: My experience of it was, I started running workshops when I was the president of the Cambridge Impronauts back in Cambridge during my undergrad. And the way I wanted to run this was with open, free workshops. We don’t audition because you have to see people consistently. Everyone can have a good day or a bad day, but if they’re coming along and they’re consistent and they’re really good then we invite them to join our troupe, and then we rehearse together on separate workshops. It is just a process of ‘it is what you make of it’ and it’s good fun and there’s a really nice freeing thing about: ‘I have no idea of what I’m about to do for this show’, but that’s the best part of it.