Birmingham Improv Festival returns to the city for its second outing from October 23 to 29, bringing quick-fire comedy and a barrel of laughs from some of the improv circuit’s most talented performers. Amy Norbury spoke to festival director Jon Trevor ahead of the festival to discover what you can expect – plus, you can win a pair of tickets to the opening night
“The highest accolade we get for our art is that people think we’re cheating,” says Jon Trevor, the driving force behind Birmingham Improv Festival. “Sometimes the shows are so good that people start muttering that they can’t be improvised, they must be rehearsed.”
And that’s the glory of good improvisation; shows which are so well put together, so slick and professional that it’s hard to believe they’re made up on the spot. But rather than being rehearsed for hours on end and performed over and over again, each improv show is exactly that; one-of-a-kind and never to be repeated.
After the sell-out success of last year’s inaugural Birmingham Improv Festival, this year’s event, which takes place at the Blue Orange Theatre in the Jewellery Quarter, promises to be “bigger, better, Brummier.”
“Last year we had ten shows and eight workshops over one weekend, so this year we’ve doubled in size and it’s lasting all week with 21 shows from different performing companies and half-a-dozen workshops as well,” Jon explains.
“The improv scene in Birmingham has been growing over the past eight or nine years and it had come to the point where there was actually a scene, rather than just some people doing it! So our aim last year was to put improv on the Birmingham map and Birmingham on the improv map.
“Last year it was pretty much all invited troupes coming into Birmingham, but this year it’s a balance of local groups and headline acts being invited in from outside.
“The festival really helped to solidify the improv scene in Birmingham. There’s a growing feeling that we know who we are, that we’re seeing each other’s shows, and it’s definitely coming together now.”
And the fact that there is such a scene in the city is mostly down to Jon.
“I was a theatre director for about 20 years, which I stopped doing in around 2000,” he says. “Then in 2008 I started getting a bit restless; I’d seen some improv and read a book on it and thought it would be fun to do, so I looked for a group in Birmingham and there was nothing. The second biggest city in the country and there was nothing happening.”
So Jon started Box Of Frogs, a Tuesday night drop-in improv group based in Moseley, which has been running ever since. And from that grew the Birmingham improv scene.
“Box Of Frogs do a show once a month at the Blue Orange Theatre which comes out of the weekly workshop,” says Jon. “And of course we’re performing at the festival. Because of Box Of Frogs, I get called The Frogfather!”
From the Monday to Thursday, the festival will start with a double bill of local improv followed by a performance from a visiting troupe, while the weekend will feature a variety of shows, including a charity gala show on Sunday in aid of Birmingham Children’s Hospital. There will also be improv workshops taking place over the week.
“Most people’s memories of improv is Whose Line Is It Anyway, which is a form of improv called short-form improv, based around games and silly songs. That’s thriving and there are groups in Birmingham who are doing that style, but there are other forms too,” explains Jon.
“People often confuse improv with stand-up comedy, which isn’t improvised; stand-up comics spend hours and hours writing and crafting their material, while improv is based on groups of people creating stories, scenes, songs and entire shows in the moment by working together as a group to create something that’s never been done before.
“Each show is unique, but some have certain genres or flavours. Some of the shows we have visiting include one called Murder She Didn’t Write, which as you can imagine is based on a murder-mystery. We’ve got one called Impromptu Shakespeare, who will devise a complete, new Shakespeare play that’s never been seen before in authentic Shakespearean language.
“Our headline group is Showstopper, who do a complete Broadway musical improvised on the spot. They did a nine-week run in London’s West End and won an Olivier Award for a musical which doesn’t exist, because they create a new one every night!
“The short-form games get lots of suggestions from the audience; with Showstopper, all they get from the audience right at the beginning is a title and they create something based on that title. Showstopper are the only group we’re having back at the festival and last year they created a musical called Two Nights at the Bullring, which was so funny.”
So how do improv groups work to create their shows?
“The best analogy I’ve ever heard about improv is football,” says Jon. “When you go to play a football match you don’t know where the ball’s going to be or how the game’s going to go but nevertheless you practise your skills. You practise shooting, you practise dribbling, you practise defence.
“Improv groups get together and practise a lot; not the content, but the ways of generating content and working together. They know each other and they’ve often worked together for a long time and it’s all based on trust and support. When you see it come together it’s absolute magic.
“With improv, there are some basic rules; the first one is to always say ‘Yes, and?’ rather than saying no, and the second is to make everyone else look good instead of trying to be the star yourself. If everybody concentrates on making everyone else look good, then we all look good. It’s very much a team sport.”
And what can visitors to birmingham Improv Festival expect?
“Expect to be amazed, certainly, to laugh a lot, and to be excited,” says Jon. “I think it’s the most exciting art form there is. And it’s unique; you’re going to have a unique experience because no-one will ever see that show again.”
For more details on Birmingham Improv Festival visit www.birminghamimprovfestival.com or find Birmingham Improv Festival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For your chance to win a pair of tickets to Birmingham Improv Festival’s opening night on Monday, October 23, simply answer the following question:
Jon Trevor is the founder of which improv group, which will be performing at this year’s festival?
Send your answer, along with your name, address and telephone number, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Birmingham Improv competition as the email subject. Entries must be received by 5pm on Monday, October 16, and our winner will be notified by Wednesday, October 18. No cash alternative is available. Terms and conditions apply.