THE improv comedy society in Aber, Exploding Fish, is back from another successful Edinburgh Fringe show, “Playgiarism.” We sat down with their Vice President, John Gallagher, who brought four years’ worth of experience to the interview in the form of notebooks collected from workshops and performances.
Starting broadly, what is improv, and how is it different from sketch comedy performances, or standup?
It’s a completely different ball game. There’s a lot of rules in improv which is a bit confusing to say – but the more you do it, the more layers you experience. You can become a funny character or progress a story. The main difference is you’re on the fly and more dependent on everyone else than on a script, because you don’t have one! I think with the right knowledge and people around you, it can become easy and really fun.
A lot of people, when they see an Exploding Fish show, they enjoy it because you’re watching people make complete arses of themselves; the people in the audience can say anything and we have to do it, and people love that dedication that the performers have to give. It’s much more engaging personally than sketch comedy, for example. A lot of people who go to Exploding Fish workshops are not confident, or want to be a good orator or good at public speaking, and improv can really help with that.
Does it take a special kind of person to do improv? Can anyone give it a try?
Anyone can do it. There are rules, but most of them fall into the category of fun; the first rule is to not try and be funny, don’t try and make jokes, basically, and the second one is to have as much fun as possible. We run workshops on Tuesdays from 7 til 9 at the Old College. There are improv games we do where you learn a different category of improv, one week we might focus on stories and the next, working with other people. It’s a fun atmosphere, one where people can bounce off each other and learn.
Who would you so say are your inspirations as a society?
Exploding Fish started with a group of comedians watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? and they put on shows of their own at the union, which were really popular. And then in 2011 our performing group, The Knights of Improvalot, started. We’ve wanted to try and get away from Whose Line and focus on really good, original improv. There’s good improv out there – improv Sherlock Holmes, musical improv, little games, long games of improvisation; we try and learn from a lot of sources. There’s no way of getting popular from improv – Whose Line is the only show that’s really gained popularity – but there are a lot of businesses that hire improv teachers so their workers can bond together. It’s a good tool for that. It’s about building talent, and creating skills, not just for acting but for everything else. It’s not a direct route but if you really are motivated by it, there’s lots of different groups out there, it’s a matter of getting to know people are becoming a better person.
How did your show on Bay Radio, Improv Radiov, start?
We wanted to push improv a bit further in Aber so we started the show, which was a 2-hour improvised radio show, where I was the host and my producer (Jozef Raczka) would play a different character every week, and we often had guests who were also part of Exploding Fish.
I think one week I tuned in and heard Slavoj Žižek…
Oh, Žižek… [laughs] We come up with the strangest shit ever. The amount of characters we killed off… I think we had five different Michael Parkinsons, and one of them was a Terminator? Basically, we pushed it a little further. I had a format, news, music and conversation, but everything was improvised. We also do our own show, Improv Drinkov, which isn’t part of the Exploding Fish canon, but has helped us the incentive to perform. Those shows taught us to stick with the same character, always focus on where the comedy is, don’t say no, and to always check on your partner.
How long has Exploding Fish been performing at Edinburgh Fringe?
Our first show was in 2010, working with the Free Fringe (whose events have no hire charge for performers and free entry). In the past we’ve had a show called the Canned Film Festival, where we improvised a film on the spot, and our current show, “Playgiarism”, started in 2012. In “Playgiarism,” we take flyers for other performances at the Fringe – millions and millions of them are given out – so we take one, we look at the title, and come up with our own performance based only on the information on that small piece of paper. The last three years we’ve seen a bunch of amazing shows while we’ve been there, a lot of brilliant improv; musical improv, especially, is amazing, I saw a three-man musical of Snakes On A Plane, and “Puppet Fiction”, which was Pulp Fiction with puppets. It’s a really great experience.
Do audience expectations change there?
It can completely change the motivation if there’s a bigger crowd. If something hits, and you get a roar of laughter, your character explodes, and you gain confidence.When the ball starts rolling, you go on a journey.
What’s the hardest thing about performing improv?
I’d never done drama before when I arrived in my first year. I was really nervous and when I look back on that, I’m thinking, “What an absolute muppet,” but once you start researching you start to analyse yourself more. A lot of performers get into a phase about a year after they start where depression hits – a lot of teachers I’ve had compare it to a little green man on your shoulder saying “You shouldn’t be doing that, that isn’t funny.”
But the trick is to flick him off. Success doesn’t come through talent, it comes through practice and dedication, working with other people, and the support you get.
My job is basically to teach the performance group. I have people coming up to me after a performance telling me they’ve had a really terrible show, but I’m looking at my notes and thinking “You’ve had a really good show!” So there’s a lot of self-doubt. One of the exercises we do with the performance team is, we get in a circle and everybody says something positive about your performance. It’s a bit silly, a bit Disney, but it’s really nice to hear people say things about you. Self-doubt is the worst thing that can happen – we’ve never had any really awful moments.
What about the big successes for the society?
This year, for Comic Relief, we did a 27-hour improv show. Guinness World Book of Records were difficult to get hold of, and they didn’t show up; hopefully they’ll come this year, where we’ll be doing a 29-hour one. We can’t have any breaks, so we made it into a show where there’s always two people on stage. One of them is an executive for a TV network and the other is a writer, and the writer has to pitch a show to them. I think we did three or four series by the end. I did about 15 hours, three members did the entire thing. At 4am, You’d be surprised how much we support each other after 27 grueling hours. By the end of it I probably wanted to kill some of them. You really are pushing the limits of how much you like these people you hang out with, but it’s great fun. I slept like a baby when I got home.
What can Freshers expect from Exploding Fish this year?
We’ll be at Fresher’s Fair; last year we had a lot of really amazing performances from third years and master’s students who have now left, so this year we have a lot of room for new students. You can expect more workshops from our experienced members, and we want to give it this professional level where it’s fun, but there’s also a learning curve.
I’ve got so many games we can use. My favourite is called Dead Bodies. That might sound really awful, but it’s an amazing game, where you can have improvisers or audience members, who sit in a chair and go completely limp, and another person has to do a scene, and move their mouths. You’re watching this one person do a scene with dead bodies, essentially by themselves, and it’s a great scene to watch. I also love A Million Knights, which is set in a crowded scene but there are only two people; one person plays one character and the other plays everybody else. So if the scene is in an airport, that person is playing the attendant, the pilot, the tourists, the baggage handlers; that person really works up a sweat. We also do socials, and damn good performances every other week.