Faye, Director and founder of Story Kitchen Impro It’s the end of the season here at Story Kitchen Impro, and I’m feeling in a reflective kind of a mood. Nine months ago in a coffee shop in Kingston, Hoopla’s Steve Roe and I supped on a brew and talked about Theatresports, Keith Johnstone, the London impro scene, Alec Ferguson’s leadership style and everything in between. He promised that if I started a group, he’d help me find the improvisers. One nerve wracking application to the International Theatresports Institute, two months, and three auditions later we had a company – comprising of 25 or so improvisers, musicians and tech imps from various walks of impro life. Who are they?How were they chosen? Some, like me, had just arrived in London and were looking for a team to perform with, make some friends, find their way in their new world. Some had been on the scene for years – well known faces that have graced the city’s stages in many shows and forms. Some were wholly new to impro with little or no experience at all. But experience isn’t a criteria for Theatresports – it’s just one of the wonderful things about the format. A Theatresports show offers every improviser willing to put in the work the opportunity to get something amazing from it. So, far from worrying about getting enough ‘good’ players, I focused on making sure I had balance – people who would inspire, people who would commit, people who wanted to take risks and learn. I believed, and still do, that the thing we all have in common is our desire for, and our utter joy at being part of a team creating something new.
Theatresports itself, of course, isn’t new. And it’s certainly not new to London. But it’s history here is chequered – it has come and gone through the course of the decades, but for reasons unknown, has never stayed. Ironic, really, given the format was pretty much invented here. But even now, the ghosts of London Theatresports past still echo; many well-established comedians, improvisers, writers and teachers cut their teeth playing the short form game, and many have been incredibly and actively supportive of Story Kitchen. For me, to be part of the show’s history here is a privilege; the bigger picture of what we are doing makes me undeniably excited and proud. But of course, that is only a small part of the reason for wanting to make the show, and the company, a success.
My own reasons for setting up Story Kitchen were simple at the start. I wanted to be on stage in London, I wanted to be in a team, I wanted to play Theatresports, and no one else was doing it. It was a simple enough dream. The reality, I now realise, is so much more than that. I’ve come late to improv, and while I love playing, and will always love playing, Story Kitchen has gifted me the opportunity to do something more: to create a thriving, fun place for improvisers to come and play and learn. It has been, and continues to be, incredibly satisfying to watch as people grow to trust each other, laugh together, and challenge themselves individually and as a collective to always be better.
It might look easy – it is, after all, ‘only’ short form. The collection of improvisers on stage perform a slickly choreographed format and the catchy title makes for easy marketing. But make no mistake: Theatresports is bloody hard work. And just when you think you’ve nailed it, something else comes along to make you realise you haven’t. Mastery of Theatresports, I now realise, may take years to achieve. Of course we thought we had it down after a month, and it’s true that in a four week period of intensive rehearsals, we knew the basics. We’d covered the horn, the basket, the judging, the challenges, banter and hosting…we figured we knew enough to get through our first show – and so we did. We weren’t ready, we didn’t know everything, and we made some mistakes, but we did it. It was an enormous sense of achievement for everyone. Then we went away and rehearsed some more, and did another show. And another one. And another one. And each time, we worked harder than the last to get things right, to fix the little ticks and right the wrongs. Patti Stiles came along at just the right time, at five months in, and steered us right where we had been going – well, not wrong, but a little left, maybe. Her direction, her energy, her smile set the tone for the future – her guidance for me was invaluable.
We continue to rehearse every month, the week before the show – now we are familiar with the format, it’s a combination of workshopping, usually taken by one of the senior company members on something they have noticed needs work, or that has come up in company notes after a show. I give notes as director, sharing my thoughts on the previous show and the next one, and then we do casting, team talks and so on to prepare for the forthcoming show. What started as three hours of me talking, me directing, me making all the decisions, is slowly turning into a place where we share the load. The delight I feel every time someone emails with a new game they’ve invented, or asks if they can judge, helps unpack the props, or even cleans up a broken glass from the floor during the interval – the fact that everyone is looking out for each other on and off the stage – it’s a work in progress of course, but I see things every single time that make me smile, because taking care of each other, of our audience, of the show, is what it takes to master Theatresports, and each one of these tiny acts brings us closer to it.
Every person in the company has worked unbelievably hard the past six months or so to make the show successful, and it is their commitment, their good humour and their willingness to learn which keep me going. As director, it’s easy to feel the burn during the difficult bits; to wish you’d never started it, to wonder how on earth you are going to keep it fresh and keep your cast happy and keep your audience coming back over the course of the months and years ahead. And as a player, it’s absolutely going to cross your mind as well. There will be tough times; we have already said goodbye to some, and I’m sure we will say goodbye to others, as the months and years roll by and people undergo life changes, career changes – or simply decide it’s not for them. But as the honeymoon glow fades, I hope those of us who stay continue to inspire each other to flourish and grow, and encourage new faces to join us and do the same.
As the director, I place importance on three things: quality improvisation, commitment to the team, and a willingness to leave one’s ego at the door. They are all equally vital, in my eyes, when you are playing a format the audience perceives as competitive, without really being competitive at all. Theatresports is a beautiful and secretly complex format, designed to let players take risks in a safe environment; to let newer players aspire to greater things; and give more experienced players a place to challenge their game. It’s played for the audience, not for the improvisers; it’s a place where everyone and no one is important; and in terms of playing a short form game, it’s incredibly satisfying. As we begin as a company to love the format for all it’s quirks, I have found myself worrying less about mastering the format – not because we have mastered it, but because I know we want to, and that’s a great place to start.