On the Spot

Published on 26 September 2017

From fringe act to centre-stage, Singapore’s improv scene has grown up over the last four years.

By Marcus Goh

Improv is short for improvisational theatre, an adrenaline-rushed medium in which performers create an unscripted performance on the spot based on input from the audience, and the performance of their fellow cast members.

Hazel Ho, co-founder and producer at The Improv Company, which holds shows by its in-house improv troupes, The Company Players and Les Musicables (a musical improv troupe), says improv is the only art form she knows “where the audience has as much control as the performers because they get to suggest what should go on in a scene, and what should be the inspiration for a scene, before the performers take over.”

Besides being a theatrical performance, actors also use improv to warm-up before a stage or screen performance. “Using improvisation as a rehearsal procedure is one way to avoid imitation,” shares Kamil Haque, founder and artistic director of the Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity (HCAC), which also provides improv classes. “By taking the emphasis off the memorisation and rigidity of the words, the actor is able to uncover the logical behaviour in a scene.”

Arnaud Pierre, an improv actor and teacher, agrees, adding that “there are always two shows going on during an improv performance — the scene itself, and the discussion between the actors. Improv can be funny because mistakes and accidents are bound to happen, and improvisers have to adapt to keep the scene alive. We love to watch people struggle, and that’s actually the very foundation of theatre.”

BURGEONING SCENE IN SINGAPORE

Since 2013 — coincidentally, when Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the popular American improv comedy show helmed by Drew Carey returned to our TV screens — Singapore has seen an increase in interest in improv, both in terms of students and performances, with the majority of improv shows in Singapore being comedic performances.

“The improv shows at HCAC began in late 2014, early 2015. We started with about 20 audience members. Now, each one averages around 30,” says Haque, who started off with around ten students when he first offered improv classes. To date, he’s had 260 students take the class.

Ho has had a similar experience. “Twice a month, we have introductory taster sessions. But when we started out four years ago, we had very few people, usually five. Sometimes, we would not run the session because only one person would turn up,” she laughs. These days, each session attracts between 10 and 20 attendees.

Ho says the people who attend improv classes tend to be students or young adults aged between 18 and 35. “They tend to stumble on this art form, or just want a creative outlet outside of their day job.” Her students have since gone on to form their own improv troupes.

Improv student Desmond Chua, a 29-year-old designer who has been attending lessons at The Improv Company for the past five months, says “improv taught me that anything, absolutely anything, can be added to a story even when I believe I have nothing more to add.”

PREPARING FOR A PERFORMANCE

THE A-TEAM Improv requires members to work together to create ensemble pieces in which each member spontaneously adapts to the scene. (Photo: The Improv Company)

Not having a script or a planned structure doesn’t mean that improv players don’t have to prepare for their performances. “A lot of preparation is required,” says Haque. “More than what most people would expect. You have to build the dynamic of the troupe. You must also understand the different personalities and build a shorthand, a non-verbal understanding of each other.”

Ho adds, “Rehearsals are about practising the skills needed for that sort of spontaneous performance. We might look at a story structure, discuss what’s the best way to tell a good story, and decide how to work together as a team.”

MORE THAN JUST A PERFORMANCE

Photo: Haque Centre for Acting & Creativity

For Ho, improv is more than just a theatrical performance. “There are principles that we teach within our classes that can be applied to your personal life and work life.”

One such principle is to build on each other’s ideas by saying “yes, and…”. Another is to make your fellow performers look good, in the same way you would in a team sport. Teamwork and collaboration are crucial, as is having what Ho describes as “a safe environment in which to create something together. First and foremost, improv is a mindset.”

So much so that, as Chua points out, “There are no wrong answers, only creative justifications you make afterwards as a team.”

5 Things You Never Knew about Improv


There are over 10 improv troupes in Singapore, including The Latecomers, The Modern Schemers, The Company Players, and Les Musicables.

Improv can be performed in a variety of styles, which include incorporating music and puppetry.

Improv exercises have been used at corporate workshops for team building exercises.

Many Saturday Night Live cast members like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler came from an improv background.

The first Singapore Improv Festival was held in 2016, and will return in early 2018.

What’s Your Line?

According to improv instructor Arnaud Pierre, there are three styles of improv.

Short form improv, the main version seen in Singapore, is based on games, such as those seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Long form improv comes from Chicago, ground zero for the first generation of modern improvisers. It explores concepts organically. If short form improv is the equivalent of short films, than long form improv is equivalent to movies like The Fountain, or Cloud Atlas.

Storytelling improv requires performers to improvise an entire play. This new style builds on the short and long form styles, and uses radically different techniques.

Want to learn improv?

Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity

Comedic Improvisation (Introduction)
Cost: $400
Venue: 89A Desker Road
Date: 8 November to 24 November

Want to watch improv?

Left in Stitches: A Comedic Improvisation Showcase

Cost: $10
Venue: Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity, 89A Desker Road
Time: 8.00 – 9.30 pm
Date: 20 October 2017

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