Nicky Woolf's Edinburgh Diary: Weeeird improvisational science

“It's usually a bit mental but maybe not that mental.”

Improvisation is often talked about bombastically as an environment in which “anything can happen,” especially up here at the Fringe, where each new show competes in its publicity and press releases to sound wackier and more out-there than the last. Certainly there are shows where the action takes unexpected turns, but much of improvisational comedy is grounded in practice, and has certain rules.

Comedian Thom Tuck is a former member of both improvisational troupe the Improverts, as well as a regular on late-night improvisation show Voices In Your Head. He's also up at Edinburgh with two shows of his own. “It depends on the format,” he tells me when I ask about the science and preparation involved. “There is short-form and long-form improvisation. Short-form – what the Improverts do, and [sort of] what Voices does, is usually based on games.”

Mike Slater is a founder member of No Shoes Theatre, whose show The Improvised Musical is currently in its fourth year at the Fringe. They, he tells me, are very much “long-form” improvisation, narrative arc and all, and preparation is key. “The main thing is being around each other a lot, and playing the sort of games that make spontaneity happen. We sit down and talk about how stories are constructed, and songs; what makes a story, what makes a song. We spend ten hours a day together.”

“We know a certain number of things from experience,” he goes on. “Stories are made up of problems and solutions, so we introduce a major problem early on, and try not to introduce them after half-way through. We know that we get about seven songs, and we know that we get about nine scenes. Occasionally we throw all of that out the window. The more we do it together, the more we get a feel for what the other person's doing, where they're going.”

In Voices In Your Head, rather than follow the instructions of a stage presence, or of the audience as in The Improvised Musical, the performers obey The Voice, embodied by Deborah Frances-White, who stands at the back of the auditorium with a microphone. It's her show, so what she says goes – usually.

The Voice is quite antagonistic in tone, and when she picks on Phill Jupitus, who had never been on the show before – performers have no preparation for the show, and don't know what to expect – an extraordinary scenario began to build itself. Improvisation encourages performers whole-heartedly to commit to their first instinctive responses. “What is your name,” asks The Voice, and the performers will come up with one on the spot, in the moment, and build a character and a scenario around these instantaneous associative responses.

This is quite unusual for an improvisation show. More traditional groups practice the games and structures involved before going on stage. “It's fun when you're put on the spot, though,” says Tuck. “You're excited to see where it's going to go.”

One particular episode went very off-piste indeed. A power-struggle developed between The Voice and the character Jupitus was building. The dialogue between the two became faster and faster, angrier and angrier, and more and more intense, and ended with Jupitus advancing through the audience, shirtless and mad-eyed, on an audibly terrified Frances-White at the back, the two of them screaming at each other at the top of their voices, their character arcs locked by Jupitus' responses into that of former lovers. The audience was electrified, The Voice audibly shaken. “This next one,” Tom Salinsky – another of the performers – muttered after the audience and The Voice had both had a chance to settle down. “Is called: Follow That.”

After the show I run into Tuck in the Pleasance's Brookes Bar, and ask if it's always that intense. “It's usually a bit mental,” he replies, “but maybe not that mental.”
 

Phill Jupitus had a baptism of fire at improv show "Voices in Your Head". Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

THOM ATKINSON
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Lionel Shriver's new novel creates a whole world – but can't quite grasp its inhabitats

Like Shriver's previous offerings, The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 takes on a difficult topic: this time, American debt.

If your son takes a bow-and-arrow set to school and kills nine of his classmates, how do you know how much responsibility you bear for his actions, if any? If you have been living frugally for decades so that you can retire early to a tropical island and, just before you do so, your wife is diagnosed with aggressive and terminal cancer, do you have an obligation to spend your entire savings to prolong her life by a couple of months? If your brother is morbidly obese and the best chance he has of losing the 200-odd pounds that will save his life is for you to leave your husband and teenage stepchildren and to live with him, monitoring every calorie he ingests, should you do so?

These questions are at the centre of three of Lionel Shriver’s previous novels, namely: We Need to Talk About Kevin (her eighth, which brought her worldwide fame in 2003 after nearly two decades of writing in obscurity), So Much for That (2010) and Big Brother (2013). Shriver is fascinated by how we make sense of our responsibilities to and for those around us. She explores this theme through the psyches of her main characters as they confront extreme personal circumstances that chime with contemporary American socio-political issues: mass shootings, the health-care system, the obesity epidemic.

In The Mandibles, she takes on the US economy (Shriver is an American, although she lives in England). The book opens 13 years in the future, with the collapse of the dollar and America defaulting on its national debt. The president – the country’s first Latino head of state – forbids capital over $100 leaving the country and citizens are required to hand over to the government any gold they own, down to their wedding rings. This all takes place against a background of environmental change, an ageing population, racial tension and widespread unemployment, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work.

Shriver’s powers of invention are considerable and, combined with a dark sense of humour, have often provided relief from the bleak subjects to which she is drawn. In So Much for That, for example, the cancer-battling wife renames the drugs she is prescribed: marzipan for lorazepam, Attaboy for Ativan, and so on.

The future setting of The Mandibles allows Shriver’s inventiveness full rein. “Awesome” and “cool” are out of date; the kids say “malicious” and “careless” instead. No one uses smartphones any more; they use “fleXes”, a device that can be folded to any size and is “so thin that, before the distinctive bright colours of its second generation, some folks had thrown theirs away, mistaking the wads in their pockets for tissues”. No one reads novels any more, either, but a post-crisis economic treatise called The Corrections gets a lot of attention. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state of the publishing industry is one of the most fully imagined aspects of Shriver’s future.)

Most members of the Mandible family aren’t prepared for how quickly – and how much – the economic crisis will change their lives. They have all been assuming that when their 97-year-old patriarch, Douglas, dies, the family fortune would filter down to his son and daughter and then to his son’s children and grandchildren. But the crisis wipes out the Mandible money and Douglas and his dementia-suffering second wife are forced to move out of their high-end care home and in with his son, Carter.

Carter’s two daughters struggle with the situation in their own ways. The richer of the two, Avery, has to adjust to no longer being able to afford extra-virgin olive oil, while Florence, for whom olive oil has long been a luxury, resigns herself to feeding her family cabbage and rice for every meal. She does the weekly shopping as soon as she is paid: as a result of hyperinflation, prices can rise steeply in a single day. When both Avery and her husband lose their jobs, they have to leave their house and take up residence with their teenage children in Florence’s already overcrowded home.

The Mandibles asks us to consider how we know what we owe to our family and our community and what counts as fair when all of the structures around which we have built our lives become unstable. There is an impressive thoroughness to Shriver’s imagining of the consequences of full-scale economic collapse. This thoroughness, however, makes the novel feel psychologically flat.

The character to whom she devotes most time is Florence’s son Willing, a teenager at the beginning of the book. An economics autodidact, he has a preternatural ability to judge just how things will get worse and to prepare accordingly.

Another Mandible insists that things will get back to normal. Another gets involved in the black market. Another reinvents herself as a model of altruism. Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings. 

The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (400pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster