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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood