The Culture Interview – Duncan Alldridge, ‘Improv’ teacher, writer, performer.

10 mn read

Author of ‘Losing It: How We Popped Our Cherry Over the Last 80 Years’, Kate Monro has been taking Duncan Alldridge’s ‘improv’ classes ‘Playing on the Edge’. She described the experience as being ‘transformational’ in terms of her life. Here she decides to ask her teacher some questions.

It is surely no mistake that every time I try and text the word ‘improv’, my phone feels the need to auto-correct it to ‘improve’. Every. Single. Time. Both my phone and the universe wants me to be a better person, so somehow the powers-that-be have colluded to push me in the direction of improvisation classes i.e. getting up in front of other people and purposefully making a dick of yourself.

It took me a while to get there. Being exposed in this uncomfortable way isn’t my natural habitat but after floundering during a speaking engagement last year and getting Facebook pop ups from Duncan’s improvisation class every five minutes afterwards, I took the celestial hint and signed up. In the spirit of adventure (and my phone’s need for me to push myself), I put myself in the spotlight in the most vulnerable of ways. Six months on, I sat down with my teacher and we talked about what happens when people with no ‘thesp’ leanings whatsoever get together and play. The sound of Duncan’s epic laugh punctuated this interview so you’ll need to imagine that while you read.

K: To give you and your work context Duncan, what bought you to teach improvisation to people like me?

D: There is a rational answer. Which is, I was a drama teacher with a background in education and theatre, so why wouldn’t I teach ‘improv’? But the more interesting answer is that a few years ago, I had what we might call a series of breakdowns. I wasn’t sure if I would work again but out of that came a series of questions like ‘Well, what does work mean?’, ‘What will I offer now?’ and ‘What will that look like?’ A mutual friend had also said; ‘Duncan, if you did a drama or improvisation class for adults, I’d come. And I’d get some friends to come too’. At that time, I felt so far away from teaching anything, ever again, that it was like looking at the planet Pluto. And then a year later she said the same thing and ‘Playing on the Edge’ came from that.

K: Do you carry on learning about ‘improv’ yourself, even though you’re the teacher? What do you learn?

D: Two answers again. Because there is a practice going on here. The practice of creativity and storytelling and there are guidelines to help people to let themselves fall into story telling. So yes, I keep my own practice going. I work with other practitioners and I use that in classes alongside my own learnings. But on broader level, you learn about being able to hold a space where you can allow things to take place, even though you are not sure what’s going to emerge.

I’ve also learned the value of showing up. Because if it was a day at work, I might call in sick. But I’m going to run an improvisation class so if I just get there, I know that I’ll have a collaborator. Even if it’s just one person. In fact, one of the most beautiful classes was just two of us. So I learnt not to be afraid of it not working out as I wanted. And then everything else is a bonus. You learn that. Yeah.

K: That’s interesting. That’s a whole other layer that wouldn’t have occurred to me because I’ve been so immersed in my own experience. It has passed through my mind occasionally – I wonder what this is like for Duncan. Because you’re a very cool calm confident presence but you’re learning too, as well as holding the space as they say. The master of ceremonies.

D: I’m going to ask you a question Kate. Why did you turn up to the class – and what made you come back?

K: Initially because I did this talk last year and whilst I’m no extrovert, I’ve done lots of talks before and I’m usually good at it but I floundered with this one and it freaked me out. Alongside that, I’d kept looking at your class online and thinking – ‘I know that would be a really good thing for me to do’. Because I feel quite self-conscious but this doesn’t really feel like the real me. And it annoys me.

I also had this flashback to being eight years old and putting on a show for the end of term variety show at school. I basically nicked a scene from my favourite cartoon, Hong Kong Phooey, cast myself in the lead role, performed it for the 4th years and it got the thumbs up for the end of year show and I thought – what happened to that kid? A kid that worried a lot less about what other people thought. It was like a lens into a bit of myself I’d forgotten existed. And I thought I’d like to find that again. 

D: And actually, maybe it’s always been there…

K: Yes! But I’d got all these stories about who I thought I was, based on the past and not all of them were good. And once I really started thinking back, I realised my Hong Kong Phooey stage experience came not long after my dad died in traumatic circumstances so you’d have thought I’d have been even more challenged at that age but actually, I was much more brazen and buoyant than I remember. So ‘improv’ felt like a way of re-writing a limiting story I had for myself. I also thought it would be a good way to short-circuit one’s need to get things right. To put myself in a place where I don’t know what’s going to happen. I instinctively felt that your class could be the place for that. I don’t know. I got a vibe. You made it sound fun Duncan! And if it all went wrong, it wouldn’t matter!

D: And going wrong is what always happens. Right?

K: Right. But it’s also the greatest forum in the world for finding out that when things do go wrong, it doesn’t matter. That if you’re not going wrong, you’re kind of not doing it right. Which feels counter intuitive to one’s grown up self! The first class was joyous. The second class, I did a scene and I gave what I thought was a clear signal – we weren’t using any words in this scene – and my partner didn’t pick it up. So I’d made this ‘offer’, as you call it and it wasn’t received. And I was left standing there, thinking shit, here I am, I walked into this scene, I made a move, I got involved, nothing has come as a result and now I’ve got no idea what I’m doing and everyone is staring at me.

It was pretty awful but at the same time, I noticed that the world didn’t end. I got the feeling that it was okay for me to have NO IDEA what I was doing. I vaguely considered never coming to the class again after that, but then I thought ‘no’. I’ve started and I feel compelled to continue putting myself in this position.

D: I really get that. That there doesn’t have to be a rational reason when you say – ‘I know it’s for me’. Listening to that voice in the body or wherever it comes from is a good thing. My experience from talking to people is that many of us are having that experience all the time! But you can learn to exist in a playful uncertainty. And of course there are rules of engagement in ‘improv’. I imagine you’ve learnt a few by now. So that when that situation happens, you think okay, I’ll put on this ‘rule’ that I’ve learnt, like a vest, and it’ll hold me whilst I hang out to dry here in front of everyone.

One of the joys I get from the class and why it’s so gorgeously funny in the most human way is that that vulnerability which you offer, whilst hanging out to dry, when someone has missed the cue you’ve given them (or ignored it!) and you’re standing there thinking ‘I don’t know what to do and I want to leave’ is a place that the audience LOVE seeing. Because we all recognize that in ourselves. And then something usually does happen as a result, that’s deeper, and human and ultimately more vulnerable. And it’s not ‘clever’, nor is it supposed to be ‘right’. I’ve seen many moments like that in this class and that’s what keeps me going. It’s not so much exciting as touching. And delightfully funny. It’s deeply funny. Not ‘clever funny’.

K: That’s an entire reframing of the vulnerability that we feel in the class.

D: And that’s because it is your absolute inability to be witty, clever or in control in that moment that draws us to you. I’m not saying that a funny line won’t be funny but a funny line is short-lived and not memorable. It’s a way of getting through. But what actually draws us to you is your humanity, of being lost in front of us. And then being found! Because someone will eventually join your scene and say – ‘Would you like an ice-cream?’ or ‘It’s cold today’ and you’ll say; ‘Yes, I am absolutely freezing!’

K: I have picked up some tips Duncan and one of those is to use what you feel in the moment to inform what you do next. So, if you’re shitting yourself and you can’t think of what to say, be an actor who can’t remember their lines. Or be a person who feels lost and confused and can’t find their way. Be that, until one day you think ‘maybe I’ll just dance a jig while I’m standing here and I don’t know what I’m doing’.

D: And I’m still lost and confused! I’M LOST AND CONFUSED. I mean how many different ways can you say that single line for example! You could just keep saying that. Bringing that sort of authenticity of how we are feeling in the moment into the safety of the rule playing scene, it has another depth altogether for me.

K: What do you think most people are scared of when they come to ‘improv’?

D: I think most people who come, who haven’t had experience of performance, and actually, it can be more daunting for trained actors. Because actors are used to having scripts and direction. What people are most afraid of is not being accepted. ‘I’m not enough’. I’ll make a fool of myself. People will laugh at me. What I have to offer isn’t enough I think is the fullest answer.

K: Do you see people transform that idea?

D: Yes, it’s the most beautiful thing to watch when people realise that whatever they have to offer absolutely is enough. And then people begin to take more risks and then they’re able to play. And then you get flowing humanity.

K: The word ‘play’ is key because it’s something we think only children do. But we get into too many well-trodden routines in adult life and forget how to make things up as we go along. So this was an extreme version of learning how to do that, of getting into a place where you can make your vulnerability into a joke. Or just say how you feel in that moment and for that not to be a terrible thing. That actually it’s a really human thing and people connect best with you when you’re honest.

D: Yes, and everybody is longing for that. The audience, the film crew, whoever, subconsciously or not, is longing for the people on the spot to say those things. Because it’s what we all feel underneath. And especially when we’re seeing it but it’s not being acknowledged, because mostly it’s – ‘how do we get through this together’ Kate. It’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s about the collaboration. How can we fix this together? One of the important things about these sessions is that the witnesses, the other people in the class who are inadvertently invited to watch, are watching with a view to joining. It’s not a passive watching or ‘it’s not my go now’. It’s – ‘if she needs you, jump in and help, even if you don’t know what you’re doing yourself.’ And when you get that, you’ve got a community. A group of people who can playfully help each other. It’s been delightful to watch that grow.

K: Another massive one for me, when I began, was that I thought I needed an entire story in my head in order to perform. But what I’ve observed is that actually, it’s the smallest things that delight the most. It’s when someone gets up and does something really quite tiny or insignificant but they throw themselves into it. They could be pretending to type. They could be a thief, moving booty across the floor, slowly and deliberately in a heist scenario – which was totally genius. The class was in stitches. Because the performer was so absorbed. It was as if we weren’t there. So it’s the C word – commitment. Go all in. Focus on a bit of fluff on the ground. It could be the most fascinating piece of fluff that you’ve ever seen. And if it’s the most fascinating piece of fluff to me, it’s interesting for the audience to look at that piece of fluff with me.

D: Got it! Be fascinated in what’s around you. Your imagination is an infinite resource for being fascinated by anything you want to be fascinated about! And the extension of the C word is commit ‘and’.

So, you’ve made the commitment. You’re fascinated by the fluff on the floor. Then 15 seconds later and you’re still fascinated but no one joins in. No one helps you. So keep being fascinated. Keep going! There is the commitment to the fascination. And half an hour later, you’re still fascinated. And that’s what happens in these classes. Know that it’s really really difficult right now – but I’m going to keep committing to the fluff on the floor and eventually someone’s going to come along, stamp on it or say – ‘this is just what I need to make new earplugs with tonight’. So yes, that’s a huge lesson for life. Commit – and see it through.  And maybe there is a time to stop as well. *The sound of laughter punctuating this last observation*…

K: That’s brilliant.

Are you and I late-developers Duncan? Or is culture not keeping up with the fact that people continue to evolve as they get older and learn new skills?

D: I would never have been okay about doing this before. I would have needed too much control a few years ago to run something like this.

K: That’s interesting. So I guess what I’m saying is, what do you bring to the table now, at the age you are, that you wouldn’t have done before?

D: It’s the slings and arrows of life that enable me to hold a space like this now, because I’m not attached to the outcome of where it’s supposed to be going. In fact, it comes from a place where I had no idea where it was going. So any outcome I attach is purely random. And out of ‘not knowing’ has come me starting a business, and taking it into team building exercises in the corporate world, some of my students have ended up becoming clients and all of that has come from something I had no expectation of.

I don’t know about you but I have lots of big ideas and it’s about me learning to take tiny steps. Because if I try and take big steps, it doesn’t work. It’s the tiny steps where I reap the most rewards. So teaching ‘improv’ and running a class like this has invited me to take tiny steps and really see what’s happening. That is one of the great advantages of age, to bring it full circle. For me, it’s to take smaller steps, and to wait each time and see what happens.

Because if you look at a tiny piece of fluff on the ground, it is tiny but if you look at it up close, there’s a whole universe in there.

K: Amen to that.

Duncan’s improv classes ‘Playing on the Edge’ are on Sundays from 11am till 1pm at The Grange Pub

upstairs, Warwick Rd, W5 3XH. Contact: duncanalldridge@gmail.comHyperlink for Duncan’s class:

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The Culture Interview – Duncan Alldridge, ‘Improv’ teacher, writer, performer.

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