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


15 Minute 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:

If this article resonates, you might also like this:

https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-649442

L’Affaire Sandcastle


1 Minute Read

January 2017, and I’m fifty-one years old and by all accounts in the middle of a full-blown, multi-dimensional mid-life crisis. I think I need to stop thinking about it; instead I need to get off my ass and out the door, and yes – out of my head. For most of the year before, my friend Charlie has been sending me a stream of information and invitations about improv classes with Imprology, run by his teacher Remy. I have been eyeing this information up, subconsciously, interested, and yet a little wary. I’d tried an improv class once, a few years back, a day with a friend who also teaches it, and I had spent that day feeling as if I’d lost my (very loud) everyday voice and my (very active and much used) imagination. I had encountered a mild but palpable ‘stuck’ feeling, all day. Concrete legs. I was amazed at how many of the others in the group were so much quicker and agile in their thinking and associations, and ideas. Not me. I was slow and blocked. Strange, because I make up dialogue and stories for a living. I’ve written millions of words which have accounted for several novels; I write all the time and have done for most of my life. But the page is one thing and the stage is another thing altogether. Even so, it’s January, the month of new resolutions and new beginnings, and so I think fuck it, sign up.

Do it.

I joined a beginner’s class with Imprology, taught by Remy Bertrand. The classes were early Tuesday nights at a studio new Warren Street. Very quickly, as in, immediately, it happened – I forgot myself. Remy’s classes are well devised; they can charm and entrap almost anyone, even a middle-aged author in crisis. There’s no time to think. First, we were asked to settle down and breathe. Next, we were thrown straight into games and the games are fun and absorbing and even the most self-conscious of us are provoked into action and, yes, dear reader, within minutes we were all out of our heads. The games are short and mostly done in pairs. Sometimes the games grow into three or fours or groups of eight. We were asked to partner up multiple times. I felt an urge to bond with just one other and the urge to hide, but there just wasn’t time to dwell on these urges. Play the games or be left out. The first hour of the classes is just that: games to elasticate the spirit, to stimulate the imagination, provoke curiosity, to think outside the box and to leave self behind. For example, we played a game called “Let’s” which is all about playing like kids, with the prompt “Let’s” being an invitation to play anything, the kind of thing we all said as kids – “Let’s stick a conker up our nose, etc.” This game is fun in twos and also fun when the whole class is doing it and someone shouts, “Let’s all be a fish!” and fifteen adults hit the ground and swim around on our stomachs.

There are lots of games. In a group, we play catch a half full bottle of water, we jump in the air and ‘zap’ each other, we stand in a circle and shout ‘fish, banana, horse’, a game of riddles. We play word games, hand games, games with no meaning whatsoever. Before I know it, an hour had flown. My spirits had lifted. I was happy. The edgy, resistant feeling, which I’d carried with me on the way to class had vanished. When chatting to others in the class, I found many of them felt the same, the adult fear of failure, of not being good enough, quick enough, funny enough or just not being able to improvise enough. Many of us felt edgy and came to the classes anyway. I think I knew this edgy feeling was what I was after or interested in, edge, the margin, or the sharp part of the margin, where you might fall. Every human is capable of art in this edge space, or ingenuity, or feral behaviour. In the edge, we can be marvelous, spontaneous, surprise ourselves and even entertain others. I think I may have lost my edge some time back, my braveness. While writing this article, I looked on the Imprology website and I found this:

“Failing is acknowledged as a sign of genuine risk-taking. Free from the need to appear bright and original, participants can test new ways to support and project themselves and interact with others in a playful and forgiving atmosphere.”

Yes. I agree, I felt I was taking a risk and that is a fresh feeling, a good feeling mid-life. The classes are not just games. Each two hour session was thought through and themed; and so there was a class all about silence, one about time, one about playfulness and then the edgiest of all, a class about status.

Top dog, underdog, we paired up and played roles. I found this nerve-wracking: how do I disappear completely and not play the part of who I think I am, myself – Roffey, the Invincible. I am a Caribbean woman; we don’t even think along the lines of who might be an underdog. Caribbean people are all alpha and all top dog and if you hadn’t heard that ‘God is a Trini’, you have now. I had encountered similar games in my tantra workshops during my 40s, the idea of practicing ‘saying no’ and meaning it. To a person from a hot country, this is ludicrous. But British people are extremely codified in their class system and also they are taught, from birth, to restrain themselves, to turn themselves down, to never show off and claim top dog status. And so I played underdog and pretended I wasn’t an alpha by blood and kinship. It sort of worked, until I was part of a group of eight and we were asked to play the “Let’s” game as a means of leadership. Someone shouted: “Let’s all make sandcastles,” and so we did. Within seconds, I’d shouted “Let’s all jump on them and smash them down!” I can’t remember too much after that, only that there was utter chaos and I found myself tearing the socks off a male class member and throwing them away. The chaos seemed to be mostly due to me, and the chaos is something I know well and have started around me many times. I had managed to get the whole group to not play the game, but to do something else and I’m still not quite sure what. I cringed in bed for three nights after that, just thinking about it.

What some of us noticed is that improv classes have a kind of cross-over effect. One person said he felt he was using things he learnt in class – in life. I nodded, especially after l’affaire sandcastle. I realised it had been years since I’d felt so exposed and at the same time elated. Though this isn’t the point of improv classes at all, they are also insightful into human behaviour and mirror back to us who we are or who we can be, better than any therapy classes. They are fun and inspire true creative thinking and they also reveal ‘deep character’, as we writers might say. There’s no cover. When there’s no time to think, the real you comes forward in all its glory and it thorns.

The second hour of class is dedicated to sketches and using masks. Again, as a Trinidadian, I’m very familiar with masks, with masking up, and the concept of shape-shifting and playing masquerade. Our carnival is one of the best in the world, born from a tradition of masking up in order to take the piss out of the ruling classes. Even so, there is lots to learn and think about. Remy brought some theory to the second half of the classes. He had lots of very helpful information to impart, especially to us beginners. There were two types of mask, a large white alien type ‘larval’ mask with no mouth. Putting this mask on transformed the player into something so different it was unnerving to watch. Remy explained that most people new to improv find it hard to claim their space on stage and to remain still. He explained that most of us wanted to move around, flail our hands, make action happen. He encouraged us to do as little as possible, to see what kind of impact ‘doing nothing’ had on the audience. He explained that doing nothing, or not much, with intention, can be fascinating to watch.

Most of us had a go with the masks. Even so, it was clear, even in our class, there were a handful of natural mask players and extroverts. Again and again, the same people got up and the same people watched. I’m a natural extrovert and yet I found it hard to know which camp I was in. I’m quick thinking and quick witted – or so I like to think – but there and then – was I? No. Again, like the day of improv years ago, I felt slow. Too guarded, too thoughtful? Too in my head? Or was I also a little chicken shit? Something held me back, and yet also there was that desire to find my edge, be in it. I forced myself only once to ‘play mas’, or that’s how my Trini self thought. There were three of us, the less plucky types, and our short time together, in half masks, in a pretend art gallery, was messy and lacked a narrative to hang anything on, not one of us came up with anything good and so our sketch quietly died.

“It was like bad sex,” I said to Remy later, when we had taken our masks off and had done a mini-feedback session. “There was no chemistry.” Even though Remy had said many times, “use your partner”, or go to your partner for the action, and for dialogue, for anything, we had all forgotten that on stage and clammed up. Never mind. The death was minor and it was a learning experience. I felt pleased I’d had a go. Later, I realised it wasn’t a death at all, quite the opposite: it was the beginning of something. You see, being middle aged means you know, just know how things go when you practice a little and keep having a go. That’s how books are written, or at least, that’s how I write my books.

The course was seven weeks long and I already miss it. When you are in a full-blown multi-dimensional mid-life crisis there is some kind of half death happening, or so you feel, the death of learning and of newness. You are experienced and you have these experiences for company. I’d been worried the learning and the experiences and the risk taking had dried up. While I am still writing books, and still doing all sorts of good things and enjoying the pleasure of life long friends and relationships, I’d slowed down and there had been a sense of ‘nothing new’ to discover. For a creative person, this is the eye of the crisis, mid life, the well drying up. Or sometimes it does, for a brief time.

In short, I loved doing these improv classes. I also found this on the Imprology website.

“First we play to win.

Then we play to lose.

Then we play to play.”

Yeeha. The classes roll on and I will definitely sign up again and challenge myself again because I miss the edge I once had. The classes were fun because they are also well designed. Remy has lots and lots and lots of ideas to throw at us and also lots of experience. In fact, I’d say a key part of why these classes were so much fun came down to Remy and his assistant Pixie. Remy Bertrand is French with a back ground in playback theatre and much else; actually, it’s not hard to see he is an improv genius. Think a touch of Bill Murray and more than a touch of Ohad Naharin, plus a French insouciance mixed with a generosity of spirit. Pixie, blue haired and blue eyed and beautiful is half Prospero’s Ariel, half Peter Pan. They are a great team and make the classes fun and safe and more or less win win. Improv classes got me through a cold winter and they got me learning again. They got me taking risks, too. Mostly, they got me out of my head.

Imprology classes can be found at www.imprology.com

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