I was six years old when I watched some other kids do a little dramatisation of The Town and the Country Mouse at our school, in furry costumes, with face paint. I watched in complete rage and upsetment. I DID NOT want to be sitting cross-legged in the school hall watching the other mice. I wanted to be up there, a mouse.
By the following year, I had dragged my mom off to sign me up for the local drama ‘studio’. It was a one-woman show, that largely centred around teaching girls from our school ‘elocution’, ‘deportment’ and some of the terminology of stagecraft. I learned words like upstage, downstage and exit stage left. I knew what a prompt and a cue were. Character meant the name before the colon before the line you had to learn off by heart. I learned lots of lines off by heart. And I spent most of the next ten years being told that a) tall girls can never play leads, b) tall girls should stick to the back of the stage so as not to block or upstage anyone else and c) I should focus on my other skills as I was pretty much doomed to play The Mother or The Witch in any self-respecting production. I was also told I should try to improve my modern dancing skills, as performers had to be good all-rounders. It would be fair to say this was not the most affirming experience of my life.
Nonetheless, I was nothing if not determined, and I stuck it out. I endured the years of Cape Town Drama Eisteddfodds, Trinity College Drama exams, reciting poetry and trotting out dramatic monologues in a black lycra leotard and something called an “acting skirt”. My mother collected the growing pile of merits and honours and distinctions in a folder which she kept in a cupboard with her old handbags.
Somewhere, overseas, there was a world where you could study drama at something called a drama school, where you got a mysterious, coveted thing called an agent, and got sent through the ultimate hoop of fire, the audition, where someone would Discover you and Make You A Star. It all sounded utterly seductive, and spectacularly unlikely. When I got to drama school in Grahamstown, I hid the acting skirt in my cupboard. We rolled around on the floor in track suits, and learned neutral breathing. We read about Brecht and Brook and Grotowski, and Stanislavski, and dreamed up crazy physical theatre productions where we flooded the stage with sand, or apples, or water, and played with light, and painted canvases with our feet. No one commented on my elocution or deportment. There were very few auditions.
Skip forward a few years. After a couple of years of sitting alongside models in Cape Town commercials castings, I threw my luck in with the publishing industry and became a writer and editor. The thrill of performing in front of an audience was packed away, somewhere, an unlikely idea that didn’t really have a place in an adult life.
Til one day, on a whim, I auditioned for a musical that was holding public auditions. I hadn’t sung in years (and it showed), but the script was fun, and I prepared a character that sounded real to me. The scriptwriter was there. She knew I wouldn’t get into the show, but she had another idea. Come to one of our improv workshops, she said. Come learn to play.
So I did. For the first time in 15 years, I played games and made up characters and lines of dialogue. None of it mattered – there was no audition hoop to jump through, no director to seduce, no lines to learn, even. It was just playful. And terrifying. And playful.
The next few years were tough. I was a novice improvisor, and I was very, very scared. I tried very hard to impress, and the harder I tried, the worse I failed. I came onstage without an offer. I came onstage with an offer and without a character choice. I blocked. I didn’t listen. I came home from performances and raged over the thousands of brilliant choices I could have made, if I’d relaxed enough to let them in. If I’d relaxed enough not to second-guess my first idea.
My fellow players gave me notes – sometimes the same notes over and over. I refused to believe them. I thought others were blocking my brilliant ideas, failing to accept or listen to my offers. I wondered whether it was hopeless, whether there was any point to this awful trial. I wondered whether they would eventually kick me out. I gritted my teeth and resolved to stick it out. But I can fairly say that for at least two and a half years, I didn’t really get it.
Then something happened. Something called longform improv. A bunch of players came back from Australia, with a trailblazing arsenal of new stuff. New ideas, new games, new ways of allowing stories to unfold. They came back with so much energy, so much love and enthusiasm, they invited us all in to play, to try, to risk everything all over again, and to fuck up unconditionally. Scariest of all, they brought a thing called a Soapathon: a 12-hour soap opera marathon that we would play out in September 2012.
I was utterly afraid. I was a bit angry that I was going to have to do something so big and so scary, when I barely felt capable to play our usual hour-long shows. But I decided to step into the fear and do it anyway. The workshops, with a visiting Australian improv teacher, were enticing. We learned to slow down our scenes. We learned to connect with emotional truths of characters instead of pounding out storylines. We learned to whittle down a scene to a single idea, and leave the next thing for the next scene. Three hours into the Soapathon, something shifted. Something to do with letting characters unfold slowly, in their own time. Something to do with watching a story create itself, through collaboration.
It was magical, it was transformative. People who watched didn’t believe this stuff was made up. We couldn’t believe we’d done it. We were high on it for weeks. Since then, it’s felt like the improv bug has caught and crackled through each of us like wildfire. Five new actors have joined the team; it feels like numbers are swelling. Audience support is catching on. And the team feels like a family – in some ways, a family addicted to the thrill of making stuff up, making magic onstage.
This week, we’re running the second week of a two-week improv fest. We’re playing longform Western, period drama, musicals, and doing a competitive directing format called SuperScene. The audiences have been amazing. The shows have been amazing. Mind-stretching, heart-stretching, transformative. Hi, my name is Lisa and improv has changed my life.