Nine things you need to know about the improv comedy troupe in town this week
1 Believe it or not, Whose Line Is It Anyway? really is 100 percent improvised. Every time. While some comedy troupes profess to being improv, tricks of the trade are often used, making the whole process markedly easier and less authentic. Steve Steen, part of the WLIIA show coming to Dubai, says he and his colleagues commit to the spirit of improv. “The challenge is to be as creative and original as quickly as you can,” he says. “Whatever happens on stage happens so fast that it’s over instantly, and you have to react instantly. We know of some troupes who take a suggestion then say ‘Thanks for your suggestion, we’ll be back after the break’ and you’re left there thinking, ‘This isn’t improv at all!’”
2 It’s not an enviable task. Public performance is the stuff of nightmares for some, let alone being expected to make people laugh without any prep. “When I first got into comedy, improv was this dirty word. I thought there was no way I wanted to be involved with this mucky business; but after being introduced to it through this workshop, being forced to improvise and thinking there’s literally nothing else on this world I want to do less, you sort of become liberated. I absolutely fell in love with it.”
3 Improvise, yes. Use props? You might want to steer clear. Some of Steen’s biggest mishaps are owed to the ill-advised use of props. “We’ve had some really funny moments, and some absolute disasters. One occassion, Frosty [Stephen Frost] grabbed a gurney and threw me on it, pretending to be a doctor. He got a water bottle and used it to ‘revive’ me – it was the nearest I’ve ever come to drowning! The water was full, the trolley was rolling towards the orchestra pit, I couldn’t talk because the bottle was in my mouth, and I genuinely thought I was going to die!”
4 But whatever happens, the show must go on. In Singapore, Andy Smart ended up in hospital after an on-stage stumble cracked both his shins. After realising he wasn’t joking for the audience’s benefit and appeared to be genuinely injured, the troupe whisked him to hospital, continued the show on their own and even managed to get him back in time for an encore. Hobbling, of course.
5 Audience members should keep their interactions short and sweet. The less convoluted, Steen explains, the better the reaction from the comedians – snappy lends itself to truly absurd comedy. The longer the suggestion, the greater the chance of a swift, one-line rebuttal. “Long and over-complicated suggestions can be dealt with pretty quickly, but we try to veer away from those because the quicker the suggestion the better.”
6 That said, Steen concedes that WLIIA is based heavily on audience participation. He’s quick to acknowledge that, while some topics in bad taste can arise and get returned with interest, neither he nor his colleagues can suggest topics for improv – lest they draw accusations of planning the skit. “It would be wrong to say ‘This is the suggestion that we want,’ then you leave the door open to criticism of preparing the set. Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, it’s a fun challenge – and that’s what we’re in it for.”
7 It’s pretty hard to leave these guys speechless. After all, split-second comedy is their livelihood. Steen does have one or two little tricks up his sleeves to make sure the troupe isn’t lost for words when they’re playing a gig away from home. “We’ve never been stumped, really. Shocked? Horrified? Yes, but I don’t recall being stumped by a suggestion from the audience. Whenever we do a show though we’ll always read the local paper beforehand to make sure we’re not missing out on local references – just in case someone shouts out something bizarre and you’re left panicking thinking ‘What on Earth is that?!’”
8 You might be surprised (or not) to learn that the chaps from Whose Line Is It Anyway? have heard the same quips by the audience time and time again. There appears to be a fascination with certain body parts that repeatedly comes up, and is usually swiftly dismissed by the comedians. “We have, at The Comedy Store in London, had to ask people to stay away from topics relating to certain areas of anatomy. You’d be amazed by how often you hear that same joke over and over again. We really have to retort back to people who make those gags, saying that they may have come to the wrong place!”
9 There may be extra guests, there may not. The main WLIIA act is comprised of Andy Smart, Stephen Frost, Ian Coppinger and Steve Steen. But in keeping with Steen’s earlier assertion that there’s a totally improvised plan for every show, he openly admits to not knowing if more guests are going to be flying out to the UAE this time around. “I’m not sure if we’ve got a fifth person or not, I know there’s talk of it. But this perfectly illustrates the total lack of preparation I was talking about. If we turn up for the first show and A.N. Other walks up on stage too, then don’t be surprised.” Dhs150. Thu May 11 and Fri May 12. Madinat Jumeirah, Umm Suqeim, www.aliveentertainment.me.