Happily Never After – Improvising With Atmosphere And Style

Some important disclaimers:

  1. This article is based on a performance of ‘Happily Never After’ from October 2017, at the Birmingham Improv Festival. Obviously, their show will have evolved since then, as all shows do.
  2. This article features a lot of me chatting shit about Improv in an increasingly pretentious manner. I’ve only been involved in the pursuit for 20 months, and am yet to perform in a show, so everything should be viewed as the “hot take” of an enthusiastic novice and no more.

‘Happily Never After’, an improvised musical theatre performance inspired by Tim Burton’s more gothic works, was the first show to open my eyes to the possibilities of Improv as a medium.

‘Happily Never After’ introduced lighting, music and song which was all as improvised as the dialogue and the narrative, and which all came together to produce a hauntingly atmospheric experience. Their minimalist (a word that I hope I’m using correctly) approach to song construction, beginning with a pier master’s lonely chant as he gazed out over crashing waves (with the waves portrayed by two other performers) as harmonies and melodies were gradually built into the song, was a welcome deviation from the more “show tune-y” style used by other musical improv shows.

More specifically, it was fascinating to listen to the interaction between an improvising musician and an improvising performer. Rhythms and hooks would emerge in the keyboardist’s playing, and it was up to the performers to pick these up if they felt that the emotion of the scene was building up to a song. Similarly, performers would subtly signal their intent to enter into song, and the keyboardist would have the option to accept these offers and run with them.

The greatest asset of this show, beyond the talent of everyone involved, was the singular focus of the entire team – of creating a story with a very specific style in a very specific genre, and to see everyone pulling in the same direction.

At a “Group Scenes” workshop at the November 2018 BIP Retreat, Stuart Moses of the Improv London Podcast said that there’s a unique joy to seeing a bunch of people on stage all doing the exact same thing, and this absolutely holds true. Watching other people act in synchronisation with one another seems to have some special hold on the human heart – from groups of dancers performing the same carefully choreographed routine, perfectly timed complex “long takes” in films and TV, all the way through to the universal appeal of orchestral music, a product of dozens of musicians and choristers all working together to create pure emotion.

(For a darker statement on the power of this phenomenon, take a look at the parades of highly synchronised marching soldiers, particularly those of militaristic and authoritarian states. The visuals of large groups of soldiers all marching in perfect goosestep was a grimly iconic component of the Fascist propaganda machine, portraying an “unstoppable” unified force that perfectly fits with the far right’s love of pomp and pageantry.)

The performers of ‘Happily Never After’ took this principle and ran with it, and this artistic synchronisation is what made the show so compelling. They went beyond more general Improv concepts of “group mind”, and this made it an incredible experience even for people who have limited interest in Tim Burton’s work (myself included).

For a rookie improviser, this is an important lesson. Whilst the chief principle behind improvised theatre is “Yes, And” (alternatively “Everything my stage partners are doing is genius and I should support them in creating something amazing”), implementing this principle, and understanding the true power of it, can still be challenging. Seeing “Yes, And” taken to an extreme, where everyone on stage is invested in one idea, where everyone is “digging one six-foot hole”, as Jon Trevor might put it (as opposed to six one-foot holes) is truly inspirational.

This is not unique to ‘Happily Never After’. All of the best Improv performances that I have yet seen achieve this same level of synchronisation, and it’s the greatest aspect of Improv as a pursuit. It’s fascinating that each time I find myself telling someone about Improv, the first response seems always to be “Oh, you must have to be funny / clever / quick to do that,” when in reality the backbone of Improv is collaboration and mutual support.

The prevailing concept amongst the uninitiated seems to be that Improv is a collection of quick-witted individuals each being brilliant in their own way – five or six high, tall, free-standing towers of talent. But the best groups are more like spider webs – broad, complex, structures made up of simple threads all connected together, supporting each other to make something strong enough to capture the hearts and minds of the audience.

The same “group strength” can be found in smaller Improv performances as well as larger groups. “Twoprovs,” or two-person shows, such as Between Us and LoveHard and Project 2, achieve equal greatness because both people on stage are fully committed to the same idea. Here, the analogy shifts from a spider web to a suspension bridge – its success depends on the strength of the connection between the two supporting structures on either side of the bridge.

(To stretch the engineering analogy beyond any rational point, one might argue that the true strength of a suspension bridge also derives from the secure anchoring of the cables to the ground at either end of the span, which is ANOTHER Improv analogy I would love to explore, specifically on the importance of grounding, but I’ve already saturated this article with enough analogies.)

The thematic unification and dedication of ‘Happily Never After’ and its performers made it stand out from the other shows I saw that week at the festival. But it’s important to note that, theme aside, it was nonetheless a group of experienced and talented improvisers doing great Improv together, and it was still tremendously enjoyable in that regard.

‘Happily Never After’ is a show I am determined to see again should the opportunity present itself. I had only just begun my own Improv journey at the time – and it is only now that I’ve been taking part in the pursuit for more than a year since that I feel confident enough to write about it. It would be a great thrill to see the show again having since attended a variety of different classes and workshops, and see what else stands out in their technique and structure.

It’s also a show that should be watched by anyone who has the chance. Whilst there are many Improv shows out there which are equally strong from an Improv perspective, there are few which evoke such a potent aesthetic and atmosphere so completely.