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.

Musical Improv is the Best Evidence of the Existence of Sorcery

I hate Hugh Jackman. I can’t stress enough how annoyed I get by his varied talents. Lots of people are good at one thing. He’s good at lots of things. Singing. Dancing. Acting. Being really, really, ridiculously good-looking. It’s awful. What a prat. He also seems to be a decent human being.

The only comfort I draw is from knowing that his absurd levels of talent are derived from hours of tedious practice. Sure, he can act a scene out really well, or he can sing a song beautifully, but he had to rehearse that scene and that song over and over again, hundreds of times. I’ll bet anyone could be good at singing a song if they were paid to do it hundreds of times.

That’s right, Hugh Jackman. More like Hugh Hackman. Anyone could do what you do. You’re not special. Even I could do what you do, I bet. Y’know, if I was Australian rather than Scouse. And if I didn’t have a voice that was somehow simultaneously hoarse and shrill (and is essentially weaponised when put to music). Also if I didn’t have the physique of a large, hairy potato perched atop a much larger, slightly less hairy body of a big fat man.

Sadly, that small comfort, that knowledge that talent can fabricated with hard work and repetition, gets rudely ripped away when I see people displaying talent in ways that absolutely could not have been rehearsed.

A little background: Improv, short for “Improvisation”, is the creative art of making shit up as you go along. More specifically, it’s about performing in line with a certain structure, but without any prepared content. It’s a bit like painting by numbers, but without any numbers, or any lines: just a title for the painting and a knowledge that within the next half hour you need to have produced a picture of something in which other human beings can find meaning.

There’s broadly two main types of Improv: short-form, and long-form. Short-form is about standalone games, exercises and scenes that will last a few minutes. Long-form is about creating entire narratives that will last as long as an hour, usually made up of shorter, connected scenes with persistent characters and stories.

Nobody knows who those characters will be or how the stories will progress ahead of time.

A case in point: the latest Improv show I went to see, “Baron Sternlook’s Improvised Musical Comedy”, in Birmingham, UK, consisted of two parts: the first half of the show was a series of short-form sketches loosely tied together by the theme of a fictional Gilbert & Sullivan-style pair of broadway producers. The second half was a forty-five minute tale of a talking Jersey cow becoming the leader of a famine-struck village in the shadow of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The long-form second half of the show was based on just two small pieces of paper. The first became the title of the musical, which was “A Moo Point: It’s Only a Cow’s Opinion, It Doesn’t Matter Anyway”. The second piece of paper became the title of the musical’s first song: “Japan”.

From this starting point, we:

  • Met a small farming family who had never seen cows before and who had a fatal aversity to change.
  • A love triangle between an oblivious girl, a hapless boy and his newly-discovered field of rice.
  • A devious plot by an evil cow breeder to use his talking cow, called Mabel, to shock and subsequently devour the villagers, turning them all into cows.
  • Mabel’s redemption / coming-of-age, in which she finally finds a community that will listen to what she has to say, and eventually stands up to her evil former owner.

That may all sound a bit mad, but trust me, it made a hell of a lot more sense than the plot of ‘Prometheus’.

Oh, and this narrative was spun mostly through improvised songs.

With lyrics that rhymed.

And were funny.

And the singing was good.

Basically, it’s all fucking sorcery. Because if you only saw the musical itself, and not the bit where the audience wrote their prompts down when they first arrived and put them in a hat, or the bit where the audience were asked to vote on their favourite of three randomly-chosen prompts, you would just assume that this was a musical play that had been carefully written and rehearsed for weeks.

From a narrative perspective, it covered all the major bases: the setup and the world-building at the beginning; the change in the status quo that turns the world upside down; the quest that sets the heroes on their journey; the tragic low-point, where all seems hopeless; and the final resolution, in which it all pulls together into one climactic confrontation.

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ couldn’t do that with fifteen episodes and a whole team of “writers”. ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ also didn’t have any catchy songs or talking cows.

Now, I’ve done twelve Improv workshop sessions, all in the last six months, which by the standards of modern politics basically qualifies me to be a Minister of the Arts. And even I, with my vast vault of experience (having barely passed the beginners’ course) find this whole “singing beautifully with coherent lyrics you’re making up on the spot about a romance between a boy and his rice” to be nothing less than abject fucking wizardry. I didn’t see any pentacles drawn in chalk on the stage, or any signs of ritual sacrifice, but I’m confident there must have been at least a couple of dark arts practitioners among the cast.

Because it’s not just that the performers have no control over the prompts given to them by the audience. It’s also that they have no control over each other. My own limited experience has taught me that even in a short scene, you can assume matters are progressing in one direction, only for your partner to take the scene in a complete different direction, and you then have to react to that and accept that new premise. Which is fucking difficult enough when you’re just talking. I cannot conceive of the difficulty when you’re also trying to come up with a song about telling an evil cow breeder to fuck off.

Essentially, if you go and see a musical like, I dunno, whatever musicals are popular in this day and age, ‘Carousel’ maybe, or that one with Meryl Streep, and you think “Oh wow, it’s impressive to see people singing and acting at the same time”, you need to remember that those charlatans practised for significant portions of their lives on those few songs. If you really want to feel impressed, go and see a group that does it on the fly – none of this ‘Hamilton’ bollocks.

There are a surprising number of Musical Improv groups around, even just in the Birmingham area. And if you’re not based in the barren wastes of the West Midlands, there’s plenty of other acts to see. I was lucky enough to see a troupe called The Maydays perform their Tim Burton-inspired show ‘Happily Never After’ last year at the Birmingham Improv Festival, and they put on a show that was indescribably beautiful and captivating – it nearly brought me to tears, and I barely cry three times a day so that’s really saying something.

I can also recommend just trying Improv yourself, if you have the opportunity. If you can find a workshop near you, you’d be surprised by just how much fun it is to play the games and take part in scenes. It’s also unexpectedly insightful, with a lot of psychology thrown into the mix. A lot of understanding Improv is understanding people, and why and how they react to things, so it’s interesting just from an intellectual perspective.

And don’t worry, you probably won’t have to sing.