Improv(e) Your Mental Health

The last few weeks have been rough at a personal level. I was already sliding into another depressive episode over the monumental detachment of various global crises as the Amazon burned, Alaska ran out of ice, another kind of ICE was running concentration camps and diseases we had once conquered were returning due to our own ignorance.

As the UK government shut down its own Parliament, I realised “At last! This is an issue in which I can actually be involved, and lend some effort to solving!” And so I took up that cause with a vain zealotry, thinking I might make an impact.

That cause was not without emotional cost for me and a few friends. You can read about why here! But the short version is that it turns out that being surrounded by people who are deliberately hostile and threatening can have a powerful effect on your state of mind.

Fortunately, it turns out that being surrounded by people who are deliberately supportive and encouraging can also have a powerful effect on the way you feel.

Please note that in this article I’ll be talking about a lot of emotional “stuff”. And also please note that I am in no way advocating going on an Improv retreat as a substitute for actual clinical therapy or counselling. It just so happened that an Improv retreat really helped me right when I needed it to.


On a Saturday, five days before heading off to the Mayday’s Annual September Improv Retreat, I was hungover and failing to deal with my own state of mind following a horrible incident with a group of racists in London a week earlier. So I spent all day on the sofa watching first ‘The Dark Crystal’, and then the newly-released ‘The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’ on Netflix.

Both are excellent, the new series especially, and highly recommended. I connected strongly with the themes of the show and ended up crying so much that the next day, the muscles in my face literally hurt with DOMS.

Over the next few days I just sank further into a depressive state, not really wanting to leave the flat and quietly debating if I even wanted to go to a five-day Improv retreat in an isolated rural location with dozens of strangers, or whether I’d rather just stay at home and vaguely dissolve into the sofa.

I ended up choosing to go to the retreat, and that ended up being a smart choice.


The Maydays are a company of professional improvisers (and actors, musicians and singers) in the UK who run classes, workshops and courses teaching people how to improvise. They also run their own shows (one of which I reviewed here) and are involved in a variety of other projects at an individual level.

Their September retreat is a five-day event based in a large country house in Dorset. Each day (except the first) features a programme of classes that you can choose from, each led by a Mayday and each covering different topics. Some cover basic techniques, others cover longform, or narrative techniques, and there’s a strong selection of musical improv classes, where you can learn to improvise songs. (A review of Baron Sternlook, a musical group in Birmingham, can be found here.)

Whilst you may have many opportunities to join Improv workshops depending on where you live, it’s rare to be able to devote days at a time to learning Improv without travelling to the Uunited States. As such, the Maydays’ Retreat is an incredible opportunity for new and experienced improvisers alike to simply immerse themselves in the art, uninterrupted.


The first evening after I arrived was mixed. Everyone was friendly, and I managed to enjoy a few social interactions, particularly a round of frisbee in the evening sun. However, I felt awkward through every conversation, and felt a little more tired and foolish and uncertain after every interaction. After the evening show I retreated to bed early.

The first full day, Thursday, was worse. A headache set in, social anxiety ramped up, and I was incapable of getting through a single scene in workshops without feeling horrendously clumsy and by turns domineering and completely passive. Scenes and exercises I would normally breeze through felt stilted and jarring. I tried to spend every moment out of class away from people, as far away as possible. I ended up skipping the final class of the day to hide in the fields around the house and lie quietly on the grass pretending that the Sun might somehow, in a Superman-ish fashion, restore some of my strength. It sadly didn’t, and I went to bed as soon as I could.

Everyone was still lovely and friendly, and I really wanted to be in the thick of things, chatting with people and getting to know them. But the periods of self-inflicted isolation left me feeling like I was missing out, and that frustration then made me feel more anxious, making me retreat into deeper isolation.

The Maydays freely offer to speak to anyone feeling overwhelmed during the retreat, and encourage participants to do so. But the feedback loop is real, and every little cycle of anxiety and depression makes reaching out even harder. Which is stupid and self-destructive.


Friday was a strange day.

I woke up feeling a little more intact, and in a moment of Lovecraftian delirium I put my name forwards for all three musical classes being run that day, one after the other. I expected that the Algorithm which assigned classes based on listed preferences might allocate me to one of those sessions. Instead, it allocated me to all three.

I started Improv classes almost exactly two years ago, in September 2017, and since then have sworn blind that I would never even attempt musical improvisation. Improvised has been my nightmare, mostly because I’ve spent most of my life aware of the particular quality of my voice that manages to somehow be simultaneously nasal and shrill with a mucky Scouse accent to boot. Indeed, I can’t think of a fear greather than having to sing in public. Except maybe for spiders.

Why I chose to do even one musical class, never mind three, is beyond reason, but it’s probably rooted somewhere between being repeatedly told that I should “face my fears,” and my refusal to lose an argument to anybody. I think the internal logic was that if I tried it once, I could confidently tell people that it was not for me and they wouldn’t be able to respond with “but you need to try the things you’re afraid of.”

The first session, group singing, was painful. I couldn’t keep a note (as expected) and my nerves kept my knees shaking and the rest of me sweating like a Tory in a state school. It was about as rough as I thought it would be.

However our teacher, Heather, maintained such a warm and supportive atmosphere that the impulse to stay seated and refuse to participate, or even to leave the class, never got the better of me. No matter how uncertain the performer, every performance was met with encouragement and praise from the whole class, and regardless of how terrified I felt every time I stood up to take my turn, I sat back down feeling like I had just succeeded alongside all my scene partners, regardless of how out of tune I was or how much I stumbled through improvised lyrics.

The most surprising thing is that by the end of the session, I was actually looking forward to the next musical class rather than dreading it.

By the start of the next session, focusing on lyrics, anxiety had taken hold again and I didn’t feel much more confident than at the beginning of the first class. This was a pattern that seemed persistent for me with musical classes: start out extremely nervous, build confidence over the lesson, and lose most of that confidence before the next lesson. All the same, Heather kept supporting and encouraging, and by the end of the second class I was feeling triumphant – having managed to sing on my own (although still as tunelessly).

My mood had improved enough that I even spent a good portion of the lunch break with other people, just relaxing and chatting in the sunshine, without feeling the desperate, clawing need to escape to solitary self-confinement.

The third class of the day was folk singing, led by Rhiannon. Despite my enjoyment of the earlier classes, the nerves once again hit hard as the reality of more public singing set in. But Rhiannon was just as supportive as Heather, and by the time the folk singing was done I was again feeling heroic.

All three lessons were supported – if not carried – by Joe, the Mayday’s incredibly talented pianist. Joe’s fantastic ability to not just play beautifully but also to adjust his playing to the tone and tempo of whoever was singing made every exercise and performance feel like a tightly-rehearsed Broadway musical.

Most of all, every group of students in each class was as encouraging as the teachers, and being in such a positive environment had a powerful effect. Feeling as though no matter what you do you won’t be judged or criticised leaves you feeling dangerously empowered and emboldened to take risks and to reach outside of your comfort zone, and I’m grateful to everyone with whom I shared those classes for being so completely supportive.

When I first saw that I was booked in for three musical sessions in a row, I genuinely believed I might end the day completely miserable. But the combined efforts and good natures of three Maydays and a whole host of enthusiastic improvisers saw me finishing the day feeling absolutely unafraid of anything. Except maybe for spiders.

After one more none-singing lesson, Friday was rounded off with an incredible long-form show put on by the Maydays – the best example of an Armando I’ve ever seen, in fact, and if you don’t know what that means… well, it’s an Improv thing. Finally, there was an insanely fun space-themed Jam hosted by Katy and Chris wearing wonderful spacepunk outfits.

Later, a handful of us wandered out in the dark to do a little stargazing. After that, a friend and I headed back out into the fields to sit under stars and discuss all manner of in-depth topics. We went back inside well past midnight to find a few indefatigable and impressively flexible stragglers picking strips of cardboard off the flaw using only their teeth (we were assurred that this was some kind of party game). I went to bed very late, and peacefully happy.


On Saturday I was booked into two more musical sessions, and I didn’t feel quite as worried as I had been the day before.

The first was “Musical Living Room” with Lloydie.. The Living Room is a casual long-form format, and Lloydie took us through its structure with as much love and support and Heather and Rhiannon. My nerves had returned, but I found it easier to push them aside this time, particularly as there was more group singing – and group singing offers many more opportunities to hide.

The second musical class was all about “truth in song”, led by Katy. Right from the start we were singing lines on our own, and my nerves suddenly blossomed once more. But as before they subsided more quickly, and once again this was helped by the universally supportive environment.

I think it was this point that I realised that I pretty much had the musical improv “bug”. The thought of singing solo was still scary, but one thing nobody had really told me before was that singing in a group, or even just as part of a group song, makes you feel connected to that group more than anything else I’ve ever experienced. Joining your voice with others. supporting them as they support you, is a unique and lovely experience that was completely new to me, and it occurred to me that I would like to keep doing it.

This notion of mutual support was crystalised in the third Saturday class, “Narrative Ensemble”, with Heather. Here, she said something that was probably more profound than it seemed in the moment. As a group of us stood up in front of the rest of the class to attempt a specific exercise, she said:

“Just go through the exercise, and whatever you do, we’ll all clap like idiots.”

This is a concept that I adore. The simple notion of “whatever you do, we’ll treat it like it’s the best fucking thing we’ve ever seen.” It’s not even a new concept particularly – Jon Trevor has always maintained that the mantra of every improviser should be “I am average, my partner is a genius and a poet.” But the “we’ll clap like idiots” version applies off the stage, too.

I’ve been conscious for a while that you can practice your improv skills even as an audience member – that just by attending shows you’re showing support, but by paying attention, laughing along and making your enjoyment as clear as possible, you’re supporting those people who are brave enough to get on stage and perform in public in a very vulnerable, very exposed manner.

There’s an in-joke of saying “Improv Is Not A Cult,” implying that it actually can be a fairly cult-like environment. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but if it is, I’d like to think it’s a cult of ethos, and that the ethos is “We Support Each Other Mutually And Unconditionally.” I’d like to think that, unless you’re a proper arsehole, the Improv community will always have your back.

I also know I don’t live up to this ethos myself. I’ll have a moan about other groups and performers if I don’t think they measure up, likely a residual trait from years spent whinging about TV and movies on this very blog. But it’s something I’m going to work on going forwards – I want to be a better improviser, and part of that is being a better part of the community.

I spent the fourth session of Saturday skipping class and sitting in what will likely by the last bit of warm, sunny weather I’ll experience in 2019. But I did this not because I was scared or craving isolation, but rather simply because I knew I would enjoy it, and felt confident going back to the social hubbub later on. Two amazing days in a possitive, loving environment had left me feeling confident enough to make that choice freely.


Saturday night was one of the greatest nights of my life.

The day before, the Maydays had requested suggestions for a show they would perform completely off the cuff – something they had never tried before and that would allow them to take the same kind of risks that they asked of their students.

I wrote “Rock Opera Journey Through Hell” on a slip of paper and put it in the hat. I wrote that it could be a lost soul’s journey through the afterlife, and that it could be a rock opera because “fuck yeah.”

Well, that’s the one that the Maydays picked.

Once I realised what they were doing, I sat in the audience grinning from ear to ear for the entire performance.

The show started off with modestly dressed accountants sharing a bottle of prosecco on a work night out. One of them said she had actually stolen the bottle from the restaurant, and then she unfortunately died from a heart attack.

The lights dropped.

When the lights came back on, everyone was in rock band attire, including Joe in a huge wig and aviators.

FUCKYEAH2
Fuck yeah.

What followed was genuinely one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s… I mean, I may be biased, but it was absiolutely fucking flawless. It’s actually difficult to describe because I’d basically just end up writing “It was amazing” 1,500 times in a row. When it finished, there was a standing ovation.

I need to take a moment to explain that none of it was prepared – to the best of my knowledge, “rock opera” wasn’t even a style of music the Maydays had ever tried before. The preparation they got was being told by Liz and Katy an hour before the show what the theme of the show would be, being told “It will start with a normal scene, one character will die, then it will be set in Hell.” They spent five minutes rumaging through a costume box to pull together some suitable outfits that they then hid under baggy jumpers and hoodies.

There were so many amazing choices throughout the whole show. Wonderful little touches and details. And so much energy! The only scene that didn’t draw unstoppable laughter from the audience was a touching encounter between the main character and the ghost of her mother.

The whole thing was a testament to what can be achieved from an improvised performance with enough style, gusto and courage. From start to finish the performers had the momentum of a tidal wave, and the audience got pulled right along with them.

Even now, I think back to various moments from the show and get a little rush of happiness in the back of my head. Indeed, I’m almost sad that I may never get to see anything like it ever again. But I’m thrilled I got to see it at all.

It was amazing. It was amazing. It was amazing. (x 500).

fuckyeah
FUCK YEAH

The Rock Opera Journey Through Hell was followed by a great little disco where those of us so inclined danced ourselves silly through a selection of “celebrity guest” DJs who took turns to play us their favourite songs. In another room there were board games, whilst outside there was a bonfire, and it was essentially a perfect evening to spend with new friends.


Sunday was exactly as sedate as it needed to be.

I had one more musical class, with Rhiannon, where we practiced “scenes into song.” By now, my nerves were more under control, and I felt better able to just enjoy this class for what it was, rather than having to wrestle with my own insecurities. An hour and a half singing and harmonising with friends is a beautiful way to spend a rainy Sunday morning.

I also took part in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ with John Cremer.

If you’re an experiened improviser and you ever have chance to take part in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ with John Cremer, you should do so. And that’s all I can say about that.

Following a lovely little afternoon showcase and many heartfelt goodbyes, we all headed home. In the sky overhead was an enormous rainbow, and I don’t know if there’s a better visual to represent such an incredble event than that.

rainbow


Improv will always be a very personal experience, hence the very personal nature of this article. Attempting to sum up events objectively will always be a misrepresentation, because subjectivity kind of the essence of the art of improvisation.

Throughout the entire five days away, I got a better understanding of the term “impostor syndrome.” Every time I felt a little more confident or bold or sociable, I’d mentally slap myself down, thinking “No, you’re not meant to be confident, you’re feeling anxious and scared and isolated.” If I did something I was proud of in a scene, or managed to sing an improvised line without scrunching up my face in embarrassment, I’d feel dishonest and manipulative, like some kind of weird reverse-fraudster.

But facing a room full of people who were just happy and smiling and clapping and laughing helped fight that self-loathing. Spending time outside of classes with buoyant, joyful people who were simply happy to be spending time with one another helped to build a foundation of confidence and self-assurredness.

I met many amazing people at the Maydays’ September Retreat 2019. I hope I will see them again. Even if I do, I may not have chance to explain to them how much they helped me out at a time when I really needed a little help. The fact that I started crying again as I wrote this paragraph is probably testament to that.

I didn’t have to ask for any help. Most people there probably didn’t realise that I was struggling, but they didn’t have to. They simply demonstrated that by being universally supportive and encouraging, as all improvisers should be, you can make it easier for people to find a little happiness.

My experience a couple of weeks earlier with a bunch of racist thugs in London taught me that I was far more susceptible to threatening, aggressive behaviour than I had previously thought. But my experience at the Maydays’ retreat taught me that I’m also more susceptible to friendliness and compassion thanI had previously thought.

I’m still not okay. I still struggle with controlling the depression and anxiety that follows a distressing experience, as well as anger and even resentment. I probably still need to get some actual clinical treatment at some point.

But I know that I can overcome it, and that I can be helped. I better understand the power of mutual support both on and off the stage, and it’s something I want to work on and become better at. It’s given me a new life goal, which is to bring that Improviser’s ethos to my wider life, and try and be that supportive person who helps other people feel happier and more confident. To find ways to “clap like an idiot” whenever a person has the courage to express themselves. And it probably won’t be easy, because we all have a bit of a tendency to be cynical and negative when we’re confronted with the kind of problems we’re all facing these days.

That’s the intention, in any case. I’ve already been angry once today over the latest political bullshit-nightmare, and that anger was almost immediately followed by depression and hopelessness. I’m feeling more and more like I’m not equipped to fight in this great messy ideological war, so I’m instead going to try and equip myself to just make people around me a little happier, if possible.

Because I know that it worked for me. I know that it helped me out right when I needed help. I know that I went into that five-day retreat feeling hurt, and alone, and frightened. And I left it feeling loved, supported, and not afraid of anything.

Except maybe for spiders.

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.