Finding the Fun Improvising Online

The first time I did online improv I wanted to jab myself in the head with a fork. So I might feel something. Anything. Looking around at the other participants I suspected I was not alone. It was painfully slow, flat and boring. I could see myself smiling inanely but my eye kept being drawn to someone else who looked as dissatisfied as I felt. She was mostly staring down at what was presumably her phone. Or a fork.

I did what I have been known to do before in these situations, felt embarrassed, so dialled up my enthusiasm to a completely disingenuous level. By the time I turned my screen off, I was relieved to have ‘left’ and utterly exhausted. I also felt really down.

I then realised I had Covid-19. Due to being unwell, I missed the initial flurry of online improv classes. As I navigated post-viral fatigue, my troupe mates fancied meeting in Zoom rooms, but not for improv, for chats and quizzes. This felt right for us all at the time. I was grateful for the human ‘contact’. Their faces brought me relief. They were out there, untouchable and unimprovisable-with for now, but I could see they were still there.

During this period, watching online performance became a sort of salve. My improv duo buddy and I, co-ordinated tuning-in live for Andrew Pugsley’s very first Isolation. Each week, in collaboration with an improviser guest, he created a show accompanied by the musical stylings of Duncan Atkins. All parties involved, were in their separate homes attempting to create improv at a distance – on occasions, a very long distance. Sometimes the connections weren’t great, sometimes the time lags were problematic, sometimes technology failed them. One special week with two guests, Ruth Bratt had to make a rather long phone call to Pippa Evans so she could hear what was happening.

Watching these wonders felt like witnessing people defy reality. The sheer determination to keep going against all the odds was inspiring. It was infectious (pardon the pun – too soon). I remember propping myself up wearily in my bed with my laptop as I watched Rachel Parris singing about stealing tigers – at least I think that happened, and it wasn’t a Coronavirus fever dream. I resolved then to myself that when I felt well enough I’d give this thing another try.

In the meantime, bearing witness from our separate homes, my improv duo buddy, and I would message each other. We would observe the moves, the making of the narrative, and the increasing technical effects. Every Friday night, we’d be ‘there’, wondering how long all this was going to last. The show… and also the government imposed, Isolation.

In the time before, Friday night was show night so it felt a continuity (of some kind) to keep up with live improv gazing under these new conditions. And boy, could we have used some continuity! Everything had changed so fast. I don’t need to tell you, you were there, somewhere, experiencing something, no doubt pretty fast too… initially… and then very very very slowly. What happened to time?

Like many people, I was feeling cut off – isolated, funnily enough – and at a loss at what to do with myself. Having a fixture in the diary meant I had something at which to aim. Unlike watching Netflix, with online improv, we could offer suggestions to the performers through the comments function.

Now life really was getting sci-fi.

Over the weeks I got familiar with the other audience members tastes. Some preferred a story to end in a wedding, some wanted alternative worlds, some loved a pun. It was like a weird niche online family. A very distant one… for whom even meeting up in the holiday season feels a bit much.

I had lots of favourite episodes of Isolation but generally the ones with mythical beasts and talking animals were what got me the most excited. It was revitalising to be spirited off into a different world as my inner child was lacking her usual joys. The last show ever with legend Mike McShane was the perfect finale. I wanted to stand up in my living room and applaud.

Actually I did.

Well, it wasn’t such a stretch. I’d got used to clapping into the void. On Thursday evenings for a few months at the start of the first lockdown, we’d stand on our doorsteps in England and clap. Not like a slow clap.

Although we probably won’t rule that out for the future.

It was a proper round of applause because it was for the workers in our National Health Service. For visual reference on this clapping maybe imagine EastEnders… although my road is quite wide and long with driveways so the inaugural time I stood and clapped on my doorstep alone, without being able to see anyone else, as one person observed me out a window opposite, probably wondering what the earth I was doing. And wondering if they should call someone.

Watching Pugsley week-in-week-out, inspired my duo buddy, Josh Hards and I so we started tentatively dabbling. We recognised that improvising online didn’t come naturally. There was much missing from our tool belt. And finding the fun felt more challenging. We were wondering whether it was worth continuing when we were fortunate enough to be invited onto a study into virtual improv through the University of Kent.

As part of the study we had to have green screens or a wall a contrasting colour. Redecorating seemed extreme and also I couldn’t get any paint at this point – on account of no DIY stores being open… and also being unable to leave the house. So I looked through my stash of fabric I keep for an unspecified need in the unspecified future. Finally the time had arrived!

More confirmation we were living in a distant sci-fi future.

I found a huge piece of bright green fleece material. It was perfect. I strung it up against a wall and set up a station with my laptop on a table nearby so I could stand up and move about in camera shot. Josh found us some cheap ring lights we could each order online. It was starting to feel more like a professional operation… in my living room.

I realise now how being able to stand up and move more freely actually made a big difference to my enthusiasm for online improv and provided more options. For more on how embodiment can feed improv, check out Liz Peters‘ book Own It.

Before the first session of the study we had to fill out a survey to discover how we currently felt about improvising on screen. If there had been a box to tick that said: “fork-in-face level dissatisfied” I would have ticked it. The options I did check added up to roughly the same sentiment. I started off thinking it was improbable that virtual performance would ever excite me. I felt self-conscious and disconnected and couldn’t get near ‘the zone’ with a 10 foot barge pole… or even a load of lateral flow tests tapped together.

I didn’t have a barge pole hanging about either. Somewhere in the outside world was the nearest barge pole shop and it was also closed.

As our first study session approached, I felt nervous but determined to throw myself in as much as possible.

Lobby did not know why one of his arms had been sewn on the wrong way around. He would never know.

Well, why not? I hadn’t got much else to do. And my home was being filled with knitted companion animals. If I wasn’t going to be crushed under the weight of multi-coloured knitted lobster I was going to have to shift focus.

On entering the Zoom room I met Boyd Branch. He was a man behind a robot… not physically standing behind the robot like something out of the Wizard of Oz. But the brains behind a robot I’d seen improvising in a show the summer before. It was an honour to meet his face.

Boyd. Not the robot. I wonder what he’s doing now.

The robot.

Boyd would remain a floating head and shoulders until over a year later when we met him in the flesh at the Brighton Fringe Festival. It was extraordinary to discover he had legs and even a body. I didn’t recognise them, but luckily they were attached to his head. It was all starting to add up.

Boyd Branch had been developing software for virtual performance. As part of the study, he would train us up in how to navigate it and then we’d perform a virtual show. We’d also reflect on the process throughout. I felt apprehensive but also fascinated. This was something really new. And during the monotonous Ground-hog days of lockdown, it was such a welcome change of pace for which I felt very grateful.

The Virtual Director software enabled Josh and I to be beamed through our cameras, in their separate locations, into the same virtual space. Boyd would choose a backdrop for us. We could then discover the environment in which we were placed. He was able to move our images around within the screen, resize us and make us appear from behind parts of the backdrop. In one scene I jumped across the screen backwards onto a bed, in another we scurried across a rock face and climbed on top of a moon pod, and in a third I hung from the ceiling upside down painting a fresco with my feet. Boyd also had some vehicles behind which we were able to be placed, while the background moved as if we were driving said car/tractor/fire truck.

The software – Virtual Director – opened up so many new avenues. Boyd taught us how to online high-five, online hug and online slap each other in the face. We experimented with passing props between us and more than once Josh gave me a horrendous makeover by one of us turning our backs to the camera. It was fascinating how seeing this contact on screen tricked my brain. I knew logically that Josh was not in the room giving me a hug. It was empty space. However, my brain still told me something was going on as it watched me cuddling on screen.

Boyd also introduced us to filters and this is something we would take enthusiastically into our own practice and performances. If you visit Assimilate you will find lot of experiments using Snap Camera filters, including scenes where we are possessed dolls, monster siblings and sock puppets.

You can see some of our experiments in Boyd’s virtual space here and for a run of scenes we did with a filter, here. The image on the right below shows the moment I realised that I was able to hold a bright green t-shirt in front of me so that my body disappeared. Quite a silly but surprisingly satisfying trick. Josh agreed.

Stay tuned for the next instalment in online improv adventures coming soon...

Be You. No, thanks.

I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a trap. And I don’t like traps. Never have. I made one once when I was on a Wilderness Survival course. It was a weird contraption made from a stick with a hole in the end, some string and a loop of wire. It was supposed to catch a rabbit. The instructor said it was more likely to catch an elephant.

I believe that was his way of saying it was too big.

But, as he kept reminding us, he’d lived with Inuits and learned their ways. Apparently that gave him permission to be a jerk.

Not actual instructor… so potentially not actually a jerk.

I enjoy telling my outdoor pursuit stories because they seem to surprise people. Maybe I don’t seem very woodsy now. This morning I was looking through a box of keepsakes and found the twine I made barehanded from stinging nettles. And I thought wow, who was that person? I mean I wouldn’t have chosen then to do it that way; I would have worn gloves, like any sensible person, but see above instructor details.

I’ve tried on quite a range of pursuits, outdoor adventures being some of them. Some I have nowhere near had the skills for. I once constructed a pyramid bow with exceedingly few carpentry skills. I once did a military assault course and could barely put my arms down for a week. And I once went sea kayaking with a river kayak and just went around in circles.

I did improv.

I suppose I rather enjoy the feeling of being out of my depth and having to muddle through. Actually I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is always the right word. Maybe I am drawn to it like a strange moth-like creature on a search to discover that elusive substance from which I am made. What is me?

I’ve been reading a book recently, called No Self No Problem. It’s about how neuropsychology is catching up with Buddhism in some of its teachings. The writer Chris Niebauer presents that our sense of self is an illusion created by the left side of our brains.

“Perhaps the reason we can’t find the self in the brain is it isn’t there. Yet even if we accept as true that there is no self, we cannot deny there is still a very strong idea of self. While neuropsychology has failed to find the seat of the self, it has determined the part of the brain that creates this idea of self…. Mistaking the voice in our head for a thing and labelling it “me” brings us into conflict with the neuropsychological evidence that shows there is no such thing… Taoist philosopher and author Wei Wu Wei…writes, “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.””

Chris Niebauer

Niebauer demonstrates how the left side of the brain is an interpreter, framing and reframing our experiences, writing and rewriting stories about ourselves. If certain behaviours don’t fit with its stories, it may choose to use some ‘interpreter’ license. It may just choose to ignore the offending article.

While the left brain is interpreting, the right brain is just doing its thing. Its creative, emotional, intuitive thing.

There have been lots of studies surrounding this work but a particular one I found interesting in relation to improv is whereby test subjects were given two stacks of cards to choose from. On each card was a financial win or loss. They were told to make as much money as possible during the time allotted. One stack of cards contained big wins but also big losses. The other stack had small wins and almost no losses. It generally took fifty to eighty draws of the cards before subjects started to consciously see that drawing from the second stack was more beneficial.

However, test subjects started to sweat when the first stack was chosen, after only ten draws. Some people never worked out the system but even they still got sweaty when the hands of the dealer moved closer to the first stack. This study suggests the right brain has an instinct before the left brain can catch up. In improv terms this particularly makes me think of editing, when your feet know you should edit a scene far before you get to thinking – ‘I should really edit this scene’.

All this no self concept might send some running for pitchforks and setting light to livestock. For me, I’m kind of relieved. I never really felt like I had much of a sense of self so the pressure is off! Maybe I’m not meant to find one thing I’m supposed to be doing with my time either. Maybe I’m not meant to be a [insert noun].

“We’re being told to become a noun and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.”

Mark Nepo

Phew! Mark Nepo gets it. He was on Magic Lessons – Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast about creativity – talking about how when children express themselves they are told they should be something. If they are singing on the playground, an adult tells them they should be a singer. If they are planting seeds, an adult tells them they should be a gardener. If they are running a diner under a tree and making mud pies, an adult tells them they should become a terrible chef.

It’s kind of insulting because they are already doing that thing and someone is telling them their efforts are not enough and they have to do more to be ‘something’ and make the grade.

When you are a noun you also can get caught up in trying to defend yourself. I experienced this a great deal when I was a teacher. In Britain, teachers are always to blame for everything (in the press, from the government, from parents, from managers – no one likes a teacher, except sometimes students… but generally not even teachers like teachers) and you get tested every year to make sure you are still a teacher ‘adequately’. There was a grade called ‘satisfactory’ which if you received, you faced a long process of trying to improve from ‘satisfactory’ before you got fired… for being ‘satisfactory’.

Being a thing, being a noun, can make us feel we have to defend ourselves. We have to prove we deserve the title. We have to be doing that thing regularly. We have to be competent at it. We have to be recognised.

I’ve never felt comfortable choosing a noun. There’s so many things to do in this world. I mean I adore improv. I’ve been doing it for years and it greatly enriches my life. But would I get a ‘yes, and…’ tattooed on my body? I would not. ‘Follow the fun’? Hmmm, no.

I always felt a great envy for people who got tattooed. How to be so sure of the consistency of one’s tastes and character? How to be so sure of one’s self?

When all that engraving is happening, I’m next door trying on hats. I have big hair, a big head, and a big problem finding hats to fit. If I didn’t enjoy trying them on, we’d have a big problem.

And it’s the trying on hat effect that I love about improv. I love to try on another skin. Who’s this person? What do they want? What’s their deal?

The extraordinary Neil Curran considers longform improv to be pretty much the stage practice of Quantum Leap – a tv programme starring Scott Bakula, where his character Sam Beckett gets stuck in a science experiment that for some mystifying reason has him jumping into other people’s bodies to right their ‘mistakes’.

Why would anyone invent this? Good question. I hear you.

At the beginning of each jump, Sam Beckett knows very little, if anything, about the person he has temporarily become. So it is, in longform improv. We are there in the scene and we have to work out who we are in that moment and why we are there. And unlike Sam, we don’t have a womanising hologram side-kick and unreliable computer to tell us anything about what is going on. Phew!

We just have our equally clueless scene partner. Hooray!

Check out this video to hear Neil Curran talk about the Quantum Leap of Improv.

I love Neil Curran’s analogy, just as I once loved watching Quantum Leap. In an improv scene you may not always find yourself as a character you like but it’s up to you to find a connection with that character anyway. And in doing so, reveal to the audience, the humanity. Perhaps our mission in longform improv is to find this nugget of human in any scene and expose it to the audience before we can leap into the next unsuspecting character and scenario.

Playing other people, creatures, inanimate objects, has helped me become more settled in my own skin. This week I played a pure ball of light. It didn’t have anyone to talk to and was floating about in a vacuum. Without anyone else to help it work out its edges, it could have been anything. Maybe in working out who I am not, I find myself closer to working out who I am.

Or maybe it just matters less.

What I am doing becomes my focus. For me, I feel my left brain is distracted during improv from its usual self story rehashing. It is channelling all its narrative powers into working out what the heck story is building in the scene or show. And my creative intuitive right brain is free to be firing in the moment, with less meddling from left brain chatter.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Albert Einstein

Much of the Western World seems to want to tell us who we are. At the very least it wants us to pick something and ‘be’ it. When we do, it makes us easier to box and so to sell to, manipulate and exploit. In this way I see improv as a little rebellion against the big mass of ‘be who you are’ media and influences. I feel most myself when I’m practicing improv. Perversely so, in the process of playing being different people I feel most at home.

And what of Sam Beckett, leaping about being other people? Hoping the next leap would be his leap home. Did he ever get there?

He did not.

The series got cancelled so they added a line about him never getting home. The end.

He’s out there somewhere still, as if jumping from scene to scene to scene…

In Quantum Leap, Beckett, played by Bakula, was putting right what once went wrong. There’s something rather sticky about obsessively correcting other people’s mistakes, isn’t there? No wonder that computer was always breaking down. What a task it had to work out what would be considered a mistake and what wouldn’t be. It made younger me pretty scared about doing anything ‘wrong’. What if suddenly Scott Bakula would appear in my skin like, “Stand aside, missy, I have your life to correct.” Rude.

And when Scott Bakula was doing his thing, where would I be? Maybe I’d be Scott Bakula. As if Scott Bakula is a holding space for all the people who are shoved out of their lives to wait for him to be finished in their skins.

He does probably have a nice swimming pool. Still, leave it alone, Scott Bakula! I’ve got my own leaping to do.

Leap Responsibly. And may you put right the scenes that could go wrong.

A Cure for Writer’s Block

A surprising number of people claim writer’s block does not exist. What a strange thing it is to suggest that something you have not experienced, can not therefore exist. It feels as weird as declaring love does not exist or happiness for that matter. Can you imagine the uproar in claiming there is no happiness?

A friend of mine stated firmly to me once that writer’s block did not exist. She said writing just required mindfulness. I was so angry I could have spat at her. Not because she was being mean – she wasn’t trying to hurt me – but because it was so personal to me in that moment I felt like my reality was being denied. If it wasn’t writer’s block, why couldn’t I write? What was I doing wrong? I was frustrated and furious and ashamed and I didn’t even understand why.

For me, my writer’s block started when my father got sick – very sick, dying sick – and my head got so jumbled up about that, that when I struggled to imagine stories my brain had so much chaos it couldn’t find the space. I was like a wombat in a washing machine, in a whirling drum fitted with a million flashing alarms going off randomly. I was trying to do a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the time – the same time as being in that washing machine as a wombat – so giving myself a break wasn’t an option. So I pushed. I pushed myself way beyond the boundaries of reason and self care. I pushed until something snapped inside me. And then I pushed some more.

Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a phenomenon whereby every time I sat down to write, it didn’t work. I didn’t work. I would feel like I had a hive of wasps inside me and it was so uncomfortable I would have to get straight back up. Over time this feeling got less waspy but I still had ants in my pants. The great wave of ideas I’d once had for the starting lines of stories had gone.

I have to say, it has not ever really come back to the intensity it once was. But I’ve now made peace with that. And probably it is a good thing. At one point it was hard to walk ten paces without an idea for a story popping into my head and I think that’s probably not healthy… it is really inconvenient.

But I do write now. I sit down, sometimes for hours, and I write. This year I wrote a novel. So how did I get from wasps in my gut and ants in my pants, to here, writing again? Well, there have been a number of things. Hypnotherapy helped. Sitting with uncomfortable feelings was important too. And yeah, if I am honest, some more mindfulness was actually pretty useful. But something that has been extremely helpful in improving my relationship with creativity is… drumroll please


I tried improv at a time when I was so frustrated at my inspirational block that I’d convinced myself I wasn’t a writer anymore. I had this idea in my head that I was fooling everyone I was still writing but I just wasn’t. And at that rate, I probably never would. I was terrified to even have an idea. I’d become so precious about inspiration that the stakes had become really really high. I couldn’t possibly live up to the enormous expectation I had placed upon my pen.

Loosening up and letting things go

In some ways improv feels quite the opposite to writing. With writing we are recording, we are preserving, we are leaving a mark (or many hopefully). With improv we are throwing ideas into the wind and watching them blow away. Sometimes, when we are creatively constipated, I think that is exactly what we need to do first: get out all the detritus, clogged up hair and grease. Improv can do wonders for washing out the pipes.

Inspiration in. Expression of inspiration out.

A simple formula. It can be quick, like melon travelling through your digestive system. In. Out. Job done.

Making room

When all the ideas get backed up, it feels like there’s just no more room. For me it was like all those ideas were all trying to get through the doorway at once. They had got stuck because there was just too many of them for one frame. They weren’t even sure if they wrestled their way through into the hallway, they would be welcome, so there was safety in numbers, stuck in the limbo state of being trapped in a block. So there they stayed fighting amongst themselves about who would be receiving attention next, being quietly confident it would be none of them. When I gave them a new creative outlet, some of them started sneaking through, when it felt safe-ish. I did a scene where I was a character talking about a father’s death. I did a scene where I was a lost child. I did a scene where I was a broken umbrella. I didn’t know this at the time, but I now know I was shifting some of those stuck ideas. I was making space.


We can’t do all the ideas at once. In improv we are forced to make decisions. If we don’t, nothing happens. So having to make choices about where a scene goes is also really good practice for choosing which stories to write. Because some ideas make shit stories and we need to be able to acknowledge that and wave them along. Improv is also great I find for inspiring the creation of stories that move. I used to write so many characters that just stayed in one place. It sounds quite funny now thinking about it but that is where I was at… with lots of characters standing around in limbo, looking at me, shrugging and saying, “Yeah, so, what now?” In learning the skill in improv of moving things along, I saw it creeping into my writing. It gave me the confidence to choose what was going to happen and also what was going to happen next.

Being less precious

Practicing improv helped me to see that there are loads of ideas flying about and some of them will get done and some won’t. Some will wait to be heard and some will fly off to somewhere else. Elizabeth Gilbert includes an amazing anecdote in her book Big Magic, about how she had an idea for a novel, conducted lots of research, and then for one reason or another, she put it away all the notes in a drawer to work on later. That later got later and later and eventually she was having a chat with another writer and discovered that this other author was writing that drawer book! They hadn’t discussed the idea but somehow it had passed between them. It might sound devastating but I find it oddly liberating. What a reprieve that we don’t have to feel guilty about the things we don’t write! In improv there are also things we think of but for one reason or other, they don’t get out into the scene. Lost lines. Lost character explorations. Lost moves. And they are lost forever. We can either let them haunt us or move on and find others. There is always plenty to do.

Doing something

I had started seven novels and didn’t know which to finish writing. It took me years trying to pick on and in the interim I would create more starts. Because I’d spent ages trying to decide which one would be the most important to LITERATURE (to be said in a booming grand voice), I changed tactic and picked the dumbest one. This one was the least serious and would be the most fun to write because it was silly. It was even sillier than when I started writing a space drama that took place on a boob-shaped spaceship (one day I’ll finish that one too maybe).

I wanted to see what would happen to my writing if I just followed the fun. And this is improv thinking again, sneaking across the divide. It’s my spirit of silliness that once I felt made me insignificant. But thanks to improv, I have learned to feel differently. So I wrote it. That silly novel idea. And my main thinking was by then: this does not have to be good. It just has to be written. If I can get this written I can learn the lessons I need to learn from having written it. There is no other way than doing the thing you need to do.

Letting Go of Perfect

You can spend a ridiculously long time wanting to write the most perfect paragraph, wanting to do the perfect scene but if you don’t step forward into the space and just get going it isn’t going to get done. What I learned to love about improv is that it fucks perfect in the face. There are a million different types of perfect scene and you’ll never know if you can pull one off if you don’t get on with it. One person’s perfect scene isn’t another’s anyway so fuck perfect! Practising improv helps us practice fucking perfect, imperfectly. Because in improv you have to fuck perfect, imperfectly… A LOT. And it is this practice, we can take into other art forms. I believe giving ourselves license to be shit to start with is the key to doing much art.


Writing can be a very solitary pursuit but practicing improv with others is a great confidence boast to your ideas. You can discover that your ideas are pretty good and sometimes so good someone else has them too, even at the same time, and you can create that dynamite idea together. And even if that original idea needs some work too it can help you see the potential. Fabulous Katy Schutte says: “All I need is half a shit idea” and this can be applied to writing. Even though you get to choose whether to use it or not, all you really need in writing is half a shit idea to get you started. You then get the chance to play all the parts at forming that into an idea that flies. In improv you most often have someone to bounce off. In writing, that person is you, as you discover more and more about what you want to write. There are a lot of authors who ascribe to the difference between the hat they wear to write and the hat they wear to edit. This can be seen as a creative collaboration with one’s self.

In learning the skills of improv could help my writing practice I was hugely helped by wonderful teacher, insanely talented person, and fabulous writer/improviser Jenny Rowe. Jenny runs regular courses combining writing with improv as an exploration in inspiration and discovering the relationships between these two forms. If you happen to not be geographically placed for an in-person course, she also runs them online at the moment through The Nursery Theatre.

I attended a session which gave me lots of ideas to scribble about. If you are interested in trying out this creative cacophony I can highly recommend you do. Second City have also been combining the worlds of improv and writing for a long time to create sketch comedy, in particular.

I am a believer that sometimes you need to get blocked to grow. I am a better writer now than I was before I got blocked. In the time before, I was chaotic and undiscerning. I grabbed at everything and didn’t have the discipline to see things through. Getting blocked meant I had to find creative ways around it. It helped me mature as a writer, find balance, and showed me what mattered. It was terribly hard to struggle through but without it, I may never have found another art form that makes me feel alive. If you are blocked, I hope that my experience may help in seeing that there are things to try and ways to work through it. I wish you well in your creative explorations. May your creative force be free to move unimpeded through your inspirational pipes.

Getting it Back Together

It had been over 18 months since we had done any real life improvisation together. Would we remember how? The date for doing it kept getting altered. Maybe I was secretly relieved. If we met at all, we’d chat and the time would slip away. The improv – politely waving at us to get our butts back in the rehearsal space – was left hanging. And it was easy to let it happen. I wondered if others were feeling as I was. Frustrated, yes, but also a part of me was thankful for the reprieve.

I’d been here before. I know this beast. It’s the Procrastination Monkey. Its favourite food is fear. There’s the fear you won’t be as good as you wish you’d be, not as good as you remember. You will freeze up or fly away. You won’t work well with your team. Or you won’t work at all! You’ll have become too broken in the interim, or too mended, or too full of banana bread. You won’t be able to make people laugh. You won’t be able to make people feel anything. You won’t feel anything! This thing you think you love might not love you back. It might not be what you love anymore and you might have lost yet another thing you thought gave your life some meaning in this weird mash of experiences we call a life…

So while all this spiral is playing out, Procrastination Monkey is having a fucking ball! He’s swinging on light fixtures, he’s howling at passing cars, he’s moulding ‘stuff’ he shouldn’t be into spheres to fling. Oh… and he’s going to fling it. No doubt about it. He’s all over the shop. And while he’s on the loose, nothing is getting done.

Procrastination Monkey is the creature getting in your way when you put off pretty much anything. You name it: making that phone call, studying for that exam, applying for that role of Superintendent of Getting Things Done. You could just do it now but then Procrastination Monkey has other ideas. Noisy, destructive, messy ideas.

Procrastination Monkey and I are nemeses of old. Even this morning he popped up as I was grappling with the motivation to write. I’d woken up at 7.30am and had breakfast by the time my alarm went off. There was plenty of time to get some yoga done and get to the keys. And even so by 11.30am I was still not writing. I’d filled that time with a lot of chatting and faffing. Procrastination Monkey knows what I like and he’s all over it, crashing his cymbals together, keeping me from doing the thing I got to do. And there are things we really do, got to do.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

Doris Lessing

What she said… considerably better.

This quote appears at the beginning of improvised theatre company Parallelogramophonograph’s book on narrative improv entitled ‘Do It Now‘. And hey, they are a group that has getting things done, down. From the very start of the pandemic, they were putting out shows like nobody’s business. They were like wild cats tearing into online performance, trying out technology, shaking up genres and keeping it fresh over and over again. They hit that ground running, grabbed that ball and didn’t stop. It provided so much inspiration to tired souls, like me, trying to keep the light alive within us in those dark days of isolation.

When our group were trying to navigate rehearsing online during the lockdown we were inspired by Parallelogramophonograph’s shows. We experimented ourselves with different forms. I attended a Zoom room class with Roy Janick and Kaci Beeler and learned their Grimm’s Fairy-tale format. Here a peasant family gather around a campfire telling each other tales. Each one have their own unique perspective that influences the story being told. I still laugh remembering our group navigating that form. We were a motely crew with various props at our disposal, tussling the narrative and the time lag between us. I was so excited when I got to use my wooden martial arts sword but kind of disappointed it didn’t fit in the screen frame. To everyone else I was holding a fancy stick.

Online improv can be such a salvation. As we all go through pockets of time where we can’t meet in the flesh it can be very refreshing to know there are other options for keeping the improv fires burning. But for me at the moment, real life improv has become a possibility so I am noticing how the safety of the screen has become a comfort to hide behind. Procrastination Monkey is that you? I don’t know who you are referring to. Shriek, shriek, clatter, crash, smash.

If this weird time we are living through has taught us nothing else it has been, sometimes you have to go slow and be kind to yourself. Being kind to yourself is really important. But what if sometimes being kind to yourself, is actually grabbing the ball and running your ass off? What if being kind to yourself, is saying yes to that show, even though you’re nervous? What if being kind to yourself, is getting back into that rehearsal room and doing what you’re really meant to do?

Last night I got to improvise with our troupe again in real life and I realised how that thing I was meant to do, I had to do now. Because I can. And for me, it was better than I ever remember it. Sure we were rusty, but still it was more vibrant, more alive and more satisfying. I felt like I’d grown into this space, without being in it. Now I really felt I belonged there. And that crashing monkey in my head had to put down his shitty cymbals and let me get on with it. Because that’s the thing with Procrastination Monkey. The only way to stop his noisy irritating behaviour is to do that frigging thing and to do it frigging now… preferably before he starts with the flinging.

If you’d like to find out more about this beast I call Procrastination Monkey, you might like to try this TED talk by Tim Urban here.

Ten Top Tips for Thriving at an Improv Retreat

My first improv retreat went by in a blur of exhaustion, adrenaline and weird noises. It never really occurred to me not to go again. Sadly the last few have been cancelled but there was also a pandemic to think about. Now here in the UK, things have been slowly opening up. As we rattle through September, an optimistic bunch of us are holding our breath as we get ever closer to attending The Maydays autumn residential intensive. It’s a nail-biting time.

It has me getting all nostalgic for what has passed. But I can assure you that my first improv retreat was no picnic. There was also not a picnic… which seems weird with lots of beautiful grounds to explore. However, for my first retreat I didn’t really see any of the grounds. I was too busy inside running about and being all ‘improv’.

I’d like to report it was a constant wonderland of improvised performance. The truth of the matter is, it was, but it also had its tough times. My first retreat started by being told by a fellow improviser how I had embarrassed myself in a session. I don’t think it was meant to sound unkind but I can be a sensitive soul so it sent me into a shame spiral that lasted the rest of the retreat and resulted in me being less and less able to say anything in scenes. During the showcase performance I made some battle cries and that was all I could manage to get out through my mouth hole.

We were fighting invisible orcs. Fitting huh?

As I drove away after the retreat had ended, a whole bunch of new voices poured out of me, from some deep dark place, until around about Salisbury. From there I started singing to an Avril Lavigne song on the radio, got ridiculously angry, and then cried my eyes out all the way to Pizza Hut.


I still laugh thinking about it because the weird thing was, I think that retreat may have been the making of me. And also the breaking of me. But also the making of me. I still managed to make friends, find fun and learn loads, including what weird substance I was made of: me. It was a baptism of fire and for some irritating reason they’re the best for growing at an exponential rate.

I came back asking my teachers if I should ever improvise again… could I really handle this? And they all said the same thing: Hell, yeah!

And thankfully, I listened to them.

So here’s a collection of my top tips for getting the most out of an improv retreat, from someone who has been there and got a t-shirt… which was for free because it was faulty and fell apart… so then I framed it and hung it on my wall like a diploma… because I’d earned it.

  1. Resist comparing yourself to the skill/talent/superpowers of others. You are going to be surrounded by people doing great in their own particular ways. Some will be fantastic at initiating, some will blow you away with their word play, some will have object work to kill yourself with an imaginary gun for. Try not to let that get to you. Swim in your own lane. You often won’t know what others love about your improvised performance so be secure that you are just where you need to be right now. Here!
  2. Listen to feedback from teachers and instructors. Try not to defend your intentions. Make a note of the feedback for later. Give it a go, putting it into practice if you feel ready for the note, but don’t expect to correct yourself in the few days you are at the retreat. Lap it up as a useful observation and know you can come back to it later to explore in your regular practice.
  3. Compliment, don’t criticise. You’ll see loads of great improv but sometimes you’ll also get ideas about how others could ‘do things differently’. That’s fine but keep those bits to yourself, unless you are specifically asked. I have received the most unsolicited criticisms from people at retreats and sometimes they have come right after receiving great feedback from a teacher. Whoever the improviser is, they get to make their own decisions so dig their groove, don’t burst their balloon. If you do find yourself on the receiving end, know you are only hearing one person’s opinion on how they would do things and that is just one drop in a sea of possibilities.
  4. Keep doing something. If you freeze up like I did, then try not to panic. See it as an opportunity to focus on interesting object work or body language. Or make weird noises. These can be just as strong offers in scenes. When I was at my most frozen I said to the great Jules Munns, “I just don’t feel like I’m giving my scene partner anything.” He replied, “I bet you’re giving them much more than you think you are.” Because even silence can be inspiring if leaned into. I once saw a normally very chatty improviser do a whole scene in silence at an improv retreat jam and it was incredibly powerful.
  5. Avoid burning out. It’s hard to hold yourself back when there is so much to throw yourself into, but try to build some time into your day for just you. It took me until my third retreat to discover I could take myself off for a little walk, sit on my own in a field or just quietly focus on my breath for a bit. It was a really important grounding tool to right me again after all the joyful make believe. Wherever you find, and it maybe the toilet (also speaking from experience), find a moment for yourself and seize it. I know some people give themselves a session off even. Do what you need to do to recharge your batteries so you have the energy for the experiences that matter most to you.
  6. Keep out of your own head (as much as possible). It is so hard not to get stuck in your noggin when your brain is being bombarded with new information: here’s a new format, here’s a new way to initiate, here’s a new way to play a pair of furry car dice. If you get in your head, try to remember why you came to the retreat and give yourself permission to be bad. The best place for your worst improv is in class, so do what you can but don’t sweat it if you are not everything you want to be. This is the place to try new things and fail gloriously.
  7. Accept you will probably get overwhelmed at some point. It’s a part of the journey. You might cry at a cardboard robot. You might get all in your head. You might freeze up and be only able to make noises for an entire scene. You will not be alone. I have done all these things. Ride it out and keep on trucking. You might learn a lot about yourself from the way you get through these moments.
  8. Make a record by taking notes or your equivalent. Improv requires a certain degree of ‘being in the zone’ which tends to come with a tendency to let it all go afterwards. When your learning is interspersed with improv exercises though this can mean you forget some useful lessons pretty quick. I can feel a bit awkward taking notes but now I get my notebook out early – preferably before the session begins so I can be poised and ready. I’ve even started writing down at the end of class all the exercises we did. It’s really helpful later when the session is a distant memory because it’s the afternoon and you’ve moved onto singing improvised folk songs and playing an upbeat roof tile.
  9. Offer support to your fellow players when you can. Some of my most cherished moments at retreats have been when I can support others. So many people have been kind enough to support me when I’m wobbling so it’s meaningful to pay it forward. We all crack up at different times. Different things scare us. Some people get incredibly nervous just before performing, other people get their buttons pushed in an immersive class, and other people still, cry over cardboard robots. There’ll be times you’re riding high on the improv fumes, while others are struggling. As long as your well isn’t dry, take the opportunities to lift your fellow players. You may even find yourself with a new improv buddy.
  10. Follow your fun. At one retreat I tried to go to all the advanced classes because I wanted to be in those rooms. Now I choose a balance of sessions for learning and for lighting me up. Lean into it and live your best improv retreat life by following your own unique fun-times. You don’t need to prove yourself. You have as much right to be here, doing improv, as anyone else, so be enough for your glorious self. You really don’t have to be good. You just have to be here.

I think that robot might need an explanation. At the last retreat before the pandemic, I went to a session in improvised puppetry with the marvellous creative energy that is Jennifer Jordan. In it we had the opportunity to make a creature out of scrap materials. I got a big piece of cardboard and coupled it with some egg boxes to make a robot-like creature. I called it Brian. Now in your head you are probably imagining something more sophisticated. Dial that down a few notches.

There was a high quantity of surprising behaviour in that workshop which Brian wasn’t too sure about – probably also not helped by the graphically obscene cardboard sex. Yep, can’t unsee that. Even if your eyelids are made of an egg box.

After cardboard creature dancing and scenes, there was a chance to reflect. I started talking about my box robot and how it felt disconnected. All of a sudden I was crying. It was such a surprise and I tried to hide behind the cardboard. ACTUAL ME tried to hide behind the cardboard robot. The musical magician Joe Samuel then said, “Don’t you see, Lela. That puppet is you when you started improv.” And of course the wise sage was right. He’s always right.

I did feel disconnected when I started improv and I wasn’t sure then I had a right to be in the room. And on top of that I now felt rather foolish after having cried over cardboard but to my great surprise people seemed to connect with me all the more for it. It made me wonder if I should carry that robot around with me all the time! But it was too late by then; he’d been recycled.

I’ve been recycled too. I’m a different version of the rather disconnected person I was when I went to my first retreat. I don’t need that cardboard robot to hide behind (sorry Brian).

No doubt, you’ll be going to your next retreat in a different place to me but if it comes to it, I say: don’t be afraid to break. Let it go. Grow. This is your party and you can cry over a cardboard robot if you want to… and even if you don’t.

Enjoy your own retreat journey. I hope you embrace every weird minute of it and hold on tight. It’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Thinking Inside the Box

In the school hall, I sit with an imaginary cardboard box balanced precariously on my thighs. I feel the weight slowly shift, its contents gradually re-distributing itself. An itsy bitsy ruckus in a space only a bit bigger than a shoebox.

I know exactly what is inside.

The other things I know are that the herringbone wooden floor is actually covered in autumn leaves, the still school air is dancing through the imaginary trees making them rustle and the plastic chair I am sat on is actually only one half of a bigger seat.

I’m on a park bench. And in a few minutes the person next to me, who is wearing an imaginary bowler hat, will get up and leave. In their place, another person will join me and bring with them something new.

This is a Park Bench. And it is the first improv exercise I did… possibly. There must have been others but this is all my mind has left me with now. This joyful snippet from my childhood dabble in drama.

I have a small collection of vivid memories from junior school: wearing a finger sling to class when my nail had fallen off and all the other kids found it gross; colliding with a kid running the wrong way through the canteen and getting spaghetti bolognese stains all down my shirt; being told off for sticking drawing pins to the bottoms of my shoes to tap dance…

And I remember so clearly sitting on that park bench.

During that time, a retired actor came in to our school and taught us improvisation. I wish now I could remember more of what we did. But being in that drama club got me a part as Princess Brenda in the school production of Queen Beryl and the Romans. And this I remember most.

I remember waiting in the wings to go on, I remember Caesar forgetting his lines and one of his centurions sticking a sword up his toga to try to remind him (I’m not sure how that was going to help), I remember walking through the audience at the end having just married Paul Wheeldon, and I remember standing at the front of the stage on my own, being seen, while I delivered the line:

“I want some peas and if I don’t get any peas, I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick.”

Princess Brenda

I’m not sure why Princess Brenda wanted peas so much. Seems likely nobody asked. But I do know what being seen was like. Exhilarating. Powerful. Complicated. I wasn’t the kind of kid who normally screamed for peas.

For the next four years one of the teachers in the school – a big tall beardy fellow – called me Queen Beryl. And every single time he did, I corrected him that I had played Princess Brenda. And he laughed and ignored me.

I wasn’t Queen Beryl.

Queen Beryl was a flaming red-head with gorgeous big hair like something out of Brave. And she was brave because she played Queen Beryl, whereas I only played Princess Brenda. I don’t know what her name was but she was my drama friend. And then she left the school and I never saw her again. I would only remember being about to go on stage with her and feeling nervous but not really sure if I did feel nervous. I thought I should feel nervous so I gave myself a talking to, to feel nervous.

I dreamt a lot about being an actress when I was little. I guess a lot of kids do. I don’t know how much talent I had then. I do remember at high school a teacher trying to persuade me to take GCSE drama. I just thought he wanted me in his class because I was a well-behaving kid. It didn’t occur to me I might be any good at it. And I’ll never really know if I was back then, any good, because all I wanted to do was hide so I took Art instead.

Life was difficult enough without people seeing me.

My mission in high school was quite a simple one really: to never, ever ever, ever, under any circumstances, find myself in a spotlight. I kept my head down. I avoided eye contact.

But the problem was, there was a little person still in me who didn’t much like that strategy. She played up in Graphic Design doing sketch comedy in an early improvised duo with a wild child called Emma. Our material mainly paraphrased things I’d heard on the radio, which my father listened to religiously. We entertained the mean girls who seemed to enjoy the show, until they remembered who I was to them – someone they hated for some reason.

It wouldn’t do.

So I put that little person who wanted to be seen into a dark creepy space inside of me for twenty years and forgot about her.

Thankfully, she did not forget about me.

And nor did she forget about that park bench or what was in that imaginary cardboard box.

It was a tortoise.

Fitting. Ever so frigging slowly I’d save that little girl from that creepy dark place and she’d save me. Because obviously as soon as she was out she knew exactly what she wanted to do.