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'What is this magic, how are they making this up as they go along?'

Improvisers from all over the world are performing in Dublin this week.

29354936_2143797302303965_590226164683583320_o (1) Órla McGovern (second from right) performing improv in Berlin earlier this year. Source: Matthias Fluhrer

AN IMPROV SHOW has the same ingredients as many others – there are performers and a stage, but one thing is missing: a script.

Improvised theatre has been around for a very long time, but improvised comedy in particular has gained popularity in Ireland in recent years.

Improvisers from all over the world are performing at a festival in Dublin this week, and there’s a growing scene around the country with new shows and troupes regularly popping up.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Órla McGovern, one of the festival’s directors, remembers a very different time. She began doing improv comedy about 20 years ago while living in the US, where the scene is much more established.

McGovern, an actor and playwright based in Galway, said there wasn’t much improv happening in Ireland when she moved back about a decade ago.

“Snatch in Cork and Dublin Comedy Improv, really they were the only two groups here,” she told TheJournal.ie

Around the same time, she met fellow improviser Neil Curran and the two started brainstorming how to bring the form to a wider audience.

These conversations eventually came to fruition in the form of Improv Fest Ireland – which is happening for the fifth time next week. 

There are many different types of improv shows – short-form (more game-orientated), long-form (with more character development and plot) and musical, to name a few – but one thing remains the same: it’s all made up on the spot. 

Demand for workshops is growing too – among both actors and those looking for a hobby, as well as businesses seeking to improve team-building and morale.

‘Permission to play’ 

McGovern thinks part of improv’s popularity is down to the fact it encourages people to use their imagination and take themselves less seriously, a thing children do all the time but something that can be lost as people get older. 

“I teach a lot of improv. Really smart people haven’t that permission to play, improv gives them that. It helps expand ideas. 

You have people from different backgrounds trying it. So many engineers, for example, have said, ‘Oh my god, this just frees me up in so many ways.’

McGovern said many people are afraid of trying improv – including actors.

babiessevenx Órla McGovern (left) with The Sky Babies Source: Órla McGovern

“There’s a little bit of terror around improv – you could have amazing actors who have done loads of scripted theatre who think, ‘Oh, I could never do that’, but when they try it they bring a lot to it. There’s the initial fear of letting go but it’s worth it.

“I’m an actor and I’m an improviser. All the really good improvisers I know at some point are acting, of course they are – they’re playing characters on stage.”

McGovern’s troupe, The Sky Babies, opened the Galway Theatre Festival in 2015, making them the first Irish improv group to open a theatre festival. 

‘What is this magic?’ 

There was another milestone for the scene this year – with improv comedy being part of the programme for the Dublin Fringe Festival for the first time.

Mark Cantan’s group Auto-Correbt, and Witches and Dogs, performed at the festival in September.

Cantan is the artistic director of The Tightrope – an improv night that takes place in Dublin every Sunday and Monday, where over 20 groups regularly perform.

Cantan has been acting since he was a child and got interested in improv about six years ago through the podcast Comedy Bang Bang and watching videos of groups like Asssscat from the UCB Theatre in the US (Amy Poehler is one of the group’s original members).

“I hadn’t seen anything like this before, I thought, ‘What is this magic, how are they making this up as they go along?’,” Cantan told us. 

43544695_1182523391872835_5826592469575270400_o Source: Auto-Correbt

He got some actor friends together and formed his first group, meeting more improvisers as he went along. In terms of approaching improv, he agrees with McGovern that some actors “can be afraid of it and also can shut it down”.

“They might say, ‘I can’t do improv, I tried once.’ That’s like saying, ‘I picked up a guitar once and can’t play it.’ You need practice.

The cool thing about improv is it’s different because it’s made up on the spot. So much of it relies on audience feedback, how they react totally guides where the show is going to go.

Cantan said there’s been “a chain reaction” in the last couple of years that has resulted in more shows and groups being established in Ireland. 

“People start doing improv, their friends start coming to shows and it builds momentum. The more we do it, the more people come and see it.”

Performing at the Fringe helped get improv to a wider audience, with Cantan saying: “It was great for the Fringe to take a chance on this.”

Most of the shows sold out, meaning it’s likely to be back on the bill next year.

Improv Fest Ireland takes places from 2-8 December, with shows and workshops happening all week. More information can be read here. More information about The Tightrope can be read here, while updates about other shows and workshops can be found here

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Órla Ryan

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