BWW Interview: Pippa Evans Talks SHOWSTOPPER!
Pippa Evans is a comedian, an improviser and the calm behind the comical beast that is Loretta Maine. She has been on the radio (The Now Show, 15 Minute Musical, Chatshow Roulette), TV (Drunk History, Live at The Electric, Fast and Loose) and on tour.
She is currently appearing in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical at The Other Palace.
How did you get started in improvisation?
I started as an actor and I was doing a musical in the Edinburgh Fringe 2005 called The Sawdust Circle. It wasn't the best musical in the world and it was a bit of a stressy production (as your first experience of the Festival can be).
To alleviate my stress, I would go and watch an impro show called Improvedy and I made friends with the guy who ran the company. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world! I couldn't believe how the audience was in the show as much as the performers - it felt like we were creating a show together.
Of course, I loved Whose Line Is It Anyway as a kid, so I already had a big love of comedy improvisation. I was invited to tryout for the show in London. Unbeknownst to me, Ruth Bratt (another who has been in Showstopper!) was also in the show and, when I arrived, she had just left.
This was during the time in Improland when there was only one woman allowed in a company and so it was, "We need a woman - so would you like to join the show?". I did join and that was my first experience of being on stage doing improvisation in front of an audience.
What's the difference between "Impro" and "Improv"?
One theory is that us British use "Impro" because we say "Impro/visation", whereas Americans use "Improv" because they say "Improv/isation".
The second theory is that Keith Johnson (considered the godfather of British Improvisation) titled his book "Impro" and that's why we call it that. His stuff is based more in theatre, but the American stuff is based more in comedic exercises that go towards the sketch format.
What's the history of Impro?
It's always existed as a thing; performers using the audience to give them stuff to turn into something instantaneous has happened since time began. Music hall stars would make up songs, for example.
In the past 30 years, people have focused on improvisation specifically, rather than as just a tool. So Whose Line Is It Anyway is a brilliant comedy TV show - the drama exercises of Johnson's book put on TV by a lot of hilarious performers.
More recently, you have people really focusing on how far they can push improvisation - can you make a full-length musical, a full-length Jane Austen novel, a full-length crime drama? This "long-form" improvisation has exploded in the UK in the last ten years particularly.
You've proved - over 1,000 times - that you can improvise a full-length musical with Showstopper!, so tell us about the show
Our aim is that our improvised, full-length show should be to the standard of a West End musical - so that if you come to see the show, you should have the same experience as at any other West End musical, but with the added joy that we're creating it on the spot.
Six clowns on stage attempting the impossible! We have a full band and a host character with us. We take the audience suggestion of a setting and a title and four musical styles people like - e.g. Hamilton, Les Mis or whatever. Then we improvise everything - the narrative, the dancing, the songs, the acting, the script.
The idea is that if someone walked into the show, ten minutes after we got all the information, they might just believe that they're watching a "real" musical - which it is, but one that just happens to be made up.
Do you have any set-pieces to fall back on?
There are absolutely no set-pieces! We are literally improvising it, and part of the joy for the audience is that there's a little piece of them hoping that we fail (and a little bit of us thinking that tonight may be the night that we don't make it across the high wire!).
We have some superfans who've been 50 or 60 times, and they love it when they can tell that we're starting to sweat, or when we're finding it too easy and the host character has to goad us to push us to the limits.
Have you an example when you've been caught looking at each other thinking "What do we do next?"
The joy of the show is that there's ten people involved and, because it's about teamwork, it's very unlikely you'll have ten people not knowing what to do.
We've had settings that, backstage just before the show, have made us think that we might not make it today . We did one set in Chernobyl - how could we write a musical about that and be respectful to something still in recent memory? We managed it by all of us investing in the characters - it was about what led to that moment, going back in time.
Things come up that we question - but we've never fallen yet!
Does that lead to some of the best shows, when the subject comes out of left field?
One in Edinburgh was titled No Way José, requested by an audience member who wanted it set inside his mother's head. What does that mean? The show ended up as a beautiful musical about a woman writing down her memories and discovering, at the end of the show, that it was her last moment - we were all of her memories.
We found the audience member who had made the suggestion and he was crying, saying that his mother was actually losing her memory and that it was beautiful - but still hilarious. That's the sweet spot for us.
We had one set in snow globe - so what are you going to do? It turned into a show about a girl who made a wish that it would snow every day. Jack Frost trapped her in a snow globe and the show was about how she got out - and found out that the world had moved on.
Is there any concern about shows straying into sensitive areas?
We've been improvising for long enough to trust our skills. One of the great things about theatre is that you can have characters with questionable views, so if a character comes on and says something racist for a cheap laugh (I hope the audience would not laugh), we can explore it.
We always have this mantra from Ken Campbell: if we're going to make it up, it must be better than if we were writing it down. In the same way, you can have musicals like The Scottsboro Boys or Showboat, dealing with big themes.
Showstopper! isn't set up to explore huge themes, but it might be. On Tuesday, at The Other Palace, we did a musical called The Tennessee Waltz, which turned out to be about LGBT rights in Nashville in 1963. It was really funny, but also about people suffering and having to deny who they are. Of course, there had to be characters who thought that homosexuality was wrong.
We could explore that because of the long-form nature of the show. The trouble for short-form impro is that you're saying something to get a laugh and it never gets followed up with a reason for the gag. It's shock humour.
Do you all need a lot of cultural capital to make up stuff from such diverse and unpredictable material?
As a company, we are well-read and we stay on top of current events, but it's impossible to know everything. We all listen to all the musicals, but you might have a moment on stage when someone shouts, say, "Candide" and you think "I can't remember how that goes". But someone else will help you out.
If I don't know where Nashville is, that's on me, because I should. We do expect our company to have a basic knowledge about the world, but if it's something like (as happened once) a setting of the Bay of Pigs, then we do our version of the Bay of Pigs. It turned out to be about the Pork Wars of 1965 or whatever. We create a new narrative.
What the audience want to see is six people trying to make a musical about the Bay of Pigs...
We've covered plenty of this above, but what can an audience member expect when they buy their ticket for Showstopper!?
They can expect to see ten incredible performers attempting to create a brilliant West End musical in the setting of their choice. They'll get great songs, a great storyline, great dance and a great show - that'll never be seen ever again!