When we received an invitation from the brand spanking new, Birmingham-based Upstairs Improv to perform in their inaugural show on 26th April 2012, we were of course thrilled and in some respects relieved. Discovering another force for improv in the sunny Midlands was somewhat like meeting someone with the same slightly strange celebrity crush as you – the one you won’t dare admit to in public. “GOD yes – I’d do that, in a heartbeat. THANK YOU.”
However, there was a proviso. The format of the event was to be an ‘improv slam’ – four teams, duelling for supremacy in front of an expectant audience. I’d heard about competitive improv formats before, and whilst I didn’t doubt their ability to entertain, I was a little uneasy about the nature of the entertainment on offer. On the night there would be (if only nominally) a ‘winner’. Did that mean there would also be ‘losers’? Would I be one of them? What would that mean?
These and other trepidations simmered quietly at the back of my mind as we attended the format rehearsal a couple of weekends before the big night. Our arena – the resplendent Old Joint Stock, a capacious and opulent Victorian public house with its own black box theatre space secreted upstairs. As I scanned the framed photographs of past productions that lined the carmine walls, glimpsing a headshot of Stewart Lee amongst them, it was immediately clear that there could be few more fitting venues for comedic combat. I was suitably intimidated.
My fears about the nature of the contest, however, were swiftly allayed by Jon Trevor and Kit Murdoch – our hosts, co-comperes and Upstairs Improv masterminds. Whilst Jon and Kit briefed us and the other teams (two from Birmingham’s Box of Frogs, and WOW Impro from Bedworth), it fast became clear how much time and thought they had put into devising a contest that was entertaining and suspenseful for the audience, whilst giving the improvisers ample chance to shine.
The teams would go head-to-head twice over two halves, league style – audience members picking game categories at random for each ‘leg’. The two competing teams were then given thirty seconds to select their game and players for the round. On stage, if players failed to keep things interesting, they would be given a countdown to automatic scene death. Once both teams had performed, the audience would elect a winner via specially prepared voting cards (á la Ready Steady Cook), The comperes would then dole out points relative to the audience vote (with occasional bonuses for effort). The game geek in me was thoroughly impressed – Jon and Kit knew precisely what they wanted to give their audience, even down to the team colours.
On the night, backstage was abuzz with nervous anticipation – most performers were playing to a paying audience for the first time. The show had been an almost instantaneous sell out. Sporting uneasy smiles and ‘Sherwood green’ Primani ties, Geoff, Lloydie, James and I limbered up, tried to recall our favourite games, and did our best not to think too much about the contest to come.
And then… it was ON.
Fighting for Funny
There were triumphs and tragedies (our first game fell flat on its face due to my own poor choices); risks and rewards (James’ played a decidedly damp Brian Blessed – and it slayed them); true blue theatricality (a game of ‘Scared Scriptless’ made memorable by knock out performances); moments of pure, impulsive inspiration (a blinder of an Alphabet Game from WOW- fast and furiously funny). There were howls, hissyfits and match-fixing allegations. Some bouts were close run, others runaway victories – everyone clearly determined to give it their best on the night.
But above all, there was laughter – in trickles, buckets, washes and downpours. Hilarity won outright, whilst boredom slunk away, defeated.
It came down to the wire, but in the final round, by a single point, MissImp sealed its first (and therefore by default historic) Improv Slam victory. They gave us a lovely trophy, which we hugged. Then they took it off us, because they needed it for the next slam.
- Winners! Trilly, Geoff, Lloydie and James
Its okay though, we’ll definitely be battling for it again in three months time.
A hearty congratulations to Upstairs Improv for the staggering success of their very first night!
If you’re in or around the Birmingham area, save the last Thursday of your month for their shows at the Old Joint Stock on Temple Row. You certainly won’t regret it.