Not many companies can boast of a residency at The Natural History Museum. But as of 2017 improvised comedy group Do Not Adjust Your Stage have been able to do exactly that. On top of this they can also boast (but they don’t!) of two other residencies running at The Free Association and The Nursery Theatre and all this only a few years after a group of students from Sheffield University decided to form a fledgling improv troupe. I got in contact with Helen O’Donnell, one of the current ensemble of eight, and asked what it is that draws the group to improvisation:
“With some exceptions improv is an overwhelmingly live medium. The bond between audience and performer is a strong one as you are all discovering the comedy of the situation at the same time, in the same place.”
Since relocating from Sheffield to London the troupe have remained indescribably busy whilst also having to keep their passports close at hand as they have put in appearances at festivals in Barcelona, Bristol and Amsterdam, taken shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and Improv Festival Ireland and performed to sell-out audiences at the UCB Theatre in New York. They even achieved a UK improv first by performing via a live transatlantic satellite link to the iO Theater, Chicago as part of Slapdash Festival.
With these shows they are looking to bring improvised comedy to new audiences, audiences that may not be familiar with the medium or not aware that it has helped produce today’s comedy giants such as Tina Fey and Bill Murray.
“A big challenge is overcoming that scepticism with both audiences and venues — even though every show is different, that can still mean every show is high quality.”
But theirs is a different brand of improv. With their latest show, The Wunderkammer, [Part Ted-style talk, part improvised comedy] billed as a “wonderful journey of discovery, intrigue and knowledge” they have been looking at marrying art and science. O’Donnell explains that:
“We wanted to create an evening of entertainment with both genuinely informative and purely comedic sections, directly related to each other. We didn’t want to have a ‘jokey’ science talk or an overly academic comedy show, but an evening that informs, educates and entertains.”
A novel and commendable aspiration that no doubt is what helped them secure their residency at The Natural History Museum. And they are not content to rest there. O’Donnell tells me of plans to tour shows to museums and institutions around the country before eventually branching into the recorded medium.
Theirs is a scene that is rapidly growing and O’Donnell talks excitedly about collaborating with anyone and everyone; the company routinely work with screenwriters, musicians and playwrights as well as actors to create a well-rounded and innovative product. This generous inclusivity extends further as DNAYS now run their own improv classes to inspire the next generation as well as running corporate workshops in which improvisation is used to improve “communication, flexibility, resilience and creativity.”
It is clear that Do Not Adjust Your Stage are set on redefining improvisation, or perhaps simply people’s perceptions of it. Far from content with producing an evening of light comedy they are looking to reinvigorate a performing art, matching it with the real world step for step; making it relevant, adaptive and inclusive with an international appeal. You can find them regularly performing in London at The Free Association and Hoopla Venues before they are once again jetting off to the USA in Summer to continue sharing what O’Donnell refers to as:
“The thrill of creating and discovering something hilarious with an audience in real time.”
As scary as a lack of script and rehearsal may sound to some, one of the true benefits of improvised comedy is that a show will never become stilted with it’s content wooden and it’s performers simply “going through the motions”. As O’Donnell tells me:
“Every show is truly unique.”
The best things always are.
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