Scholarship Blog: Maydays Improv Retreat 2021 By Hon Chong
After having a bit of time to personally reflect on and digest my experience, I’ve finally managed to write down my highlighted experiences and thoughts from my first Maydays Improv Retreat.
Before the Retreat
On 5.10.2021, I received an email from Maydays with the subject line, “See you Soooon!” That was how I found out that I was one of the two lucky applicants selected for the Jason Chin diversity scholarship. A rush of emotions hit me. I felt joy, disbelief, confusion, excitement, guilt all at the same time.
I realized I only had a little over two weeks to prepare for the trip. There was a lot of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo to overcome due to travelling in the time of Covid-19. Over the next several days I spent hours reading, researching, calling, and double-checking with authorities in the UK and Slovakia just so I don’t end up in quarantine somewhere.
Strangely, I felt this lingering feeling of guilt that stayed with me for some time. Did I take away the opportunity from someone more deserving of support than me? Will people see this as yet another example of how BIPOC improvisers receive “advantages”? But surely there are more talented improvisers out there who should receive this scholarship? How do I tell my improv team that I get to go to the retreat on scholarship and not them? Aaaarrgh!! My negative self-talk got out of control.
I kept reminding myself to be thankful for the opportunity. It surprised me how an amazing situation could trigger unpleasant feelings in me. I did tell my improv troupe about the scholarship and the retreat. They were all genuinely happy for me which made me feel better. The next 2 weeks went by quickly and before I knew it, I was on a plane from Bratislava to Birmingham!
At the Retreat
Ashorne Hill, the venue of the retreat was very beautiful for a lack of better words. The castle-like historical main buildings and surroundings are set in lush greenery and cultivated fields. There were even cows roaming around the fields. It looks like the kind of place where big multinational companies send their top managers for training and pampering. Wait, it is that kind of place. There were company logos displayed outside the main parking lot next to the main entrance. A glance at the cars parked there and I saw brand new Jaguars, Mercedes, Porsches, Ferraris, and Audis. I could hear my mom’s voice in my head telling me what a disappointment I am.
The check-in at the hotel was quick and efficient. I ran into Lloydie at the reception. I went up to him and said, “Hi Lloydie! It’s me, Hon.” Trying to sound as cheerful as I could. I caught him by surprise as he wasn’t sure who I was at first. Then I realized I had my mask on and it’s confusing sometimes when you meet someone in person for the first time and half your face is covered.
On my way to my hotel room, I ran into Joe. He was pushing a baby in a pram. He also couldn’t recognize me at first until I removed my mask. He then immediately said, “This is not my baby, by the way”.
When I got inside my hotel room, I plopped down on the bed with my jacket still on. Letting out a big sigh of relief that I made it there. “At last! It’s really happening”, I thought to myself. I had an hour or so before the group orientation would start. All I could do was just lie there in bed with my arms spread out. I took time to prepare mentally and emotionally knowing that I will be meeting many new faces, energies, and personalities. It always surprises people when I tell them that I’m an introvert and am often awkward in social situations. The truth is, my whole life I’ve been painfully shy, introverted, and sensitive. Even as a child I could read the moods of adults easily without them saying a word. Luckily, improv folks are generally friendly and open-minded.
The whole retreat from start to finish was immaculately organized by the Maydays team. Even before I arrived in Ashorne Hill, I had received several emails with detailed descriptions of the place, map, schedule, rules and code of conduct. Kudos to them. Every participant also received a welcome ‘improv bag’ with a notebook, pen, printed schedule, code of conduct, and map inside. The attention to detail was impressive.
Here’s the thing – I wish I could take classes from all the teachers there. So many amazing teachers and simply not enough time. Imagine you’re in a candy store and only get to sample a few candies yet the others are just within your reach. The workshops were released in batches before the start of the retreat. All participants had to sign up online in advance for the workshops on a first come first serve basis.
I signed up for a total of 6 workshops over 2 days (Friday and Saturday). Sadly, I had to leave early on Sunday due to my flight. I couldn’t take any workshops on Sunday and I also missed the final showcase. Fucking hell! I found myself cursing Ryan Air every time I realized I had to leave earlier.
I love being a student. There are so many things you can learn from other improvisers. Not only about improv but how the teachers communicate with students, how they facilitate games and activities, and their approach in giving feedback. I also love learning with teachers from different cultures and backgrounds than me. I simply love being in a learning environment.
At the retreat, I managed to take these workshops; Object Workout with Edmund Fargher, New To Musical Improv with Liz Peters and Joe Samuel, Genre Rollercoaster with Lloydie James Lloyd and Joe Samuel, Doing Improv When You Don’t Feel Well with Juwel Haque, Armando with Heather Urquhart, Fun With Fights with Liz Peters, Flaws vs Humanity with Chris Mead, and Cuckoo’s Nest with John Cremer.
I could go on and on about the workshops I took at the retreat. They were all great and I learned a lot from all of them. It would be a very long article if I wrote about all of the workshops. Instead, I’m going to talk about some highlights. Genre Rollercoaster with Lloydie and Joe has been the most difficult workshop I’ve done this year – in a good way. Improvised singing is scary and challenging for me. A big part of it is due to the fact that I can’t sing well. I know, it’s my negative self-talk again. It’s only recently that I’ve found enough courage to start singing in my improv shows. During the workshop, I admit I was hesitant to get up and sing in groups and mostly waited till the last moment or hoping Lloydie would just move on. Then unexpectedly, Lloydie asked if I would sing solo. Jenice, Ruth, and I were the last remaining people who didn’t join the final group song. I hesitantly said yes, while the others in the class cheered and applauded.
The song genre was diva belter – think Celine Dion, Mariah Crey, and Whitney Houston. Jenice Matias, who was also a scholarship recipient, went first. She belted out an amazing song called Say Yes to the Improv. She nailed it. That could have easily been the anthem song of the retreat.
Yikes, I had to go next after an amazing performance. Fuck me. I sang a song about finding my voice. I don’t know how I got through the song but I remember not knowing how to end the song, or was it Joe who kept on going and not letting me finish? Ruth went last and she was great. Then I realized how truly courageous improv folks are. Improvised singing has to be at least 100x scarier than any kind of PowerPoint presentation. And there, I saw Ruth just nailing it and enjoying the moment. Fucking impressive. I remember telling Lloydie after the workshop that it felt like a rollercoaster ride and with a big smile he replied he was glad he delivered on his promise.
Another workshop highlight is learning how to fight in a fun and comedic way with Liz Peters. I didn’t know arguments and fights could be so much fun! We were often told to accept our partner’s ideas. In this case, accept all the blame. You can’t have a good fight without accepting all the accusations and blame. Yes, take that you potato-eating carrot face! Somebody in the class called someone a poor excuse for Venetian blinds. So absurd and so damn funny!
Cuckoo’s Nest with John Cremer was unlike any improv workshop I had done before. It was an immersive experience. I shouldn’t say more because it’s best if you experience it yourself. I strongly believe improv and good acting must go together. This workshop provided a lot of space for character work. What John said at the beginning of the class resonated with me. He mentioned that he would like to bring out our resilience and not fragility. Resilience is an important word for me. It’s my tool to fight against my negative self-talk.
The “STIs bake-off” scene in the Armando workshop with Heather Urquhart is something I won’t forget for the rest of my life. I wasn’t in the scene. I laughed so hard it was just fucking hilarious.
Did I meet any amazing folks at the retreat? Definitely! And I met many. Even though it was such a short time and the whole experience was intense from the beginning to the end, I met many amazing people. I spent hours talking to some of them. Not just small talks but deep conversations about personal topics. By the second evening, when I finally felt comfortable enough to socialize, it was time to say goodbye. Very sad but that’s how life is. I learned so many things from so many wonderful teachers and improvisers. Not only in workshops but also watching them perform in the evening. I especially love the Happily Never After show.
After the Retreat
All good things must come to an end, they say. Suddenly, it’s been over 2 weeks after returning to Bratislava. Writing this article allowed me to reflect on the whole experience from a different angle.
In the end, I think I learned a lot about myself. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to travel to the retreat. There was so much bureaucratic bullshit to jump through from both Slovakia and the UK. It’s unpleasant to travel to a non-Schengen country these days. Looking back, I’m really happy I went through with it. It was worth it.
As an introvert, retreats, festivals, camps, etc. are something I need to prepare for emotionally and mentally. I’m aware that I’m easily affected by negative moods and energies. It’s something I’ve been working on my whole life to improve. Just like in an improv scene, it’s not possible to control the actions and thoughts of our scene partners but we can learn to be a better scene partner for others and ourselves.
If you’re thinking about applying for the Jason Chinn Diversity Scholarship, my advice is – DO IT. Especially if you are a BIPOC improviser. I also realized that just being at the retreat already contributed so much to the learning experience of other improvisers there. They get to learn about your culture, your background, your style of improvising and you as a person. It’s an enriching experience for all parties. Even if you don’t receive the scholarship, I highly recommend that you still join if you can afford to.
Thank you Maydays and all the wonderful people I met at the retreat. This is truly a highlight of my 2021. I hope to be back in the future!