Maydays Improv Retreat 2022 Blog Post by Helen Bet
Radhanath Sikdar found the height of Mount Everest to be 29 000 feet exactly. But he added 2 feet when he shared his findings because he thought noone would believe the round number. What does this have to do with an improv retreat, you ask? Well, read on and you may find out…
Before the Retreat
Earlier this year, when tickets were finally released for the retreat, I was so excited. But then I saw the cost and my heart sank a little. Then it got worse: my teammate, with whom I’d agreed to share a room, couldn’t make it. I wasn’t sure I could afford a shared room, but I definitely couldn’t afford to go it alone. I resigned myself to not being able to go this year.
In the background of all of this, I was adjusting to an autism diagnosis, which I received after I’d already been alive for 40 years. Rationally, this was easy; it made total sense of many things. Emotionally, it was a lot harder. I decided I couldn’t process this whilst working in an intense and stressful job so I arranged a sabbatical.
I kept seeing news of the retreat on my social media feed and checking to see if the price had magically gone down. I guess I hadn’t quite let go of not going after all. But now that I was on sabbatical, there was absolutely no way at all I could afford to go.
Then I remembered the Jason Chin Diversity Scholarship. Part of processing the diagnosis is to accept that the way my brain works has disadvantaged me in the social world for my whole life and that this has had a big impact on me. But I also recognise that improv has been a space that counters this, where I can be clever and silly and playful and serious, all collaboratively and consensually with other players. So I sent a hopeful application for the scholarship, certain I would not be successful, and turned my attentions to resigning myself to not going once again.
Except I was granted the scholarship…
On the Retreat
Ashorne Hill is a beautiful setting, with stunning manor house architecture and gorgeous landscaping. It is very different from Osho Leela, and some of the community feel is lost, but we were extremely well fed, with three cooked meals a day, and the bedrooms were super comfortable.
I took 10 improv classes and participated in a jam and a showcase across the three days, so I won’t bore you with all the details (!), but I’ll outline my top 5 ‘aha!’ moments from the retreat:
Improv Self Care: Jennifer Jordan
In this session, Jennifer went through some ways to look after ourselves when performing improv. She used a combination of exercises and group discussion, but the biggest revelation she gave was this:
You can do whatever you want on stage and your partner can do whatever they want too. That’s okay.
I had not thought about it like this before, but it was a bit of a game changer for me. Usually, I will be modifying what I want to do on stage in order to fit with what my best guess is of what the scene needs and/or what the other players intend. Jennifer’s tip provides permission to let go of all of that, and to be more present and playful in scenes (and in life!).
The Challenge: Andel Sudik
In this session with guest teacher Andel, we focused on the things we find most difficult in improv. Andel listened, gave us exercises that made us face those challenges, and used a mixture of side coaching and notes to help us find ways through them. All of her advice was, frankly, gold, but when it came to my challenge, of not being able to maintain a low status in a scene, she helped me to discover my inner clown.
The feedback I most often get about my improv is either that it’s ‘clever’ or that I’m ‘a safe pair of hands’. Whilst this is lovely to hear, it is also not always where the fun is. Sometimes, I want to play the fool, to be mischievous, to break things and watch someone else put them back together. I didn’t know how to achieve this, but Andel gave some suggestions and they were surprisingly simple: Smile; relinquish responsibility; mess with the pattern of the game; don’t know the answer. Playing in this space, I felt a lightness and presence in the moment. It was a lot of fun and I just wanted to do it again!
Torch Songs: Lloydie James Lloyd and Joe Samuel
This class is the stuff of legend in musical improv classes. It’s where the magic happens. So I was delighted to be able to get a place. The premise is simple: each person gets three verses and a bridge to bare their soul in a solo song.
We were warned that there would likely be tears and were reminded of the option to go down a comedy route with our song if we wanted to, but I made a deal with myself that I was going to privilege honesty over quality, and that meant singing from my heart, not my head. As I listened to the songs before mine, I felt increasingly anxious. They were all brilliant! The vulnerability was huge: not just baring my soul, but doing so by singing. On my own.
As each person took the stage to sing their song, Lloydie provided them with an object to provide inspiration. It was a pretty random assortment (hotel slippers, a bluetooth speaker, a TV remote etc) and mine served to completely wipe my mind clean of any half formed ideas I’d had before I started. What I sang did not make a huge amount of sense, but it was true to my feelings and I was proud of having stuck to that. Afterwards, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional effect it would have on me and the tears came as part of that catharsis. It was powerful and not entirely pleasant, but definitely emotional and I’m glad I did it.
Scenes from Shakespeare: Jenny Rowe
I chose this class to indulge my heady side. Shakespeare is one of my special interests and so I was fully expecting to go in and spend two hours showing off and being terribly clever. But already I wasn’t the improviser I had been at the start of the weekend, and that’s not what ended up happening.
I’ve done Shakespearean improv with Jenny before and some of the exercises were familiar. I enjoyed playing around with simile and metaphor, and trying to have a conversation in iambic pentameter. Then we had an opportunity to do scenes that could be embellished with asides or soliloquies. One improviser performed an aside that was absolutely phenomenal. As I waited for my scene to come up, I suddenly felt anxious: the thing I was good at, the thing that I bring to the table as an improviser, had already been blown out of the water – what on earth was I going to do?
We were given one word as a prompt for our scene: ‘Minstrels’. My mind was working overtime, and then my scene partner’s first line positioned us clearly in a comedic scene. I can’t remember what she said, but she made it clear that we were low status and terrible at our jobs. Instead of panicking and being thrown at the unexpected offer, I smiled: I had an opportunity to play the clown again. What followed was a ridiculously silly scene of attempting to coax a pleasing melody from a corpse’s bottom before having various limbs devoured by a zombie whilst singing a tuneless minstrel song. It was unpredictable, stupid, and tremendous fun.
Genre Roller-Coaster: Lloydie James Lloyd and Joe Samuel
This was another class that has acquired legendary status in musical improv. In the session, we looked at 2 genres of music, listening to examples and deconstructing the format before everyone had a chance to perform in that genre.
The first genre was opera. As someone who can’t really sing, and who is more a tentative contralto than anything else, this felt like it could be interesting. As we looked at the genre in more detail, the fun in it seemed to be in the exaggerated emotion, often mismatching the reality of what’s actually happening, and in the sung dialogue. I was looking forward to having a go, and thought trying to sing high notes might be fun too.
When it came to my scene, we were in a situation where the toast had burnt. We started off singing back and forth about how it was inconvenient and we would be grumpy without breakfast, but the genre heightened the emotions and the stakes soon felt really high. I found myself starting to feel genuinely distraught about the toast (!) and at this point let go of something internally which enabled me to sing much higher than I’ve ever sung before. It was a joyful surprise to discover and play with something new.
Reflections after the Retreat
It has taken a little while for the hubbub of the retreat to settle. I learned lessons that will make me a better and more open and playful improviser. On the day after the retreat, I went to a rehearsal with my troupe. I was excited to be able to bring in some of the exercises we had learned, but, even more so, to play scenes, where I really enjoyed and relished exploring the mini worlds we were co-creating, rather than allowing my head to be too in charge. As I always find with improv, these lessons can also be applied to life and I will take them with me as I continue my sabbatical, as well as my improv.
So what does any of this have to do with the height of Mount Everest? Well, Sikdar added a little fiction to reveal a greater truth, and that is exactly what improv has done for me. And what is that greater truth? Simple: find and follow your joy!