What’s your improv origin story?
Eleven years ago I was watching the group SPIT in a small gallery cafe at one of the university belts of Manila. My brother dragged me out and said “I think you’ll enjoy this show. I don’t know how to explain it but it’s fun.” That night, I had so much fun and I can still remember how awesome it felt. And on that night I asked the three-headed oracle a question.
I approached the group and asked if it was possible for me to “sit-in” in one of their rehearsals and see what it was like behind the scenes.
The group rehearsed in one of the member’s living room. There was dinner for everyone and everyone was chatting (ok fine gossiping) about things and after dinner they all got up and formed a circle to warm up. I remained seated in the dining area and one of them looked at me and said I should join the circle. I said I was happy to just watch from the side and learn from there. “That’s not how it works. You need to participate if you want to learn.” And so I did. And here I am.
What was it that attracted you to improv?
The magic of it. The unintended precision that happens on stage with individuals coming together from different backgrounds with different ideas but somehow, it just works. It’s always beautiful to see that come together live and to be a part of that. It’s a constant creative process and there’s always going to be more to explore.
What does improv mean to you?
Improv is not so much about being witty or quick. For me, it’s a constant process of letting go. Letting go of the fear, the inner critic, the judgment, the second-guessing, the doubt… the more you let go, the more you are ready.
So it’s not about being funny?
Not at all. Funny is a byproduct of what is created on stage. It’s not the intention. In fact, the more you try to be funny the more controlling you’ll become and then the scene falls apart cause there you are trying to move one way when everyone else is moving the other way.
Improv is about listening, active listening. And celebrating truths – yours, your scene partners, the audience members. When improvisers come together to perform, it is done with utmost respect and care. Groups come together to take care of each other and take care of the scene they are creating, that is the intention. The joy and playfulness of the team paired with the commitment to the truth of the scene are what make performances compelling and most of the time, funny.
Sounds tricky. It’s hard to believe that “funny” just comes out naturally from what we will do on stage.
You’ll be surprised. You know how sometimes there are people who are funny without meaning to be funny? It’s sort of like that. You walk on a scene and start doing something and then people start laughing. Or you come out as a character that’s not especially peculiar but people laugh.
The laughter comes from the recognition of the truth in the scene, they laugh because they recognise that character or know someone like them. As summarised in the title of the seminal “long-form improv manual,” it’s “Truth in Comedy.”
It’s funny because it’s true. You’ll find that people are enjoying the performance and laughing their hearts out without you ever planning a joke or a punchline.
You moved here from Manila, how has it been? Is it very different?
Yes and no. The skills, techniques and principles are all the same. Each city will just have its own preference on how to practice improv in terms of style and format. Some cultural traits also colour scenes differently.
Here in Sydney, for example, I see a lot of people using accents (Irish, American, Scottish, regional Aussie accents, etc.) when portraying characters, drawing from Australia’s historical background. In Manila, the focus on language is different because we are a bilingual country. Language is used for wordplay in scenes that shift between two languages.
In the Philippines, there’s also a lot more emotion (we’re drama queens). In a Level 1 class in Manila, for example, students get really personal in their scenes, whereas here it takes a little bit more to push students towards strong emotional choices.
Can anyone do improv?
Yes. Not everyone will want to perform it or pursue it professionally and that’s totally fine. I meet many people who go for it for personal development or for certain aspects of their work and that’s a great way to put improv skills into use. Some take classes just cause they want to be part of a fun-loving community and “finding your tribe” becomes such a wonderful experience. Improv allows us to use positive energy to respond with kindness and respect in our workplaces, homes, local communities, etc.
What are your plans as the newly appointed Artistic Director for LMA?
Three things – Voice, community, continuing development. Those are the things guiding my focus right now for the school. Teaching improv in a new city made me appreciate the range of ways that it transforms people. Seeing students grow and mature through improv is an amazing thing to watch.
Improv theatre has that inherent power and the school acknowledges that. We’re working towards how to use that to push the local scene further and make it grow. We recognise the diverse voices and stories within the community and really want to enable that through performance and theatre.
Of course, that entails a lot of work in the “backend” – ensuring that our classes get the same standard of teaching between Sydney and Melbourne, creating opportunities for students and teachers to be involved and contribute to the community meaningfully, offering continuing development for teachers and students to hone their craft and develop professionally. Most importantly starting necessary conversations and protocols on creating safe spaces and celebrating diversity in a multicultural country like Australia.
Diversity, representation, gender balance and feminism are all realities that we strive for but while we all readily agree on the value of it, coming to terms with these realities is still difficult. It is uncomfortable and we don’t know where it will lead us to but that’s exactly the kind of reality we are trained to take on as improvisers.
Happy Feraren is the newly appointed Artistic Director of LMA. She has been practising improv for 11 years and has performed in over 500 shows both locally and internationally in cities such as Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Manila, and Sydney. She has performed in a wide range of improvisational theatre formats (long form and short form) for both corporate and cultural audiences