Reviewer Ronan Hatfull speaks to Louise Jones, Nick Upton and Lewis Dunn from the Any Suggestions, Doctor? troupe about the pitfalls and perils of improvisation and the delights of Doctor Who as a source.
So where did you guys form? Where do you come from? What are your origins?
Louise: We all went to the same uni, Nick’s brand new…
Nick: It’s my first Fringe.
Louise: [gesturing to herself and Lewis] We’re old hands.
Lewis: So yes, we all met at the university of York. We used to do short form improv together, which was just sort of silly songs and games, in a group called The Shambles that is still going. Years after graduating we all sat down and went: ‘hang on, we’ve spent years learning how to do improv really well. What show could we put together?’ Prior to this meeting there had been a joke about the fact that the new series of Doctor Who had been not what we were expecting and not as good as we’d hoped and people had joked: ‘Oh we could improvise better episodes’, and that joke came to the fore when we had a meeting about whether we should do an improve show. We went: ‘well, there was that improv Doctor Who idea, we reckon people would want to see that’.
I guess you were all fans before you began? The best improv, in my opinion, demonstrates that passion for the subject matter.
Lewis: Doctor Who could not be more perfect for improv. The literal premise of the show is: Let’s go anywhere and that includes backwards or forwards in time.
Louise: And it doesn’t matter what the protagonist looks like because they can change their face on a daily basis.
“Doctor Who could not be more perfect for improv”
Doctor Who is also well suited because (as you showed today) of the way that the Doctor seems to just be making things up on the spot – all the time. Stream of consciousness is totally an improv thing. Did you know that when you came up with the idea? Are you all like that when you are the Doctor?
Lewis: We are all very different as Doctors.
Louise: We do bring our own style don’t we?
Lewis: I am hugely influenced by David Tennant’s style because he is the Doctor I grew up with, but obviously you [Louise] play the Doctor in a very different way to how I play the Doctor, you’re also influenced by Tennant.
Louise: We take the same influence point but we go in very different directions. Even amongst the six of us that are in the cast, we could be the Doctor two days in a row and play the role completely differently.
Nick: The big blue dice is a cruel mistress.
I love improv where you can see the joins; the moments when it is clear that you as performers don’t know where you are going and are put on the spot. Was that intentional?
Louise: We probably try not to reference it massively, but we do play with each other a little bit. We’re about to do this song and of course you can rap…
Nick: … and you can be an entire mariachi band. [Laughter]
Lewis: We come out and we introduce ourselves; we say hello, we shake hands. Right from the off we’ve gone: ‘we’re all actors, you all know that, there is no fourth wall’ and then we put up a fourth wall: wink ‘you know we are making this up, you know we have limited props, you know that the idea that we are about to do a story set in Mexico about the Doctor being a blogger is inherently absurd’. There is a kind of deal we have with the audience: don’t expect this to be written and slick, instead be astounded when we get it right, because you’ve got to acknowledge it is amazing when it goes right, because by all accounts it shouldn’t.
“It’s parody, but it’s also pastiche”
Absolutely, Yeah! And I’m interested too in where you come in Nick? The music feels like such an interesting and important part of the show, when did you start?
Nick: So I am the new addition this year. I knew one of the other performers – Harry. We did some university radio stuff together. The troupe was looking for another musician, we’ve got another musician (Alex) who did half the run and then I did half the run. It was a happy coincidence that I had the skill set to be able to do the live improv stuff and also was a fan of Doctor Who and could do the cueing of the backing tracks and that side of things. The biggest challenge musically isn’t the main theme, when we’re getting to the resolution, the most challenging stuff is before that, when you’re trying to score a scene with nothing else. So I think everyone was looking for someone with almost the same improv skills but instead of through the lens of being a character, through the lens of expressing that in music. It is the same skill set for the performers and the music. I think that is kind of what they were looking for and that’s what I tried to deliver.
Lewis: To some extent we discussed the idea of you being a sort of passive director. In that you can go: ‘this needs to pick up, I’m now going to add fast drums’. We aren’t conscious necessarily that Nick’s changed the music but it completely affects how we perform.
A musician at the side of the stage is now quite a common trope in improv and can be distracting. But it can also just set the right kind of ambience, is that what you were trying to do?
Nick: Obviously, because the setting is going to be anywhere, one thing the music can do is help to world-build in a way. We had the Jacobite rebellion and I was trying to do some classical-sounding stuff to ground it there, then we had Mount Olympus so I was trying to do some big, grandiose orchestral-sounding things. Part of the intent in the beginning twenty minutes is to help ground the setting a bit and to help world-build, helping the audience with a sense of place. Moving on from that, like Lewis was saying about me being a bit of a director, if a scene needs to pick up or drop I can do that. It’s definitely a two-way relationship; sometimes they’re responding to what I’m doing, sometimes I’m responding to what they’re doing.
It is nice that you are visible enough. There are too many bands these days that hide the synth player. I also think that great improv should really unsettle you in places. Your show did that and it felt really authentic. Was that something you consciously wanted to get across?
Lewis: The rule we have established is that we can make fun of the situation, be silly backstage, but the stakes, as far as the characters are concerned, are real.
Louise: We don’t really have a lot of referencing the fact that it is a TV show. We have got a legacy to uphold, I guess, in using Doctor Who. It is such a beloved show. I think we had kids in the audience today who were dressed as tiny Time Lords. It means so much to so many people. We try to keep the integrity intact. It’s parody, but it’s also pastiche.
Lewis: We can be meta about the theatrical production we are doing but we don’t want to be meta about the television show Doctor Who.
I see. So, what are your influences in terms of improv, comedy, other companies etc.?
Louise: Anything and everything I suppose. When we all started out in improv, there’s an improv group – the Showstoppers – who do an improvised musical. They were really phenomenal and, because we came from a short-form background, going and watching it left us thinking ‘oh my god, they do a whole narrative across a whole hour, can you imagine?’ ‘Cos it is so hard to get your head around that when you’re used to just going – bam-bam-bam. Here’s a joke. Leave – end of scene.
Lewis: Definitely the Showstoppers have been a big influence. As you were saying, we came from short-form and short-form is disposable to the point where you will, by the end of a scene, have completely destroyed your world in favour of a joke. And the lesson we had to learn – more importantly, the lesson our director Charles had to learn – was to how to teach us to stop doing that.
“Not just a laugh but an idea”
What is your opinion on the importance of narrative in improv?
Nick: The two measures of success with the show are: A) obviously laughs and how much did the audience enjoy it and B) how much the plot makes sense. Trying to balance those two things is always the big challenge with the show, I think.
Louise: Because Doctor Who presents so many weird and wacky ideas that you just go ‘yeah, ok’, so you do have the audience on side in terms of credibility. To a certain extent we can go: ‘Oh my god, it’s Daleks, and now they all work at a chip shop and they are using the fat from that and it’s got some battery acid in it and it’s turning all of your cats into little Daleks… and people just go ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, that tracks’.
It does feel like the one show where you can mix the epic and the mundane and it works.
Louise: Oh yeah, massively. Our audiences love the idea of that so much that we’ve had Slough suggested to us twice. We have to go: ‘please stop saying Slough, we’ve been there, it was a jelly-monster race called the Wobblerine’. I think so long as we keep it cohesive within out boundaries of what the universe is that we have created, then we’ve got free reign.
Lewis: For me, making jokes in improv is very fun and very enjoyable but making narrative is satisfying. If you do a good narrative, if you’re really lucky, it’s not always the case, but sometimes you get a theme in, sometimes you get an idea in, and then by the end you’ve made something that wasn’t just funny, it was also something that might mean something to someone on a more intellectual level; not just a laugh but an idea. The thing is that trying to do that with improv is like a magician turning up and saying ‘no I can actually disappear’; it’s an amazing trick to try and pull off, and doing this show constantly pushes that with us. The best shows for me aren’t necessarily the funniest shows, they’re the shows where I came out going: ‘you know what? That was about something and I liked that’.
Then you’ve got there I think.
More information on Any Suggestions, Doctor? – The Improvised Doctor Who Parody can be found on their website.
Image: Any Suggestions, Doctor? – The Improvised Doctor Who Parody