If It Wasn't For Improv, I Wouldn't Have Had Any of My Weirdest Experiences
Illustration by Christa Jarrold
Entertainment

Without Improv, I Wouldn't Have Had Any of My Weirdest Experiences

From performing for nudists to escaping an internship, improv was there through it all, writes comedian Sophie Duker.
November 24, 2020, 10:54am
Arts, culture and events are facing an uncertain future in the UK due to Covid-19, so here's a column about how shit our lives would be without them.

The creative industries. The arts. Events and nightlife. Call them what you want, but at the end of the day what we’re talking about is FUN. Music, film, TV, theatre, radio, galleries, big nights out – these aren’t just job sectors, they’re the reason we work in the first place. They’re how we socialise, how we express ourselves, how we make sense of the world.

COVID-19 has taken a sledgehammer to arts and culture in the UK, and while the government’s rescue package will come as a lifeline for some, things have been on the rocks for a long time. How many beloved venues have you seen bulldozed to make room for another block of luxury flats? ‘Fund Our Fun’ is a series that goes beyond the industry’s economic contributions to tell the stories of how arts and culture impact our lives in immeasurable ways.

Advertisement

It’s an estimate, but the oldest schlong I ever saw must have been in its late 70s. I was twenty-nothing at the time, surrounded by naked bodies thrice my age in a secret cabin in some Oxfordshire woodland. The peen was flaccid and stubby, curled in at the end like the nose of a proboscis monkey, or a soggy cigar. It was a tremendous sight. And I wouldn’t have seen it at all, if it wasn’t for the arts

This wasn’t a romantic peen sighting. It was strictly business; and that business was show. My Hovis-wholesome improvised comedy troupe had been enlisted to provide late-night entertainment for a secretive group of nudists. The brief (no pun intended) was to use our very particular set of skills to embody the key players in an improvised murder mystery. Our audience of amateur detectives were all entirely unclothed. 

All my life, improvised comedy has been a golden ticket to places and spaces I never would have been invited into otherwise. Improv is character-building, because – if you’re doing it right – it isn’t cool. Improv rarely gets you laid. Or makes you bank. Improvisers fall firmly below “sexually active band geeks” on the Mean Girls Cafeteria Cool Scale. And I did it like a demon for six magical years regardless.

One of the most beautiful things about university improv was its limitless ambition, coupled with an almost total lack of the same. No-one saw our shared passion as a stepping stone to a career. Us oddballs religiously attended rehearsals and obsessed about technique purely because we loved being stupid on stage and getting praise for being brave. We honed our skills for the sheer heady pleasure of it. I eventually evolved into a full-time slutty clown, but my contemporaries now work in everything from cyber to the church, remaining some of the most engaging, entertaining and empathetic people you could meet.

Advertisement

Saying “yes, and” to daunting questions (a central pillar of this cult) opened many weird and wonderful doors for ya girl. I know it sounds niche – if you’ve not once known the magic of a never ending Doo-Run, or witnessed the high drama of a Story Story Die, you might not get it – but Improv is unequivocally the reason I found myself sharing food with asylum seekers in Bethnal Green, matchmaking for Alison Wheeler of The Beautiful South, rapping in front of bemused tourists in the French Riviera, aaaand watching a beautiful burlesque performer spoon ketamine out of her necklace. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!

But none of these win my Best Anecdote award. The year I graduated, I “won” an internship at a “film production company” in Japan, helmed by a suspiciously un-Googleable anthropologist. As was the hot internship trend at the time, I had to front my own travel costs, and it wasn’t paid in money per se. In exchange for my time and bulging creative brain, I’d get accommodation and exposure. My future employer failed to disclose that the exposure would come via hypothermia (bedding wasn’t included).

Hindsight is 2020, and rereading old emails I can now see the flimsiness of the promises that were made. But I’m not sure anyone could have anticipated what happened next: the scheme was a scam, the “accommodation” was a futon on the floor in a shared cell and my employer was “Sakiya,” a notorious caucasian “Geisha” apparently determined to bring the revered tradition of the flower-and-willow world kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Confusingly, she spent most of her time seething at rejection emails, sharing spiteful stories about her nemeses and singing tunelessly in the sitting room. Instead of anything remotely film internship-y, I was handling Geisha admin, living off a couple hundred yen a day and wishing I’d watched that Memoirs… film back when it came out, as it might have had some tips.

Almost immediately, it became clear that Sakiya had one mission – to get an impressionable female intern (me) to sell Geisha at a ski resort in rural Hokkaido. I can’t go into the details, as I a) haven’t consulted a lawyer, and b) am half-hoping to sell dem film rights, but suffice to say, I realised I needed to leave at 1AM one Friday morning, while throwing a secret “pancake party.” Sakiya claimed that she was on holiday (though I’d gathered from email threads she’d inadvertently given me access to that she was abroad standing trial for alleged crimes). Something switched, like when Marnie-from-Girls flips the car keys in Get Out – and I knew it was Go Time. Sakiya was due back in Tokyo in hours. I needed, immediately, to think on my feet. Get creative. And also, probably, to clean up the batter.

Prior to my improv education, I probably wouldn’t even have attempted a jailbreak. But half a decade deep into spontaneous problem-solving, I executed it with aplomb. Improvisers shun script but crave structure, which is why I’d not been shy about building a support network.  Since touching down in Japan, I’d struck up conversations, accepted invitations and been shameless in my beg-friending. I’d even become an honorary member of the badass, bilingual Pirates of Tokyo Bay. Within an hour, I’d found someone only a 20-minute jog away to stay with, got a place to hide my heavy suitcase, and composed a remarkably composed email to the Geisha, saying I assumed our agreement was terminated – effective immediately.

You don’t need to become an artiste to get value from the arts. Whether it was witnessing a near fossilised foreskin in a forest or lying awake while a wicked Karen absolutely butchered her kouta (traditional Japanese song), improv comedy was a key reason I found myself in challenging situations in the first place. But improv also gave me the smarts to overcome them, and the self-confidence to stand up for myself. Improv may not scream sex appeal or street cred. But if I hadn’t been encouraged to excel at the arts in my early 20s, I probably wouldn’t have survived them.

@sophiedukebox