Knitting. Coloring books. Man buns. Every now and then a trend emerges from a part of London so newly gentrified that you're unsure if you're getting stabbed or invited to a pan-Asian supper club, and this time it's improvised comedy. Yes, improv. Yes, I'm serious.
It started when my actress slash receptionist friend said she'd been going to improv classes run by a company called The Free Association. "It's the most fun ever. My teacher is so hot," she said, gesticulating wildly. "You should try the FA! You'd fucking love it." I put it aside as Weird Shit My Actress Friends Enjoy Doing, along with parlor games and drug parties.
Then another friend, who works in publishing and has no interest in theatre or comedy, also started going to these FA classes. And my mate's shy sister, who works in the HR department for a prosthetic leg company. I heard Richard Curtis did a gig with them. I started to wonder what the hell was happening, because I'd come across improv at uni, and the word 'geeky' isn't socially awkward enough to encapsulate what I'd watched—and stopped watching, once my arse-clenching became painful.
This has remained with me, in spite of how many times Tina Fey raves about Second City and UCB—two of the most famous American schools of improvisation—and despite how surprisingly funny it is when Will Ferrell and Amy Schumer riff on the spot. Which is, as it turns out, exactly what the people behind the Free Association want to change.
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"I like to think of it as a benign cult," says Graham Dickson, one of the three founders (along with Mike Orton-Toliver from the legendary Second City, and UCB player Jim Woods (who also pops up in The Office and How I Met Met Your Mother) and the fit teacher my receptionist mate was referring to. He first came across improv over in New York where he took a class at the UCB and got totally hooked—because, in America, improv isn't for weirdos in braces.
"In the early 00s when I got back to the UK and wanted to carry on, I was punishing myself dragging myself along to awful groups. It was depressing and shit. Over here it was for people with defunct social skills," he says. "We wanted improv to be like it is over there—really fun, and cool. The improvisers out there are rock'n'roll—there's a lot more drinking and fucking, which we were interested in bringing over here.
"But no, seriously, the UK are late adopters to improv and this needed to be addressed."
The UK may be late adopters, but the FA are really moving this along. Just as UCB and Second City have their homes in respective super-cool venues, so the FA is building a similar vibe above a pub in Hackney. While moustachioed mid-30s media guys sip £6 beers downstairs in the De Beauvoir Arms, an unassuming door leads to a darkened venue run by Jonny Collis, otherwise known as COGARTSpace, otherwise known as the home to the Free Association. Business is booming for Collis, to the extent that he's been able to open a second venue over in Camden to deal with the popular demand. He also looks like Tom Hardy and has a cute French bulldog called George.
'We are totally on the cusp of a mainstream explosion," he tells me, having recently started taking the improv classes himself. "There's new talent arriving from overseas, new teams cropping up left right and centre, we are upping shows to three original shows per week we have social events, meetup groups... I've been to a lot of shows, but I've never seen one where the audience and the performers get drunk in the bar afterwards with quite such regularity."
It's a lot... cooler than I expected.
Drinking aside (because it's not all about the booze), the shows are rowdy, fast-paced and sold out, with an audience made up of a comedy who's who—regularly featuring, to name just one example, Notting Hill director Richard Curtis and family. After the shows, the FA sees its class subscription numbers soar—there are now 140 students taking September to December classes, with even more being added in the new year. In terms of the classes, beginners start at Level One, where you learn the basics and shake off any self consciousness or shyness, before picking up skills before you're at Level Four and performing shows with gay abandon. The classes themselves are stupid, and ridiculously fun—it's twelve people in a room making each other laugh. People going to these eight-week classes aren't all stand-ups, actors or people who reckon they're funny, either.
"It's not just for comedians—I've spoken to salespeople who start nailing their pitches at work, businessmen who smash their meetings," explains Collis. "It's not about big personality comedians playing for laughs. It's a bunch of clever, humble and skilled people from very different backgrounds joining together to create something brilliant, with the added bonus of picking up some valuable skills. Honestly, I'm not sure i've ever experienced a movement before, but I'm pretty sure this is one.
It's also important to note that, sure, while there are three guys at the helm, the gender split actually favors women. The Free Association house team is roughly 50:50 and the classes are around three quarters women to men—improv is a great social leveller because when you get up, you can play any person, place, or thing. This inclusiveness really is the key to this growing trend.
Trainee theatrical makeup artist Amy, 24, got roped in by her performer sister despite having absolutely no interest in comedy whatsoever. "My sister signed me up to do it as she thought that it would be good for my confidence—I could barely speak to strangers before or handle situations where I might look like an idiot," she tells me. "She was 100 percent right to do this and I am now doing Level Three classes. I wouldn't have quit my job and started learning theatrical makeup if I hadn't done improv. It's a lot... cooler than I expected."
We are not going to tell you improv is some special art form or whatever—we do improv to be funnier people.
People like Amy are exactly the sort that Dickson wants to keep getting involved; he's keen to also point out that a background in comedy is not the point, and the reason so many people are attracted to the classes goes beyond learning to improvise. "We are trying to get away from of this notion of improv in a sense and really trying to grow a proper community. If you want a slightly less wanky sounding term I can't give you one," he says. "You absolutely don't have to be a comedian. We want to teach people to be funnier. Funnier people, funnier writers... and if you're an actor, you'll find your confidence on stage will grow. If you work in an office, you'll also find your confidence will grow. It's win-win."
Win-win, and apparently working. "At the FA we are quite unapologetic about our aims," Dickson adds. "We are not going to tell you improv is some special art form or whatever—we do improv to be funnier people. To be more confident. If you're equally unapologetic about wanting to be a funnier, more confident, person, then you'll enjoy yourself. If you're cripplingly shy and have social issues we can help there too.'
While I'm neither cripplingly shy nor someone with social issues, the thought of standing up in front of people pretending to be a tree didn't strike me as a solid way to spend a Saturday morning. To be quite frank, it also sort of terrified me, which is why I had to take a Level One class. I had to know for myself, and for my receptionist mate who wouldn't stop asking me if I'd "been bitten by the improv bug" yet. Also, Dickson started going on at me, and he wears really good leather jackets that made me think he knew what he was on about.
Turns out he did: the following three hours were among the most fun I've ever had in an organized setting—from stupid word association games, to actually doing a three-line scene that I'd totally made up. The class was made up of a comedian, a 40-something writer for the Guardian, a 24-year-old woman who'd never done improv in her life, and a few in-betweeners. I left full of adrenaline and with a face that hurt from laughing. I felt almost high. I even wrote a fucking tweet about it.
It might be a cult, and it might still be synonymous with social awkwardness, ill-fitting trousers, and sadness for some people—but those people are wrong. This improv movement is pretty much everything you thought it wouldn't be. Populated with both the cool and the geeky, the older and the younger, men and women, you learn that it's OK to screw up, that it's important not to try to be funny, and more crucially, that you can get up and create a ridiculous scene using nothing other than your own brain—a confidence boost that pretty much everyone can benefit from.
Also, a hell of a lot more satisfying than knitting.