The members of Project Two are improv maniacs! Showstoppers, The Maydays, Austentatious, Monkey Toast, Silly String Theory, Horse Aquarium, School of Night… the list of shows they’ve had a hand in goes on and on. Jonathan Monkhouse & Katy Schutte talk to us about their addiction…
You guys do so much! What is it that keeps you coming back to improv?
Johnathan: I think the big thing is that you can can do loads of projects. If you fancy doing a sci-fi show or a Dickens, you do those! Because it’s improv, you can come up with an idea and just try it. We’re currently doing a scripted show that was devised and it’s been a year in the making before we’re now at this point that we’re happy with it. Whereas with improv you can say “yeah… I kinda fancy doing improvised Quantumn Leap…”
Katy: But you mustn’t forget you spend months training in Chicago and all your time learning how to be good at improv so that you can spend five minute deciding to do a show!
You guys are at the heart of the London & the UK improv scene, what should people be coming to see right now?
K: Us and nothing else of course! More seriously there’s a load of cool stuff in Leicester Square at the moment. I’m with the Maydays and they’re starting their residency at the end of February. Austentatious are also getting loads of press and doing very well.
J: Of course I would recommend Austentatious! I’d also say seek out all the little stuff. There are a lot of groups and a lot of things happening right now. Don’t expect to be wowed all the time but expect to find a huge range and the occasional real gem.
K: When I choose to see things I also look at the people involved. You see many of the same amazing performers cropping up again and again and it’s often a great mark of quality.
J: Yes and often these shows don’t have a traditional or easy-to-market format so they don’t always get a lot of press. Follow the individual people on Twitter – follow the cast from Austentatious, follow the Showstoppers; all the other groups you like then go see their mini side-projects.
You also founded London Improv, how has the UK and London improv community changed since you started.
K: In terms of the general community, there’s a really interesting thing that I think is happening at the moment. In my experience, there used to be a bit of a split between short-form and long-form stuff. In the Maydays, I was doing long-form before anyone really knew what it was in the UK. Now, people understand that word. It’s nice that we all share some of the same language now, rather than it only being understood in America. New teachers are coming over and more people are involved and the two worlds are starting to bleed together.
J: Yeah it feels like cross-pollination has really happened a lot in the last year. Talking to people like Susan messing and Mick Napier at the Annoyance Theatre, they are so excited about what’s happening in London at the moment. To them it seems like the most exciting place on Earth for improv. It’s a real melting pot of tradition British Impro and other stuff. You only had to look at Edinburgh last year. We had an improv symposium that was very well attended.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Project Two!
J: The very initial inspiration was a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, I saw a group called Parralellogramophonograph (That’s their second mention in these interviews! – Ed), who were struggling and not getting audiences. They did very heavy genre-based stuff, which I hadn’t seen a lot of before. I really fell for it and wanted to do it. Secondly, my best friend Chris (Mead) and I, whom I’ve known for 17 years or so, had wanted a show together because people were always commenting on our great stage chemistry. Being sci-fi geeks, this genre-based show naturally grew up. That was about a year and a half ago. We did a couple of shows with Katy coaching us. Quite organically, it became obvious that Katy needed to be in the group too.
K: I was worried I would be the Yoko Ono of Project Two and mess up this bromance they’ve got going, but after a short while all got over it and now it’s really good. The last one was “Attack of the 50ft Nazi”, which was excellent.
S: The great thing about sci-fi is that it’s an absolutely massive genre; you can have a rom-com that’s sci fi or a period drama sci-fi. Its a massive umbrella. The styles of our show therefore range quite a lot depending on who’s in it.
K: Yeah me and you do Solaris/Moon moody, slow-burn dark sci-fi. When Chris is involved it turns into a Futurama type romp. When Paul (Foxcroft) joins us, he adds a very cerebral, technical aspect to the show.
You’ve worked with some of the top improvisers in the country and in fact the world, how have you found the different styles?
K: John & Chris have trained at annoyance theatre and I trained at IO and spent some time at Second City. We also get a lot of teachers coming over from the Maydays – we find it’s much more cost effective that taking twelve people over the the States for a week! It’s nice because they all have slightly different takes on Improv. IO have the slow burn stuff, where you see what’s happening under the surface with a lot of subtext. Annoyance is more do-something-right-now-and-then-deal-with-it! Second City is much more gag orientated. Here in the UK it’s more narrative driven, but as we say, it’s becoming a more blended community.
Any moments of epiphany you’d like to share?
J: There are probably of three people who really switched lights on. One was Tim Sniffen from Baby Wants Candy. He stuck around after Edinburgh and a small group of bagged him.
K: That’s how we met!
J: Yeah and up until then I had always just done short form games. His long-form was immensely satisfying. The other two were Susan and Mick from Annoyance. The things we tried there – going totally on instinct, starting the scene by thinking about a body part – were incredible.
K: I also like Brandon Gardner from UCB. They’re just obsessed about finding the game of the scene. He was so clear and brilliant. – it was amazing. Also, my favourite teacher of all time is Bill Arnett (at iO). Every five minutes I was exclaiming “oh yeah!”. One example is I used to make really negative initiations, like “can you not put that down there?” and he made me realise I starting scenes by telling people not to do stuff! He’s excellent, if you ever get a chance to work with Bill Arnett, work with him!
J: I had a really specific one. When I was playing in the London 50 hour improvathon, which is hard for all manner of reasons, not least because you’re up for so long, I felt like I struggled. In post-show chats with people I discovered that I think too much when I’m off stage, between scenes, either planning or considering ideas and things I was going to try and do. In hindsight it was absolute nonsense.
K: But I had the opposite problem a few weeks ago! I hadn’t done any improvising in a couple of weeks but told myself, oh I’m good at improv so this will be fine. I kept walking on stage and just expecting it to happen. I was really bad! I realised that you do have to decide to really engage. It might not be pre-planning, but it is work. I was kind of like a diver thinking, “well I know how to dive and I’ve got gravity, so I’ll just fall off this board and it will all happen”. I got a bit of a belly flop show as a result!
Where do you see UK improvisation going in the next few years?
K: There are talks of an IO style school being set up, bringing teachers over and establishing a training ground here. We can’t say too much but that kind of thing is in the works! I’m also very excited about the cross-fertilisation that we mentioned. There’s a lot less clique-iness between companies now. Everyone wants lots of stage time and to meet new people. Improv is in the press a lot more and is getting great venues in Leicester Square. For me tele is the litmus test. When we start having a lot of unscripted loose productions that will be the big factor for me. Up to now we’ve tended to use the wrong formats. There’s no point trying to do the competition game-shows from the Whose Line era. That’s been absorbed into panel shows now. I think when we start seeing more things like the Factory or Curb Your Enthusiasm that will be the start of something big.
J: I think it’s going to diversify and people are going to see what they like and head towards it. Not only will it get bigger, there will be a trickle effect. We’ve seen people starting new improv nights around London and now, somewhere in the city there’s an improv night going on every day of the week. Since I’ve started doing improv it’s felt like we’re on the crest of a wave and that crest just keeps getting bigger.
Project Two is Paul Foxcroft, Chris Mean, Katy Schutte & Jonathan Monkhouse.
Project Two will be performing on Wednesday 6th March 2013 along with Degrees of Error. Bierkeller Theatre, Bristol. Tickets 0117 430 4264. www.improvnet.co.uk/festival