Improvised comedy is a medium that’s fluid, spontaneous, off-the-cuff. In short, the exact opposite of a polished, carefully wrought Jane Austen novel. Austentatious first brought the two together during their smash 2012 debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Each audacious performance attempts to recreate a Jane Austen novel on stage, based entirely on suggestions from the audience. The cast of six are an eclectic mix of comedians, actors, and skilled improvisers, with experience as voice artists, members of The Oxford Imps, and writers for QI.
To start us off I ask the actors why they think improvised comedy and Jane Austen go so well together. For Andrew Murray, semi-finalist in the comedy competition So You Think You’re Funny, the answer’s obvious: “Austen is, genuinely, one of the funniest writers of all time. She’s got perfect timing and these days could have comfortably filled the O2.” Rachel Parris, ex-Oxford Imp, agrees about the timeless aspect of Austen’s writing: “the world she created is so recognisable that you can take it anywhere: when the improv takes you off to space, or to a gothic cathedral, or under the sea, the Austenian style still shines through.” Amy Cooke-Hodgeson, who recently appeared in the Olivier award-winning production of La Boheme, thinks the world she created is so recognisable that you can take it anywhere: “when the improv takes you off to space, or to a gothic cathedral, or under the sea, the Austenian style still shines through.”
Being in the show has gone from high to high, and Cooke-Hodgeson has loved every minute. “The show’s popularity has grown so quickly we have to keep pinching ourselves that we’re on a UK tour. There’s obviously the benefit of wearing pretty costumes and probably best of all, everyone in the team is a friend as well as a colleague.”
Cariad Lloyd, who has appeared in The Now Show agrees about the friendliness of the cast: “Doing the shows, I am very blessed to work with some hugely wonderful and absolutely hilarious people. At every show I stand at the side of the stage trying not to laugh my head off. It’s very nice to work with people you think are immensely clever, nice and talented.”
For all their nicety, there’s surely an element of risk involved in improv? I can’t resist asking if anything’s ever gone horribly wong. Cariad Lloyd agrees heartily: “Oh things go wrong all the time! Names get said wrong, characters get confused, plots get over plotted, but that’s the fun of improvisation – it’s a challenge and one the audience enjoy watching us struggle with”.
Rachel Parris qualifies: “Not completely wrong… We have had one or two that we felt didn’t go as well as we’d like. Sometimes things just take a turn for the weird, and you have to work hard to pull the narrative back on track, but usually it’s fine!”
Cooke-Hodgeson explains one recipe for disaster, “It is sometimes tricky when someone suggests a title of a real book written by someone else – we’ve had titles from Shakespeare, the Harry Potters, and Bronte.”
At least those titles are specific. For Parris, “The most tricky ones are the vaguest ones: things like ‘Wit and Vivacity’ or ‘The Grace of a Lady’ – it gives us very little to go on. The best ones are things with a clear, exciting idea: some of my favourites have been ‘Double-O-Darcy’, ‘Darcy and Bingley: Forbidden Love’ and ‘Mansfield Shark’.
Joseph Morpurgo, who has enjoyed two sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, remembers a particularly awkward audience suggestion: “Someone submitted one once in what I can only presume is a dead language.”
It sounds like a challenging career. So what can budding improv-comedians do to improve their chances at making it big time? Morpurgo thinks it’s as easy as one-two-three: “Get as much experience as you can, persevere, enjoy it.”
Amy agrees that experience is key: “Watch lots and do more! Improv is a constantly evolving art form and just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, you realise there’s loads more to learn and be better at. The best way of being better is to watch as much of it as you can and do as much of it as you can.”
Lloyd believes that even if you’re aiming for fame and acclaim, there’s no such thing as starting too small. “The only way to get better at this is to do it, rehearse with your group in whatever space you can find, and then put on shows. Our first show was to twelve people in a room that held fifteen.” And most importantly, have fun along the way – “you don’t need to rush at it, just enjoy making stuff up with people who inspire you.”
Austentatious is touring the UK all year, and will be in Oxford at the North Wall Arts Centre on Friday 4tlh April at 8pm.