Having recently joined in with the Moseley improv scene, it was suggested I write an article for B13 magazine. For research, I interviewed Kate Knight of the Box of Frogs and Kneejerks et al. I met Kate on a pleasant Tuesday evening for a chat about comedy, drama, the improv, and here’s the full interview.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background, and your relationship to comedy growing up?
Ooh OK! Right from, right from the start? Relationship to comedy. I was raised in a quite busy household, I’m the youngest of four, with two working parents, quite a hectic environment really. Being the youngest of four, particularly within my specific family, but I think I can generalise out a little bit, with being the youngest of four, you do get ganged up on and you get the piss taken out of you on quite a regular basis. So my siblings would play loads of pranks on me all the time because I was the youngest, I was therefore the most gullible. So, you know, I would have tricks played on me, like my elder brother would – I mean this is back in the 80s when you had high speed dubbing on cassette tapes – and he would play his crappy Manic Street Preachers albums on high speed dubbing and he would tell me it was Orville singing because it was the high voice, and he used to charge me money to listen to Orville singing Manic Street Preachers songs! Just sort of general things like that, lots of kind of pranks and jokes going on even if they were at my expense!
That was an education?
It was, yeah, it was just a bit of you know, there were lots of good humoured slightly mischievous pranks going on, and then on top of that my Dad loves his word jokes. My first memory of understanding a joke came from my Dad when I was about 4 years old, and he said that he’d read a brilliant book that I really should read and it was called “The Cat’s Revenge” by Claude Balls. And I didn’t get the joke at the time but there was something in my little four-year old brain that was like “he’s saying that for a reason – he hasn’t really read a book, there’s something funny about that”. And so, you know, he’s definitely a classic Dad in the Dad jokes sense. So yeah, I think I grew up in a family where fun and pranks and silly word games were quite encouraged and very frequent. So I think having that background in my family and then obviously, you know, TV was a big part of family life as well, so all those kind of sitcoms in the 90s, that you just don’t hear about any more, like Thin Blue Line, Is it Legal, The Brittas Empire, you know, Red Dwarf of course people still talk about, and a lot of those kind of sitcoms were just kind of background noise really growing up, so I absorbed quite a lot of that as well. And when I was a child what I used to do for fun would be write cartoons about my hamsters and all the adventures they would go on. And I would do like radio broadcasts, comedy radio broadcasts, so yeah I think it’s always been something that’s been around and that I’ve been aware of and interested in.
So those drawings and audio stuff, was that your…I’m just wondering if you participated much in the pranks – did you prank back, or was it more did you go into your own stuff?
No, I think I probably went into my own stuff a bit more. Again, in my family being the youngest of four I was just kind of like get on with it and I just used to love it. I had a very fertile imagination so I would happily sit there and draw comics and invent my own radio show that I could control, you know. I don’t remember playing any tricks on my siblings, but I might double check with them because their story might be different!
When did you first become aware of a genre of comedy called improv?
Oh not till my late 20s. So, it was quite by accident in fact. I mean when I was at University, I went to University in Oxford and the Oxford Imps are a massive presence in Oxford, they’re a student university team, obviously the line up changes all the time. But I did check out the Oxford Imps show when I was at Uni but I didn’t really think about it very much, it was just one of many many events that happened at Uni you know? It was good for a night out of distraction but I didn’t really think any more of it than that. But it was really only when I moved to Birmingham and I went on a date with a guy and we went to the Kitchen Garden Cafe to see some Edinburgh stand up previews, and I think there were about three stand-ups on the bill just trying out their material before they went up so it must have been about August time or maybe July and tacked on the end of that evening was this group Box of Frogs and y’know, I thought “stay for them, having a nice time, date’s going well, it’s a nice sunny evening, why not?” They came on and introduced themselves and did some short form games and I remember – I don’t remember any of the games and I don’t remember any of the content – but what I do remember is watching them and thinking “that was OK – to watch it was alright but it looks like it would be really fun to do”. So it was a weird experience watching it and not enjoying but knowing that they were enjoying it. I think I just had the urge to just join in essentially! So I thought well I’ll give that a try, because at the end of the show they said “if you’ve enjoyed it we do this thing in Moseley, come along” so I went and tried it out and I really enjoyed it. I was training to be a teacher at the time so the PGCE year is pretty brutal and even though I really enjoyed improv the PGCE just subsumed my life really so I had this 9 month gap where I was just existing really, doing lesson plans, and then I just came to my senses and thought “why am I doing this? I’m just going to make time for things that I enjoy” and I did really enjoy improv so I thought “right I’m going back” so I went back and I’ve never been away since.
What year was that you first saw Box of Frogs?
2012. So I’ve been improvising for 5 years now. Which makes me one of the more experienced improvisers in Birmingham although there are a few more even so than me.
So that was your first involvement with the improv scene as a performer?
Yes as a performer, although I had done a stand up comedy course, the one at the MAC, it’s very well regarded, run by James Cook, and so I did that for, I think it was about 10 or 12 weeks, something like that, and I did the show at the end of it, did my performance. Loved it, got a real buzz from it, but with stand up it sort of felt like “that was good, that was fun, and now I want to end it on a high”. It went well – basically because it was a performance in front of friends and family so, and it was a very low stakes gig. With stand up I thought “that’s fine and I want to end it on a high” but with improv I just got addicted to it and I think there’s many reasons for that, but personally I see stand up as something that is a little bit more individualistic and event though the performer does have a relationship with the audience in stand up it’s not as free necessarily and it’s predicated ultimately on success, whereas improv is very much collaborative and absolutely joys and revels and relies on failure. So the whole ethos and contract with the audience of improv spoke a lot more to me than stand up in the end although stand up is enjoyable in it’s own way.
Have you ever done any drama, straight acting?
I mean I did theatre studies at A level, had to pretend to be a tree, erm, but no I definitely don’t regard myself as an actor in that sense. I would love to, it’s definitely something I have a massive respect for acting. I was on the Birmingham REP foundry programme, I was a writer on attachment with them for a year, worked with a load of actors at the rep, and yeah, they are brilliant. In fact Birmingham has just got JUMPROV: a newly formed improv group who are all black asian minority ethnic, and the majority of them are actors, I went to see their show the other day and it was fabulous. And I think as well as obviously the richness that diversity brings, the fact that they’re actors as well really gives a very special quality to their improv. So I think acting and improv has an overlap . They’re like two sides of the same coin definitely. But I personally see myself as an improviser who would like to get better at acting.
And for you with improv, is the goal comedy or not comedy?
Ah! Now this is a huge debate in improv, this is huge. And because of the way the scene is now, it’s hugely expanded, we’ve got loads of new groups and there are definitely different groups who have different perspectives on this. Some groups go for the comedy – straight up comedy, short form often as well –
The aim is to make people laugh.
Yeah. But for me personally and for the groups that I am in, the aim is truth and connection, and then if you get that right, then the comedy happens by the wayside and as a natural byproduct. So I think aiming for truth and connection, you get it right hopefully you get genuine laughter of recognition, you get it wrong, you’ll get laughter of a more sadistic kind. But if you’re aiming for comedy and you fail, that’s more dangerous in my opinion. Because you’re going to get pity then, I think. But I know that is not everybody’s opinion in the improv scene.
As you say it’s a debate
It is massively.
And it rages.
It does, in a good natured way. But if you’re into I wanna see short form games that are just joyful, exuberent, nonsensical, titting about, there are places you can go and get that in spades. And if you think I wanna see something that’s longer, that’s a bit more relationship-based, that’s weird, but that ultimatley has some kind of truth that I can connect to that will also make me laugh, then you can see different groups like the Kneejerks, for that. So there’s a great diversity in Birmingham improv at the moment.
I was going to ask you what do you make of the overall improv scene in Brum, and going wider in the UK?
So, we are really lucky in Brum. I don’t know if you agree with this but it seems that Brum has lost its second city status to Manchester, culturally. I know we’re still more numerous in terms of population, but a lot of the culture seems to be (outside of London) in Manchester. Birmingham I would say is the exception with improv. Thanks to mostly the work of one man, John Trevor, who has grown the improv scene in the last four years from nothing to the sprawling diverse thriving scene that it is now. We’ve got short form groups, we’ve got long form groups, we’ve got groups that do improvised soaps, improvised musicals, we’ve got JUMPROV the BAME group, it just keeps on, more and more groups just keep on forming. And that is because of John’s hard work and extreme skill in making people feel that they can do well at this thing that’s really fun. He creates a really god atmosphere for that to happen. So our scene in Birmingham is great. On every Wednesday of the month there is an improv show of some description, and on every third Monday…there’s just loads. In fact my friend and fellow improvisor runs a blog called Midlands Improv where he just lists all the improv that’s going on in the Midlands and it’s just so extensive. In Birmingham absolutley but also in places like Nottingham, Leicester, Northampton, Cov, you know it’s just mushrooming now.
That’s really interesting – for some reason the Midlands generally –
Has become a centre
Yeah. Going to the second part of your question, in the UK generally, it is exploding as well. In London its become really really big. I think it probably is the improv capital of the UK. You’ve got Bristol has its own improv theatre, Edinburgh has loads of improv, it’s just appearing all over the place. Because people are starting to see what it can do for people and the applications of improv. Also America is ahead of us by about 10 years I would say.
Do you mean in terms of technique or the actual spread of it?
Well it is regarded as the home of improv, Chicago, but in terms of how widespread it is a lot of the actors on Saturday Night Live have come up through improv, it’s just more part of everyday culture. I think now improv is definitely becoming mainstream but it’s much more advanced in America. But in terms of technique I think there is an Anglophone tradition. So I think the UK relies on the US for a lot of its traditions in improv. I think French – Francophone improv – is slightly different but I can tell you more about that after the weekend when I’ve gone and seen some improv in France.
There must be something unique we can add in Britain?
Yeah. I mean yes. Any improv scene by its very nature is always creating and it’s always creative. So even though we do have the stock diet of standard tried and tested games and formats, people are inventing and mixing all the time. Inventing new short form games, inventing new long form formats. So yeah innovation is definitely happening. I think we’ve seen what’s happening across the pond and we’ve taken on the best bits of that and then added our own twist.
Can you think of an example?
I can talk about my own improv groups. In Kneejerks we have a game called Don’t Say Blue Dragon which was invented in the UK, which is we get a suggestion from the crowd, we start a scene; at any one point someone will shout “stop” and then we throw a fortune cookie out into the audience, they catch it, they read the thing inside the fortune cookie and then that message in the fortune cookie becomes the moral of the scene. So then we have to kind of whatever it is have to then make that the moral of the story if you like. That’s like one tiny example of a short form game that’s been invented but there are many many more.
So you’re in Kneejerks and you’re in Box of Frogs? How many other groups are you in?
Good question. Box of Frogs is a collective. It’s not like a closed group, anyone can turn up, at Moseley, and once you do a few sessions and you go and see a show then if you feel like you want to then anyone can come up and have a go on stage. But yes I regularly play with Box of Frogs, I’m in the Kneejerks, I’m a founder member of the Kneejerks.
So Kneejerks is less of a collective?
Oh yeah Kneejerks is a closed group, yeah, and we all met through Box of Frogs, and we just got to the stage where we all had this hunger for more. Becuase Box of Frogs is often quite short form, and we just felt like we wanted to do more and move into long form so we just formed this group. We’ll have our first anniversary show in july at the Vic and so yeah it’s been going really really well. I’m in Foghorn Unscripted.
Don’t know about that one.
Ah yeah they’re narrative longform, they do things like improvised Charles Dickens, improvised murder mysteries. We did a show at Winterbourne house and gardens, which was a horror haunting experience, which was very good, and then I’ve played with Wow impro, same places, I’ll play with anyone who’ll have me to be honest, I find it just such a joy, and actually playing with new people is especially fun.
Because it’s fresh?
Yeah because it’s fresh absolutley. It’s fresh, you don’t know what you’re going to get, it keeps you on your toes, it’s just different flavours as well. Yeah it’s really a joy.
That’s pretty much all the questions I have, unless we want to improvise some more?
Well my favourite improv short form game is Questions, where you just have to ask each other questions and anyone who can’t answer a question goes to the back of the line and then someone else comes and I love it, I absolutely love that game. It was invented as a way of showing improvisers what not to do. Because we have rules in improv that when you’re a beginner you’re told “don’t do this, don’t do that”, you know, and one of the things you’re told not to do is ask questions. So this game questions where all you do is turn up in the scene and ask questions is supposed to show everyone why its a bad idea to ask a question in a scene. The idea is if you’re asking a question in a scene, if I’m like “What are you drinking, what are you wearing?” I’m putting all the pressure on you to create the reality. Whereas if I’m like “Oh, you’re drinking a magic potion and you’re wearing a wizards gown”, you know, you’re like “Oh OK, that’s what I’m doing coz I’m a wizard”.
It’s a gift
Giving them something to work with
Rather than leaving them all at sea.
Indeed. But then of course you do improv a bit longer and you realise the rules are not rules at all they don’t exist and that you can ask questions in a scene.
But it depends on the kind of question and the scene.
And you can do both can’t you? You can say “You’re a wizard. What kind of wizard are you?”
Are you an evil wizard or an good wizard?
Exactly. Or if I asked you a question like “Why are you such an evil wizard?”
Then at least you’re getting some information from me even though it’s a question.
Yes. I suppose I was going to ask where do you see the scene going in the future. But we’ve discussed that a little bit. You think it’s getting mainstream –
– it’s breaking out?
Yeah it is. I think one thing that’s happening in Birmingham – and it is changing slowly – but we are still scared to charge money for our art. I mean the great thing about the Birmingham improv scene is you can see a lot of high quality improv for free. Box of Frogs has a “pay what you can” but there’s no pressure to pay anything, just chuck some money in a bowl if you’ve enjoyed it. Kneejerks is totally free, we don’t even have a bucket at the door, it’s just totally free, Fat Penguin again has a donation system but there’s no judgment and no pressure if people don’t want to or can’t. So Foghorn do charge, JUMPROV charge, but yeah I think compared to some of the other improv I’ve been involved with in other cities, they are not scared of charging £7 for a ticket, or £5 if you book in advance, and they still get the crowds. We get great crowds – Box of Frogs can always rely on a really full room, Kneejerks always fill the seats that we put out, we do get the audiences but I think because we’ve started off as doing these free shows when the scene was small, I think there’s this kind of slight self-doubt that if we start charging people aren’t going to come or that a different crowd will come –
Yeah or that you’ll be selling out
Yeah it’s interesting. It’s an interesting bind isn’t it when you start out as non-commercial in that sense, and then what happens when you cross that line.
Exactly. With the Kneejerks we’ve agreed not to charge because we are literally just doing this for love. We all have day jobs, we don’t rely on improv as a source of income, and that’s a fortunate position to be in and it alows us to just offer this as a gift really. And I think the people of Birmingham are in a great position that they can go and have a great night entertainment at least three times a month, four times a month really, for –
Next to nothing or indeed nothing
Or indeed nothing. Yeah.
And yeah that’s quite interesting, you’re saying that’s quite unique to Birmingham, do you think?
I think so yeah.
So where does that come from?
I think because Box of Frogs are the pioneers of improv in Birmingham, they’re the ones who, it’s John Trevor’s group, his collective, he started it, he grew it, and his attitude has always been inclusivity, you know, just bringing people in, creating an enjoyable atmosphere, he’s not out to make money from it, in a kind of corporate sense, he just wants people to come and enjoy what we’ve got, so.
And I wonder where he, I suppose I’d have to ask him, where does he get that?
Yeah. Well that’s a good question. I think –
Kind of political –
I think so I think it is kind of a political, philosophical kind of decision yeah, definitely. Again it’s another thing that I am proud of, you know, that we do have this quite inclusive –
Sure it’s something to be proud of
I was going to ask you what you think the differences are between drama, comedy and improv. We’ve kind of sort of touched on that a little bit.
Yeah. Not all comedy is improv and not all improv is comedy. I think we’ve touched a little bit on different kinds of laughs. So improv, for me at the heart of improv it’s the joy of failure. It’s about getting things wrong, it’s about the weird stuff that comes out by accident that you didn’t quite mean to say but then becomes really important in the scene. People laugh a lot out of surprise and delight when those weird mistakes come up. I think a lot of people particularly people who’ve got stand up experience come into improv and they think “Oh good I can be really witty and I’m going to show them how good I am at jokes and gags” and a lot of the time it is a case of de-programing that out of people. You know, because it’s not about ego, for a start, and it’s not about gagging, it’s about listening, collaborating, yes anding is the term that we use, accepting and building,
I might call the article “Yes And”
Yeah that’s a good one. I was actually thinking about getting a tattoo of “Yes And”
Yeah. I’m still on the fence about whether that’s too wanky or not.
It is quite a good one
Because people might say “What’s all that about?”
Exactly. It is a good rule for life. I think one of the reasons improv is getting bigger and more mainstream is because people – not only do people just come and enjoy it and laugh but the rules that underpin improv – maybe not “rules” – but the principles that underpin improv can be really effective in life.
Like “Yes And” just that simple principle of accepting what is in front of you, building together a shared reality is really revolutionary for some people in some situations. I think the corporate world have got their claws on it as well, that idea of accepting all the ideas that come to you in a brainstorming session or whatever, but just in terms of listening and connecting with people, that idea of hearing someone, accepting what they’re saying, and kind of sending it back with something of yourself in it, I think is just really useful and really applicable.