x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Off the script

The inside story of five of the world's finest improvisational comedians who are bringing Whose Line is it Anyway? to Dubai.

The Comedy Story Players, clockwise from rear left: Andy Smart, Steve Frost, Steve Steen and Richard Vranch.
The Comedy Story Players, clockwise from rear left: Andy Smart, Steve Frost, Steve Steen and Richard Vranch.

Occasionally, Richard Vranch has nightmares: he is on stage in a scripted show - and has forgotten the words. A common throat-seizing fear among actors, one assumes, topped in the terror stakes only by the prospect of no script at all. Yet given the choice, Vranch will go for the latter. In fact, plonk him and his Comedy Store Players friends up there without a word in their heads, and they will work pure comedy magic. "I'm completely happy being on stage with no words and having to make them up," he says. "My fear is going on stage when I should know the words and I've forgotten them." Such is the terrifying world of improvisational comedy. Few have the knack, even among comedians themselves (case in point: the several toe-curling minutes when Ricky Gervais was confronted with some unforeseen solo time on stage during the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium in July 2007 - and bottled it). But for the next two weekends, we have a treat in store: five of the most experienced improvisational comics around conjuring jokes out of thin air at the First Group Theatre in Dubai for two three-day runs of Whose Line Is It Anyway.

Audiences may be more familiar with the small-screen version of the show, which aired on British television from 1988 to 1998. Hosted by Clive Anderson, and with regular guests including Josie Lawrence, Tony Slattery, Greg Proops, Ryan Stiles, Stephen Frost and Richard Vranch on the piano, the four guest performers would react on the spot to audience suggestions in a game show format. "The Whose Line show was actually nicked from us," says Vranch, who will also be taking part in the live show. "We've been doing improvisational comedy together as a team since 1985," he says, "The TV version is a great advert for improvisational comedy, as they show it ad nauseam. If you just filmed a live improv show, it wouldn't look great because television is such a different medium from theatre. So for TV they pretended it was a panel game - they put in a host, points, and a buzzer. But those things have actually got nothing to do with comedy or improvisation. It's a real treat for audiences to come and see us live because they're seeing the real thing."

For the Dubai leg of their tour, the team, who play at London's Comedy Store twice a week, will consist of old friends Stephen Frost, Steve Steen, Andy Smart, Vranch and the slightly newer recruit Ian Coppinger, who has been with the group for five years. "Improv is the one form of comedy that's about cooperation," says Vranch. "That is its very essence." With 25 years' experience as a team behind them, the dynamic is a familiar one - not that they automatically slip into the same roles. "You can't be lazy," says Smart. "I'm terrible at doing accents but if someone says, 'Oh, here comes that Scottish bloke,' then I've got to come on and do a Scottish accent. We don't give each other an easy ride, but that's what creates the energy on stage. And what makes it fun for us."

By using the audience as their main source of material, not only is control taken away from the performers, but the results are unique. "At the Comedy Store," says Vranch, "we get audience members who come to every show because they're different. There can be some moments of comedy genius, but if you tried to reproduce them, it wouldn't work because it happened there and then in front of that crowd."

"The audience is very important," says Frost, "because they provide us with the suggestions for everything we do. They come up with some cracking stuff - the more weird and wonderful, the better." Control, or lack of it, is one of the first lessons of improvisational comedy, says Vranch. "With two or three people on stage," says Vranch, "someone's going to say something you weren't expecting, so you have to surrender control."

"You've got to go where the scene takes you," says Smart. "You can't control it." Such fluidity would terrify even the most experienced actors, but for the Comedy Store Players, it brings with it a huge bonus: no preparation. "For us it's great," says Vranch. "We don't have to write, rehearse, learn it, or carry around huge sets and costumes. It's very high-risk theatre, but the rewards are great."

With five blokes bobbing and weaving on stage with nothing other than an unpredictable audience providing ideas, one might think that the occasional gag will flop. "It never goes flat," says Frost, "because we're comedians and we've got the music, we run around, we do stuff. It's structured so that's never going to happen." "If you say the first thing that comes into your head," says Smart, "it will be right. Even if it's wrong, it'll be right because if it's wrong, someone can react to it, and if it's right you get the laugh yourself."

In that case, can anyone do it? "I think you have to have some sort of comic awareness," says Smart. "But you can learn it up to a point. If you look at our backgrounds, we all grew up with similar sorts of programmes. Our parents liked the Goons and the Marx Brothers. And we were at school when Monty Python was on, so we used to re-enact the skits the next day." "You can tell people how to tell jokes and teach them about timing and stage craft," says Frost, "but you've got to be naturally funny, which is virtually impossible to teach."

In fact, the cooperative spirit that improvisational theatre relies upon has given rise to a wave of corporate training schemes based on its techniques. "We've done it quite a lot for people like Coca Cola," says Smart. "It does help them because you have to learn that you can't force an idea. It has to be a joint effort, so you can create something together. In improv, if you try and force a scene to go the way you want it to go, it grinds to a halt. Whereas if you work together and let it go where it wants to go, you end up with something really nice."

The group dynamic is part of their success, says Frost, as is experience. "Improv's a lot about trust. People say to us, 'Oh, that was rehearsed - you knew what he was going to say,' but it's actually because we're very experienced. And we're very good friends. We actually like each other. It's the old showbiz thing, trying to make it look effortless, but inside it's a case of the swan with the legs paddling underneath. It is knackering."

With studies showing comedians to have above average IQs, you might presume that such ad hoc humour requires superior intelligence. The Players, however, think it's more to do with daytime TV. "People think we've got really quick brains," says Frost, "but actually, because most of us work in the evenings, we all watch daytime telly, so we know all the black and white films, we all know the rubbish soap operas and the adverts. We've got the same reference points."

"I think funny people tend to have a very eclectic mind," says Sharp. "We watch endless old movies, science programmes and documentaries. We don't tend to have one thing we're into. We watch everything and we tend to amass a lot of knowledge, so it's not necessarily intelligence but curiosity." In fact, even though Vranch holds a PhD in radiation physics from Cambridge University and was a fellow at St John's College, Oxford, he feels that if anything, academia can hamper one's improv skills. "There's one thing that ruins you as an improviser and that's stopping even for a split second to think. Academic people do tend to think before they speak. So there is an argument that the less that's going on in your head, the better," he says. He also indulges in the daytime TV schedules. "You do need an awareness of what's happening around you, though," he adds. "It could be an awareness of what people like and what they think is a bit naff; who's in, who's out. The intelligence comes from having a kind of databank and being able to draw from it."

The tendency for people who are hilarious on stage to be utterly miserable in real life does not apply to the Comedy Store Players, according to Frost. "I have to say, I'm funny all the time," he says. "I drive people mad. There's that fallacy about comedians - that they're depressed. I do know some that are like that, but we're not. We just have a jolly good time and actually we're far funnier when we meet up afterwards than we are on stage."

In fact, having the knack for making people laugh can get you far in life, says Smart. "We tend to get upgraded on planes," he says, "because we make people laugh. And we get put on nice tables in restaurants and stuff, not because people know who we are, but because we make them laugh. And we make each other laugh as well, so it's great fun to travel together." The Players have since taken their show to around 40 countries, and believe that their brand of comedy requires no translation. "There are so many academics writing about how comedy doesn't travel," says Vranch. "Rubbish. We don't have to adapt the show because every show is adapted by the audience. It makes little difference to us where we are."

"People say countries have a different sense of humour," says Frost, "but we're not stand-ups, and we're not doing observational humour, so it's actually very universal." A little preparation, however, is usually required to acquire the necessary local reference points, adds Smart. "If you're in Hong Kong and you ask the audience to suggest a job and they say "captain of the Star Ferry", you've got to know what the Star Ferry is and where it goes." Previous trips to Dubai have yielded Wild Wadi, Ski Dubai and camel racing. "You can't plan anything, though," he says, "you can only go with an open mind and see what happens."

Whose Line Is It Anyway? will be at the First Group Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah from Thursday until Saturday, and Thursday June 11 to Saturday June 13. For tickets go to www.madinattheatre.com.