This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 November 2015.
Talking to the Oxford Imps’ producer, Harry Houseman, I can’t help feeling I’m getting a private performance. Though quieter and more thoughtful than his stage persona, Houseman retains the same energy and enthusiasm in conversation. We met after last Monday’s performance to talk about comedy, spatulas and the importance of low ceilings to good improv.
Over the summer the Imps went on tour to the U.S. What was that like?
America is the Mecca of improv. It’s where improv comedy came from, we got to perform gigs in some really cool places, like the Io Chicago is the most famous improv theatre in the world, and we got to do a show there. It was amazing, and we’ve come back with so many ideas, because there’s so many innovations going on in the States. We’re sort of ten years behind what they’re doing in America, because they’ve had it for longer.
How did that compare to performing in the UK?
It’s really interesting, the difference between audiences. Here, there is this moment when you ask for a suggestion, there’s a long pause, until the awkward silence is awkward enough that people feel the need to shout something. America, you ask for suggestions, you get about fifty in a second.
How important is the audience to improv?
A lot of people are just in improv for the audience. They say you should play entirely to the audience, and make them laugh. There are other people who are more like purists, who are into ‘whatever you do, commit to the moment’- doesn’t matter if it’s not funny, you should commit to what’s happening, and pure spontaneity. I love making strangers laugh. There’s moments of satisfaction where you feel a connection with the audience – like everyone in the room’s just had the same thought. Comedy is a very underrated art. For me, there’s something beautiful about connecting with an audience and making them audibly happy.
Does the venue affect the performance?
Yes. There are some things in a space that are so important. Like dark –if it’s dark people feel less self-conscious, they laugh more easily. Loud music, I feel, is really important. It lets people know that ‘Hey, this is gonna be good’ if there are some good tunes on, and if you have loud music people have to talk louder. You actively make the register that people are at louder, so it means that when they start laughing, they’re already laughing louder than they would have been before. We’re really scientific about the little micro-details. I’m very pedantic about ceiling height. I like a low ceiling, because the laughter immediately bounces back, it also just feels way more intimate. There’s something about the live experience of comedy, being there in the moment, and things happening that wouldn’t at any other time. That’s what I love about improv: the fact none of that is ever going to happen again. We play the different games and structures, but we don’t know what people are going to shout out. Although admittedly people do shout a lot of the same things. We always get kitchen implements when we ask for random objects. Spatula. People love spatula. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just the way the word sounds.
How would you describe being in the imps?
We’re like a family. Imagine a family made entirely of weird aunts and uncles. That’s how it feels.
The Oxford Imps are performing every Monday at The Wheatsheaf at 7:30pm