The Parentheticals’ show Improdyssey returns to the Camden Fringe this year to entertain and delight audiences with an interactive, fully improvised show which will take both characters and audiences on quirky quests – it plays the Camden Fringe at the Etcetera Theatre 3rd – 5th August. I caught up with Brendan Way to talk all things The Parentheticals, Improdyssey and theatre…
Tell us a little about The Parentheticals as a company – who are you, how did it all begin and what’s the story behind the name?
We are a team of performers who met at an improv night class. Once the course was finished, we liked the artform (and each other) enough to keep going, so our entire class became a group. We immediately held an AGM on how to proceed, what our goals were, and, naturally, what to call ourselves. Multiple silly names were bandied about – Marjorie’s Jackals, Gotham Wives – until we hit upon The Parentheticals. At the time, the show we were doing was spinning off tangents from stories, so the reference to asides made sense. We have since changed our format but kept the name.
What would you say the goal or vision of The Parentheticals is when it comes to the work you produce?
I think our goal initially was to just keep learning about improv and getting better at it. That remains a part of it (although the spontaneous nature of the medium means you can never know everything about it), but now our focus is more on telling great stories whilst mucking about in big dumb fun group scenes.
With Improdyssey, the format we’re bringing to Camden Fringe, we’re specifically trying to make a show that offers the audience as many chances to influence the story as possible.
In brief, what can you tell us about your show Improdyssey?
Improdyssey (a term we devised which is as difficult to spell as our team name) is our original format. It is a fully-improvised quest in the spirit of classic adventures featuring heroes venturing into the woods, meeting talking animals, and defeating a villain who is the epitome of evil. In improv terms, it’s a longform narrative interspersed with Whose Line is it Anyway-type games.
What drew you towards creating improvised shows as opposed to scripted original pieces or performing existing scripts, in adaptation or otherwise?
The opportunity to keep it fresh! We have a format, but we can deviate. The joy of discovering something in the moment – a plot point to bring back, a silly bit of comic business the audience enjoys – is an unique high you don’t get with any other achievement.
This is a return trip to the Camden Fringe for this show – what does the Camden Fringe mean to you as creators of fringe theatre?
We adore Camden Fringe. This is our third consecutive year in it. The fringe is just a really easy low-stakes affordable way to do a limited run of performances, get a bit of press, and to experiment. The fact it’s in our home city also makes it very convenient.
Plus, improv is pretty much the perfect medium to take to a fringe. We don’t have any tech cues. Our costumes are simple. All we asked our venue for this year in terms of set was a couple of chairs. We are a very low-fi production.
Improdyssey has audiences providing starting points for the adventures of the characters – what kind of whacky suggestions have you had so far and can you name the most challenging or a favourite?
We do – all our stories are named by the audience along the format ‘The Quest for the…’. We’ve had abstract stuff: Zing, Bitcoin, A Mother’s Love (that one ended with Poseidon getting stabbed). Those aren’t as difficult as you would think – they are vaguer, so we can be more creative about what they are or how to obtain them. The more challenging titles come when audiences get very specific because then we have to justify or demonstrate every aspect of the object. For that reason, our hardest (and most convoluted) story was ‘The Quest for the Aubergine that makes you Tell The Truth’.
Your shows are ‘fully-improvised comedy quests’; is a grand journey a staple of your shows and if so, what drew you to quests as a very specific overarching framework?
It absolutely is. Every quest we do will feature a character searching for something, learning about themselves, and finding their desired object. Or not! If they realise what they actually need to save the kingdom is, say, the courage to stand up for themselves, then they will happily sacrifice the object in favour of personal growth.
Quests are the perfect fit for our brand of nonsense. A lot of improv scenes are essentially a couple of people playing out one funny concept before moving on. Quests are mainly a series of short encounters with absurd fantastical characters. Combining the two was a no-brainer.
When it comes to the show being ‘a quest in the spirit of Lord of the Rings and the legends of King Arthur’, do you find that having these specific styles in mind helps to narrow the scope to more manageable proportions when it comes to live improv?
Having a genre makes a huge difference. It immediately cuts down the amount of potential directions a story could go. That sounds restrictive in such an open artform but having too many choices paralyses us. We hesitate to pick one because we worry there are ten other far more exciting options we could pursue instead. By deciding our show will be a medieval quest in a fantasy realm, we cut down our possibilities, but all of the ones still available to us are exciting.
There are a few things I’ve always wondered about improvised shows; how do you prepare/ warm up as a company and do you have some loose layouts of the kinds of direction certain starting points might take you as a safety net – a vague bank of ideas of sorts?
The key to improv is being open to each other’s ideas. So we warm up with a few quick games that get us in the right mindset to listen and build together. Some are energetic – we shake out our limbs, list items in a category without thinking. Others are quieter pattern games that remind us to focus.
We absolutely have a loose layout for our hour. We have outlined story elements and put them in a logical order. Our games involving audience interaction will fall in the same place every time. And yet, within these guidelines, we still have freedom. We never want to go as far as producing an actual script, so the direction and details of each scene are open ended. Whilst the skeleton of each story is essentially the same, the body will be different every time.
As a multinational ensemble of improvisers and feature players from America, Canada, France, and Ireland, do you think your work benefits specifically in relation to this wide array of cultures and influences amongst the cast?
It hasn’t been a huge factor. What’s been more beneficial is all of us having an equal say in the show. Improv is inherently collaborative, so that’s how we’ve approached creating this. Two of us initially pitched the quest structure, but we’ve been constantly rewriting it and discovering what needs changing based on the stories we ran in rehearsals.
In addition to producing your own work, you run Bracket Racket, a monthly comedy showcase in King’s Cross – how, when and why did this initiative become an additional string in the bow of The Parentheticals team?
Bracket Racket was initially born out of necessity. As I mentioned, we started out as an entire improv class. There were fourteen of us and we had decided there should be, maximum, seven of us performing at any gig. If we were all going to get more stage time, we had to create the opportunity for ourselves. The possibility of a guaranteed minimum of one show every month was too good to pass up, so, in February 2016, we started our own night with two slots we could play in. Half the team did our format; half the team participated in an improvjam (it’s like a musical jam, but you do scenes with strangers).
Our group slimmed down (we’re now a more manageable half dozen or so) but the night continued. Each second Thursday of the month, we have two improv acts as our guests, we do an Improdyssey quest, then people can jam.
If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Improdyssey, what would you like that to be?
You can have a lot of fun on the route to failure.Time for the Quick Fire Round!
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?
The Parentheticals are indebted to our coach, Mike Hutcherson. He taught us everything know about narrative improv.
Favourite theatre genre and why?
Our team LOVES musicals. The unashamedly performative nature of the shows is SO delightfully corny and quintessentially ole timey show biz!
Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line?
Definitely worthwhile! Audiences want to be immersed. And you cannot do so if someone in the crowd takes a phone call mid-scene. Switch your mobile off (or at least put it on airplane mode).
If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?
Casts with a greater range of accents, ethnicities, body types, and backgrounds. Reflect how diverse London (and the world) is!
Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence.
A fantastical funny adventure where you, the audience, choose the story that you want to see.
So there you have it! Remember: Improdyssey plays the Camden Fringe at the Etcetera Theatre 3rd – 5th August and you can find tickets here.
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