Improv Duo Emily and Ben Talk The Art of Winging It

Emily Brady and Ben Hollands will be staging a two-person improv show at Nottingham New Theatre next week. Emily & Ben: A Likely Story promises to be a show full of… well we don’t actually know, but that’s the point! We caught up with the comedy duo to discuss the art of improvising and how they’re preparing for the show.

Obviously you don’t know what’s going to happen in your show, as that’s the concept of improv, but can you tell us what to expect?

Ben: You can expect characters, settings… I know that sounds quite vague but improv can have particular flavours, even though it could feasibly become anything. For instance, if you have a troupe full of really strong wits, you’re going to get a lot of gags and one liners and that sort of thing. But if you’re in a troupe full of really strong actors it’s going to be more focused on the characters and the relationships, and perhaps the plot. It all depends on who you’re performing with.

Emily: It’s going to be a funny show. We’re trying to do something a bit different – we want it to be funny because of the characters and relationships and because you care about the characters that are being played. Obviously it’s going to be completely spontaneous but we’re going to avoid the cheap laughs and prioritise the really compelling stories about characters that the audience can care about.

So you’re doing three performances, and every single one has to be different? There’s no chance you could get away with repeating any thing that went down well in a previous performance?

Ben: No! That would be cheating.

But what if nobody found out?

Ben: Well the thing is you want to tell the audience that, if they liked it, they should come back tomorrow since it will be different.

Emily: Also, you can tell when something is being improvised and when it’s not. There’s a fear in the performer’s eyes when it’s being improvised that lets you know that it’s really happening and they’re thinking about it in the moment. If you try to just regurgitate something that’s been done in the past, it just doesn’t work.

Ben: It feels so stale. Even if it went amazing the first time, and everything aligned and you were on a roll and everyone told you how great it was afterwards, if you decide to do it again it’s just going to feel so forced. And nobody’s going to be your friend – be it your fellow performers or the audience!

A Likely Story is going to be a two-person show, is that unusual?

Ben: It is less common to have an improv show with two people, but then again it’s not completely uncommon. There’s an intimacy to it, which I think attracts people and attracts improvers as well.

Emily: I think it’s very unusual at university theatres. When you go to festivals, like Edinburgh Fringe, you get a lot of professional improvisers but at student level you tend to get a lot more ensemble pieces. We’ve been in a few of those and they were fantastic and really good fun. But this is just something really new and different that we wanted to try.

Have you ever done any festivals?

Emily: Not as a double act, but we have done shows together at the Edinburgh Fringe. We went in 2012 and 2013 and were in the same troupe. Ben was also in a really depressing play at Edinburgh.

Ben: We also have a radio show which is just the two of us. For a radio show it is quite theatrical - it has a continuing plot and we have characters that we wheel out.

I guess you are really suited to radio, what with being able to think on your feet.

Ben: Yeah, it’s a similar sort of skill set.

Emily: It pays to be spontaneous – improv is essentially recognising a good idea and deciding to run with it.

You’re basically good at winging it!

Emily: Yes! Oh god, that’s going to be the tag line, isn’t it?

Ben: To be fair, you can listen to plenty of radio shows and hear that you’re listening to people that are friends but they are very much competing. They clearly both want to be the funny one. But with us, we both know which one of us is funnier! No, I mean, with us our work in the improv troupe really knocks your ego down and it teaches you that whatever the other person is going to say is better than what you were going to say. It’s that modesty and respect for the other person that contributes towards the success of a performance.

Emily: A lot of it depends on trust – you’ve got to trust that the other person won’t make you look like an idiot.

How do you rehearse?

Ben: We get this question a lot. I think the best way to put it is that you don’t rehearse improv, you practise it. In the same a sports team has practise – they can never be sure what’s going to happen on the day of a match. They can never know what their opponents will do but they can prepare to spot tactics in their opponents.

Have you ever completely frozen?

Emily: It’s not so much a question of freezing but there’s an element of blind panic. I read a fantastic book today which gave the perfect analogy of when you’ve got no ideas on stage and they said it’s like the second you’ve jumped out of a plane and realised you’ve left your parachute on board. But that won’t happen in our show! But if you’ve just started improv, there would be plenty of those moments.

Ben: I think I have a tendency to freeze up. Sometimes the conversation dries up, there’s nothing more to say, and I end up lighting a cigarette to kill time. But if I’m stuck, hopefully Emily won’t be and if Emily is ever stuck, I won’t be – it’s a case of learning to catch each other if things go wrong. But if things go wrong, it can be a little bit amusing. That’s the joy of doing a light show. For instance, a couple of days ago we were doing a scene in which we were an old married couple and we’d already established we were about 80 years old and then Emily said ‘Remember our 77th wedding anniversary?’

Emily: I meant to say birthday, not wedding anniversary …

Ben: So then we had to go with that. I could have corrected her and said she was going a bit senile or I could be like ‘Ah yes, the arranged marriage when  we were two years old!’ Quite often mistakes can take you to really fun places.

Emily: There are no mistakes in improv because you have nothing to go off of. There’s no right or wrong, you can’t go off script.

Do you ever get stage fright?

Emily: I definitely get nervous, but you can turn that into a frantic energy. The nerves are good – you only really get nervous when you care about something.

Ben: I find it so exhilarating – when it’s a couple of hours before the show, the lights are up, the seats are out, you’re in your neutral clothing, knowing that anything can happen, something will happen. That’s where the confidence comes from, knowing that something will happen.

Emily: There’s this whole world you’re going to inhabit, you just haven’t created it yet.


Performances of Emily & Ben: A Likely Story will take places on the 9th to 10th February. Reserve your tickets here.

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Image courtesy of Ben Hollands