THE majority of performers would probably bristle with indignation if you accused them of making it up as they go along but for Richard Vranch, one of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, that’s exactly what happens every night.
Richard along with Mike McShane, Suki Webster. Kirsty Newton and Have I Got News regular Paul Merton arrive at the theatre not knowing what they will be doing as it is the audience which sets the scenes, suggests scenarios and characters and then leave it to ‘the Chums’ to sort it out.
“You can’t rehearse improv,” said Richard. “That is one of the great things about it, especially compared to theatre. There’s no writing, no lines to learn. But we have been doing this for half our lives so in a sense that’s what gets us through.”
Richard was part of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the Channel 4 show which introduced TV audiences to improvised comedy in the late Eighties, hosted by Clive Anderson. More than 30 years later, it’s a form of comedy which remains as popular as ever.
“I think reason for its longevity is that by its very nature, it is always different,” said Richard. “The suggestions you get from the audience are contemporary; they about what’s going on now so the material is constantly being updated and it is always immediate. I think people like that immediacy.
“For us it means that the material we have to work with is always fresh. When you combine that with the fact we have been working together for so long, we have that intimate knowledge of and trust in each other.”
Richard uses the team analogy several times during our chat and it’s clear that the improv stage is not the right place for a primadonna.
“A good improv team is not full of selfish people that want to take the limelight,” he said. “We all take great pleasure in throwing up a line or a situation which you know one of your colleagues can just hit home, I suppose it’s what they’d call an assist in football these days. Of course you need people who can score the goals and we can all do that.”
So does that mean that only a certain type of comedian can work as part of an improv group?
“I think a lot of comedians are used to being on stage on their own and so are not used to listening or to taking a turn,” said Richard. “Whereas actors are. Actors of course have a script but they are used to listening to others on stage and perhaps don’t find improv quite so scary. For comedians only used to doing their own thing, the whole dynamic of being on stage with other people is weird.
“Having said that when we do have guests with us - both actors and comedians - they all come off stage asking when they can do it again, they enjoyed the experience so much.”
After the Covid-enforced lay-off, Richard and his fellow Chums can’t wait to get back out on the road - they are at Burnley Mechanics on Sunday night and then at The Lowry on May 13 as part of a major UK tour.
Richard Vranch (back right) with Paul Merton’s Impro Chums (Picture:Steve Ullathorne)
“It is exciting to be back and I think people have missed being in a room with other people,” he said. “Laughing with a bunch of other people is a totally different experience that laughing on your own in front of a laptop, especially when you have invested in the show by having given your suggestions.
“The audience are very much part of every show; we talk to them, we ask for their help - it really is a collaborative effort. As performers that connection with a live audience is something that we have really missed and we can’t wait to get back to that.”
Cynics might argue that after so many years together, the Chums may have half the show pre-planned as some audience suggestions will be repeated.
“The weird thing which surprises people is that we never remember what we have done,” said Richard. “If you are really doing it in the moment and not trying to plan or prepare things which slows you down and blocks your creativity; if you are doing it right you don’t remember it.
“It’s a bit like when you have written something on the computer but haven’t pressed save. Even after the show people will talk about a certain bit but we won’t remember it.
“And even if we did get the same thing suggested we wouldn’t remember what we did last time. But we much prefer to have suggestions that we have not had before. We genuinely are improvisers and like arriving at the theatre not knowing what’s going to happen that night.”
The Impro Chums have built up a substantial fanbase over the years.
“Some people come and see us multiple times and enjoy it,” said Richard. “I don’t think they’d do that if we were doing the same thing every show.
“When you are in the room watching show you can see a hint of panic below the surface in all of us; you can for a split second see the cogs turning as we work out what to do with the scene we’ve been given that that’s completely trumped by a great line. Audiences likes to see us like that; they can tell when you are doing it for real.”