Published: 08th June 2018
These comedians tell us how 'improv comedy' makes one more empathetic
We talk to the members of The Improv, Schitzengiggles Comedy and The Improvisers, who tell us how Improv comedy made them more empathetic humans
The auditorium was jam-packed as the actors of The Improv started performing on Bangalore Comedy Club’s stage. The audience started throwing in suggestions as random as possible, while the actors managed to come up with scenes instantly. All of a sudden, there was a power cut. But that didn't stop the two actors on stage, who, coincidentally, were enacting a scene where they were inside an elevator. In the darkness, they continued their scene as they pretended to be stuck in the powerless elevator. The audience was mind-blown. When the power was restored, the actors received a standing ovation.
This isn't an isolated incident. If you're an improv actor/comedian and you're on stage, you ought to create something out of nothing. There, you're an instant scriptwriter, who telepathically communicates the idea with your fellow actors and put in that extra effort to make sure that you and your team member(s) looks good. Saad Khan, the founder of The Improv, one of the first improv comedy groups in India, has experienced many such situations. His six-year-long journey has now led him to teach improv to aspirants and even use it as a skills training tool incorporates.
Going places: The Improv is the only Indian improv group to perform at the Sweden International Improv Festival
We caught up with Saad recently, just after a full-house improv show, to find out more about his journey. Excerpts:
How did you first develop an interest in improv?
I got introduced to improv while I was studying filmmaking in the US, back in 2012. It looked interesting and I tried it out. After I returned to Bengaluru, I realised that the art wasn't very popular here and everything was happening at the surface. I like to tap untapped markets, generally. So, I thought of giving it a shot. There's been no turning back ever since.
How do you go about the show usually?
The show has six rounds and there are four actors on stage throughout. Two actors start the show with a keyword that's provided by the audience. We just talk to people and create comedy from that. For example, I throw a magazine and ask the audience to give me a word out of it. Based on the word, we create a situation. Improv can't be perfected. It is an active art. We usually do a lot of rehearsals. We do almost four shows a month. We love the unpredictability of it. We have a 53-year-old doctor, two RJs, a Chennai-based actor and a media professional in the group. We also do a lot of workshops.
In improv, there are no stars only supporting actors. You support each other. You know what's going to happen next and that makes you nervous, which helps you to not be overconfident
Saad Khan, Founder, The Improv
Was it difficult to find improv actors when you started?
In the beginning, I thought it would be difficult to find people who are funny on stage. But I was wrong. There were many talented people, but they mostly thought that it was 'improve' instead of ‘improv’ and that it was a class that would help them improve their comic skills. But thankfully, out first show was fully packed. Within a year, we became quite popular.
Seven wonders: The group has seven members now, including Saad
Recently, you started teaching the art of improv as well. How's that going?
It's been fabulous teaching people the art of improv. Through our programme, The Improv Shop, we teach corporates to be more empathetic. In improv, it is very important to listen as this helps you take the scene forward. Using improv techniques, you can be a better listener.
Have you ever blanked out on stage?
Yes. That is something that can happen to anyone. Being funny and spontaneous at the same time is difficult. But sometimes, getting stuck is funny too.
Hey buddy, I got your back
What makes the members of SnG pros in improv? Aadar Malik shares the group's success mantra
Pro tip: Aadar says that one should be selfless on stage and never go for punchlines
An improvisational comedian is never alone on stage. You may go blank or get nervous on stage, but your teammates always have your back. That is precisely the reason why empathy is the underlying emotion of the art. So, whenever the members of Schitzengiggles Comedy (SnG Comedy) — Aadar Malik, Varun Thakur, Karan Talwar, Brij Bhakta, Neville Shah and Kautuk Srivastava — go on stage for an improv session, they don't wish each other ‘good luck’, but instead pat each other on the back and say, "I've got your back."
“If I see one of my partners in trouble, I jump in and give them company, and we think of something collectively. A pat on the back is our way of telling each other ‘don't worry, just keep playing’,” says Aadar, adding, "We've ended up saving each other a lot on stage."
One among the biggest comedy collectives in the country right now, SnG has done around 50 improv shows just between 2014 and 2015. Aadar tells us how it all began. "I have a theatre background, so improv came to me naturally. Brij is a certified improv teacher. Collectively, we came up with the idea and three months of rehearsals later, we did our first show."
Maybe there's one scene where things won't go well. So you come up with something that breaks the monotony, allowing your partner some time to think. I'm sacrificing a part of my dignity today because someone's going to do the same for me tomorrow
Aadar Malik, Member, SnG Comedy
But recently, there's been a decrease in the number of improv performances by the group. But there's good news! They're planning to revive it soon. "After 2015, stand-up took off and we started concentrating more on stand-up and YouTube content. Also, Brij had to go back to the US because his mother fell ill. But that doesn't mean we've given up improv completely. We're trying to revive it. We're planning a few performances soon," says Aadar.
He also says that improv helped him with his stand-up performances too. "In stand-up, you're sticking to your script. Improv helped me with my stand-up. You're more aware on stage here and you're forcing yourself to be in the moment. But it requires more rehearsing," says Aadar.
Life lessons through improv
For Kaneez Surka, there is no life without improv comedy. Here's why
On spot: Kaneez has learned a lot of life lessons through improv
Life goals aren't on the top of Kaneez Surka’s list. Ask her what she wants to do in the next five years and she'll look at you cluelessly. But at the same time, this comedian is enjoying life and its unpredictability. Every moment is a new discovery and she is enjoying it in full spirits. After all, isn't that what improv comedy is all about?
If you haven't seen performances by The Improvisers — the improv group that consists of Kanan Gill, Kenneth Sebastian, Abish Mathew and Kaneez — you're probably living under a rock. The group released their first Amazon Prime video recently, titled Something from Nothing. They've also done quite a few shows in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
For Kaneez, who has embraced improv as a part of her life, the journey began in 2009, when she attended an improv class by Adam Dow in Mumbai. "A couple of us really liked improv and we started improv comedy Mumbai. But later, I realised that there's so much more to do and ended up going to New York to study improv," says Kaneez.
There are times when I've gone blank on stage. But there are other people on stage with you. No one will let you die. It's your duty to make everyone else look good. So, everyone ends up looking good
Kaneez Surka, Member, The Improvisers
Once she returned to India, Kaneez was introduced to the some of the most popular comedians, including Vir Das. "Vir, Tanmay Bhat and I ended up shooting an improv show, but unfortunately, it was a huge flop," she recalls. But that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Later, when Vir Das hosted the Weirdass Pajama Festival, Kaneez was invited to host a workshop on improv. "I thought to myself ‘What do I know?’. But people had respect for me because I'd gone abroad to study this art. Kenny and Kanan, who also attended this workshop, asked me if I could do a workshop in Bengaluru too and I agreed," she narrates.
The workshop went well. Later, Kaneez played an extra in a show by Kanan, Kenny and Abish in Mumbai, where they played an improv game and that became an instant hit. "We shared a good chemistry on stage. Two months later, The Improvisers was born," she says. On May 31, the group turned four.
So, why is improv so important to Kaneez? She tells us. "I apply so many improv principles to real life. It makes me emotionally intelligent. You're very aware of everyone around you. It's not about doing your idea. It's a collective idea. Also, you're never alone anywhere," she says.