Improv artiste Kaneez Surkha is often, to her annoyance, introduced as a stand-up comedian. There have been times when people have left her shows disappointed, expecting a stand-up act. “Improv is the ugly, neglected cousin of stand-up,” says Surkha.
Surkha was among the few improvisers who performed at the third edition of Cheer! Comedy Festival 2014 held at National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) last week. While the festival did feature improv, stand-up acts formed the bulk of performers. Deepa Gahlot, Head-Programming (Theatre & Film) for NCPA, says that the format of stand-up appeals more to the audience because they are familiar with it. “There are more comics than improvisers in the city, which is why there is a disparity in popularity. Also, improv is much tougher,” she says about the form of comedy that was introduced in Mumbai in 2009, a few years after stand-up.
The difficulty in improv lies in taking to stage without a script. Unlike stand-up comics who perform with a prepared routine, improv artistes react to audience suggestions on the fly. “The content changes every second, so you have to be at your funniest best at all times,” says Brij Bhakta, who has been an improv artiste for the past 15 years and performs with Schitzengiggles, a city-based improv troupe. Theform is also challenging for the audience. The crowd needs to be involved in the performance throughout the show. “If the audience does not participate then the content also suffers,” says Surkha.
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“In Mumbai, the scene is focused on short form improv,” says Adam Dow, founder of Improv Comedy Mumbai (ICM), one of the first troupes in the country. “The shows have references to popular culture or regional quirks, so you might hear a slow love ballad sung in the style of Yo Yo Honey Singh or 10 of the best improvised pick-up lines used during Navratri.” The problem, Gahlot has observed, is that the Indian audience is used to sitting back and being entertained. “Also larger audiences don’t work well for improv which needs smaller, more intimate groups so that everyone can take part,” she says.
The hit television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, has helped the genre reach a wider audience in the West. There are festivals and schools dedicated to improv abroad as well, but in India there is no supporting infrastructure. “We performed improv at festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam and Seattle and were amazed at how evolved their artistes and audiences were,” says Surkha, who heard about improv during a workshop conducted by Dow, after which she went on to work with ICM. Similarly, Bhakta did a three-year professional course at iO Theatre (formerly known as Improv Olympics from where popular improvisers Tina Fey and Amy Poehler also graduated)
Despite the odds, Surkha, Bhakta and Dow seem hopeful. Dow will soon launch Theater Sports, in which two teams of improvisers battle it out on stage. Surkha too is taking cautious steps with Under Construction Improv, the country’s first theatrical improv troupe, which will introduce long form improv that consists of lucid narratives performed extempore around a central theme given by the audience at the beginning of the show. “Theatrical improv has all the elements of a play, such as dance, drama, comedy, romance,” says Surkha. “But the audience doesn’t seem ready for it yet. Till then, we all could do with a lot more gigs,” she says.