Caro Meets Comedy Interview Festivals Interview

Phil Mann: BattleActs!

By | Published on Wednesday 18 February 2015

As you may know, the TW team head up to Edinburgh every August to partake of the cultural banquet that is the Edinburgh Festival; one of the best improv troupes we have come across in recent years is BattleActs!, who have scored a plethora of stars and a whole lot of great reviews (not just from us) up there.


So, it was pleasing to hear that, following a successful run at London’s Vault Festival last year, they will once more be taking part. I sent some questions over to the group’s Phil Mann.

CM: Improv shows come in lots of different formats, of course. Can you tell us how your show works?
PM: We decided to focus on the competitive element of improv – two teams battling it out, with a ruthless voting system and ball-busting compere. We wanted it to be as close to sport as possible and it’s filled with ups and downs, opportunities to catch up and fall behind, and tests every type of performance mode: quick wit, linguistic challenges, improvised puns, physical impossibilities and more narrative work. But each scene is played against the other team, with the audience voting only for whoever was the funniest.

CM: Obviously no two shows are the same, but the press release mentions ‘themed nights’ – what happens at those?
PM: We often do smackdowns against other teams (I believe Lights Camera Improvise have had to go and do a scripted West End show – the Play That Goes Wrong – because we thrashed them so soundly in Edinburgh last year), and we’re liable to pull out The Pain Edition at least once a run, which features the Scotch Bonnet Sonnet (improvise a Shakespearean sonnet whilst chewing on a hot chilli pepper), and games played blindfolded, barefoot and with the stage covered in armed mousetraps. We’ve done themed shows with suggestions based on old war films, or only on titles of books that already exist. It’s important in a show like ours to demonstrate that what you’re doing is really, really hard – even if we’re lucky enough to make it seem easy.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the troupe? How did you come together? What made you decide to form an improv group?
PM: Anna and I started the group, working with legendary theatre maverick and improv daddy Ken Campbell. After his death we simply had to carry on his legacy in some way. This is the chap about whom the rumours that “in working men’s clubs they put ferrets down their trousers” were formed. Because he was literally doing it with Bob Hoskins, Sylvester McCoy and Bill Nighy before they were all famous.

We looked up to these lost heroes, so we began making improv. We were way out in left-field when we started. We’d hold “boring-offs” during a show to see who could improvise the most boring scene, and I once busted up my face during a competition to see who could enter the stage THROUGH a chair in the weirdest way. The chair closed on my face and my face dripped blood for the rest of the night. We’ve since learned how to remain daring and to push the envelope, but whilst keeping our bodies in tact. Mostly.

Gradually we shed members who found new paths (ex-member Christopher Brett Bailey won the Brick Award in Edinburgh for his live-art work this year, Matt Harrison is working as a director regularly now) and found new ones around the comedy scene (Emily Lloyd Saini, who hosts a lot of the Funny Women shows – and was a finalist in the competition herself) and the show has grown and refined. We’re all actors too, and it makes scheduling rehearsals difficult because we’re all so wonderfully, beautifully busy. We’re all sickeningly good friends who get along in an exceedingly annoyingly good way.

CM: You do stand up as well as improv, don’t you? Do you prefer one over the other or do they both have their pros?
PM: Comedy’s a weird beast. There are so many rules to follow for each discipline – and so many rules that, as a rule, you’re required to break. People shrug and go “it just has to be funny and requires nothing else,” and then slate you for not having a narrative in your show, or only doing Dad jokes. My main requirement for any show I’m doing is to just have the most fun I’ve ever had – sometimes there’s a “fuck-you” kind of fun, and there’s sometimes a “holding-hands-looking-at-the-starlight” kind of fun – and I always hope both of those and everything in between happens in my improv and in my stand-up. 90s sitcom ‘Friends’ had classic slapstick routines, Will Self occasionally writes dad jokes, Python wrote some sketches with punchlines – so funny can’t really be contained in a format, and the more you try to over-process it into a product, the less funny it becomes. Whatever it is you’re trying to do up there in front of an audience, “in the shit” of the spotlight and microphone, the last thing you should be trying to do is conform to rules about what’s expected of your format.

CM: You also act and write, so clearly have a lot on your plate! Do you think at some point you might end up concentrating on one or two elements?
PM: For me, I’m making up stupid things to say to crowds; working out what kind of character, or what version of myself would say them; sometimes writing it down and doing it more than once. From the idea to the execution it has to be writing, acting, improvising – they’re all part of one skill of the performer. My acting is usually funny – in the feature film I was in (Night Bus, out last year), I wrote my own part and improvised it in front of the cameras. I’ll be annoying everyone in some kind of commercial on telly in about a month’s time where the process was the same: come up with something dumb and tweak it around a bit, then act it out. In my stand-up I’ll create stupid, almost un-performable sections and then spend the first few times trying to make it performable. For me, I don’t see how you can separate writing, performing and improvising.

CM: You are on as part of Vault Festival. How did you get involved with that? Are you planning to go and see other shows that are on as part of the festival? Is there anything you would recommend?
PM: We did the VAULT Festival last year and it was great, we had a sell-out run. We’re hoping to repeat that success this year. We love doing festivals because it keeps us around other people doing the same thing, and that’s inspiring and fun. Yve Blake’s ‘Lie Collector’, Red Bastard, House of Blakewell’s ‘We Can Make You Happy’ and John Luke Roberts’ ‘Stdad Up’ are wonderful and I fancy them and their shows will all make you laugh or cry or both. This year I got in a fight with Red Bastard during his show as I climbed over a row of audience members and slapped him around.

CM: We gave BattleActs a great review in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. Will you be there again this year?
PM: Absolutely! It’s our 7th Edinburgh and we wouldn’t miss it for the world. On Monday nights there’s a place on Cowgate in Edinburgh that does £1.50 gin and tonics and heavy metal karaoke. We’ll see you there.

CM: What’s next for you, and for BattleActs?
PM: More gigs, Edinburgh, summer festivals, we’re usually at London Zoo for Zoo Lates, theatre tours and acting gigs and a bunch of shitty day jobs to pay the rent.

BattleActs is on at Vault Festival from 18 Feb until 1 March. See this page here for more info.

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