Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Steve Roe: Hoopla improv

By | Published on Friday 29 January 2021

As soon as the first lockdown was announced, arts and entertainment companies throughout the country began to look for ways to survive the impact of the pandemic. One of those ways was, of course, online performances. But another, just as important, was to offer learning and participation opportunities via online means.

Among those going the latter route was London-based improv-focused group Hoopla, who quickly moved their prolific programme of improv workshops online and have continued to offer their sessions via the internet through 2020 and into this new year.

I thought lots of our readers might be interested in joining in and – with that in mind – I decided to find out more about the classes, what goes on in them, and what Hoopla will be doing once lockdown ends. To that end, I spoke to the company’s director and co-founder, Steve Roe.

CM: So let’s start with the online classes you are doing at the moment – can you give us an idea of what happens in them?
SR: The main thing that happens in them is lots of laughter! Like, a surprisingly large amount of laughter. Online improv wasn’t a thing a year ago, but now it’s pretty big and works surprisingly well.

People log onto a Zoom chat where there is a teacher and a team of about twelve improvisers in the class. The first thing we do is GET OUT OF WORK MODE. This isn’t a boring Zoom chat of people starting blankly at the screen trying not to show any emotion. We do warm-ups, we move around, we play games, and we help people to have a good time.

Surprisingly, almost all improv games could be adapted for online. We do things like improvise scenes, sketches and stories. We help people with voice and movement to play different characters. We play games and even perform mini shows online. These games and exercises explore things like listening, creative collaboration, spontaneity, confidence, character and storytelling.

Most of all, it is about helping people to play, make new friends and stay connected during lockdown.

CM: There’s more than one type of improv class, isn’t there..? Who are they aimed at?
SR: That’s right. Our most popular course is our ‘Beginners Improv Course’, which is suitable for people with no previous experience. People don’t need any experience of comedy or acting either. It’s suitable for everyone and we get people from all backgrounds coming along.

If people have done some improv before, we also have a full range of other classes that explore different themes in more detail like character, emotional connection, story and more.

In addition to improv, we also now do online stand-up comedy courses where people can learn how to write and perform stand-up comedy, and also a sketch comedy course with Gemma Arrowsmith, who is one of the writers and performers on Tracey Ullman’s BBC1 show.

CM: I think a lot of people probably feel a bit intimidated by the idea of trying improv – is there anything you would say to encourage those who are a bit scared by the idea?
SR: When I first did improv – in real-life – over fifteen years ago, I turned up half an hour early and locked myself in the toilet saying, “Steve you can do this, you can do this” over and over! I was terrified before I went in!

However, the second it started I realised that it’s not as scary as you think. Over the sessions I learnt you are not by yourself. You are part of a team and everyone is there to support each other.

Also, the most helpful thing is you don’t have to be clever or funny. That seems counter intuitive, but trying too hard to be clever or funny can freeze people up as no idea will seem good enough. Instead we allow ourselves to be obvious. Just being your normal obvious self is good!

Also mistakes aren’t punished, in fact quite the opposite – they are celebrated! Mistakes in improv often lead to exciting new parts of the story.

CM: Apart from being fun, what other reasons are there to do something like this – might the skills you develop through it help you in your day-to-day life?
SR: Yes, in lots of ways. First of all, confidence. Confidence in being able to speak up in meetings or personal life. Confidence in being able to share ideas and feelings. Confidence in being able to try new things and go into the unknown. Once you’ve improvised in front of an audience lots of other things in life feel easier!

Also creativity. Improv gives a simple language and method for creativity. When faced with a blank page on a creative task, improv gives a simple method of accepting and building on offers – ‘yes and…’ – to gradually build up ideas and find solutions together as a team.

And playfulness. I think we often mistakenly think play is childish. But the root of creativity is play. Play helps us learn things quicker, it helps us to discover things quicker, it helps us to create quicker. Play is an important part of work and connecting to our playful selves helps us to be creative at work.

Also teamwork. Improv is perfect for teamwork. It is based on listening and ‘yes and’, and enables people to collaborate together.

And finally tenacity. In improv we don’t fear mistakes and they don’t stop us. In fact, mistakes are treated like gifts and are weaved into the story as if they were meant to be there all along. This attitude can cross over into real-life and help people deal with setbacks and carry on and stay positive.

CM: What made you decide that running the classes online would work? Had you done anything like this before lockdown? Will you continue the online element when the COVID crisis is over?
SR: Necessity! At the start of lockdown we didn’t know how long it would be and we didn’t know if there would be any government funding to support us.

So along with loads of other evening class companies we just tried it. We hadn’t done anything like it before and I don’t think online improv was a thing before March 2020.

It all happened very quickly. Improv companies around the world went online in about a week. We then found it surprisingly enjoyable and had some surprising benefits like bringing people together from across the world – we used to be London only – so we decided to expand it.

The online element will continue once the COVID crisis is over, in parallel to our real-life classes and shows.

CM: How do the classes compare to doing live, in-person workshops?
SR: Good question! At first I think we were trying to recreate the in-person experience and did compare the two. Now I think we treat them as two different things, it’s like a new artform.

Real-life improv has the joy of real human connection, eye contact, playing with space and the real-life social life afterwards. I definitely miss people in real-life, as we all do.

But online improv has some other things that we play with to make it its own thing. We play with musical underscores. We play with virtual backdrops. We play with the cameras going on and off to create movie style cuts in scenes. We use clips from old 1950s sci fi movie trailers to inspire stories.

And online improv does still have a surprising amount of emotional connection. For instance, you end up with more eye contact than real-life due to the face-to-face nature of online. It’s more like TV acting than the previous stage acting version of improv.

CM: Can you tell us a bit now about what Hoopla does when there isn’t a pandemic going on? Where do you operate and what do you do? When was it founded, and who is behind it?
SR: When there isn’t a pandemic going on – was there such a time?!

Hoopla runs improv classes in venues across London, including London Bridge, Borough, Moorgate, Liverpool Street, Brick Lane and King’s Cross. These are usually to 100s of people every week, from different backgrounds across London.

Hoopla also runs the UK’s first improv specific theatre at our venue in London Bridge – above The Miller, Snowsfields, SE1 3SS. This started as a show once per week and has now built up to being seven nights a week featuring improv acts from across London and the UK. The theatre has become a hub of the improv community and features everything from totally new groups to people like Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton and more.

Hoopla was founded back in 2006 by myself and Edgar Fernando. Edgar and I are two old school friends who have known each other since we were four years old and grew up in the same road in Merton, South London.

At first Hoopla was a way for us to keep improv and acting going in adult life with our old friends from GCSE drama days. But it rapidly grew to friends of friends coming along as people found it a fun thing to do and a good way to make friends in London.

Edgar has recently had to move to Manchester because of work and family commitments, but he is due to start a mini-Hoopla there too.

CM: Clearly you have managed to operate despite the lockdown, but how has it affected the company over all?
SR: We’ve been able to operate a bit over lockdown, though we are nowhere near our full capacity. So, like many arts companies, we aren’t doing anything like we were before. Although we have been lucky that online improv has taken off enough that we have been able to keep many of our freelance teachers and support staff on and keep going.

The negative effects of lockdown are obviously large loss of income and being unable to offer the large amount of freelance teaching work we used to do, and also the closure of our real-life courses and real-life shows and real-life festivals that we had spent years building up. I don’t feel sad talking about that now, but only because I had to put myself through hypnotherapy to help me get through it!

In good news though, I do think that real-life improv, and the arts in general, will bounce back very quickly after COVID. Whenever restrictions eased, we had a large number of queries about real-life improv, just as many as before.

I think being locked down, and everything we used to have being closed, has made us appreciate how amazing things were in the first place. Improv and the arts offer a super social environment where people from different backgrounds can get together and create things. I will never take that for granted again!

In the short-term it has been tough but in the long-long-term we will be super focused and super clear that we love improv. We think it’s a good thing to bring to the world and we’ll be working hard to bring the joy of improv to everyone.

To find out more about Hoopla and to book yourself into one of their classes, see the website right here.

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