No culture has embraced and celebrated improv with such rapture as America. Over the past forty years, practically all comedy actors in Hollywood cut their teeth in this way. Original Ghostbusters Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, and current line up Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, all came from improv. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler also credit their success to thr time spent on stage making stuff up for laughs.
And it is partly thanks to Poehler’s New York improv company, Upright Citizens’ Brigade (UCB), that I found myself fumbling about on stage in the centre of Copenhagen.
Improv Comedy Copenhagen (ICC) is dedicated to American-style improvisational comedy and was founded by American performer Stephanie Grassley, together with Danes, Stefan Pagels and Kaspar Jacobsen.
Grassley was a member of UCB in New York and relocated to Copenhagen in 2014, when she met Pagels, who also spent several years in the US studying and performing with some of the best performers on the celebrated Chicago improv scene. After running his own improv shows in Chicago and Copenhagen, Pagels joined forces with Grassley and, together with, Jacobsen set up the ICC.
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Fast forward to 2016, and the ICC is now putting on professional shows every Monday, Friday and Saturday, entirely in English, performed by players from all over the world. Most have also trained at the ICC, taking one of the many courses and drop-in workshops on offer. With corporate training packages also available, its clear the ICC has lofty ambitions. But do they know what they’re doing, or are they just making it up as they go along?
I stumbled into their wonderfully warped world of improv while searching online for English-speaking comedy in Denmark. Turns out, there’s not much on offer, which I always found to be odd. Most people in the world don’t speak Danish, but if you find yourself in Copenhagen, wherever you’re from, chances are you’ll be communicating in English. That means there are hundreds of thousands of students, tourists and expats in the capital who would love to see live comedy in a language they can more easily understand.
When I found the ICC website I was intrigued, and immediately signed up for a week-long intensive training programme. Back in the, UK I had been writing and performing comedy for over a decade, but up until now that had been scripted, either for TV or as stand up material. Will my experience transfer to live improv? How would I fare trying to be amusing on the fly?
The main principle that sets improv apart from other comedy styles is that it hinges on a single guiding rule: “say yes and…” Improv scenes develop from accepting what your performing partner says as truth, then building from there. In other forms of comedy, sitcoms or stand up for example, the comedy often stems from creating tension, conflict and revelling in frustration. But in improv, saying ‘no’ or introducing contradicting to cause tension, shuts down a scene, as I soon found out. I had to leave that at the door and embrace (often literally) this brave new world of positive affirmation.
That’s not to say improv is all about hugging and learning. There’s room to explore all emotions, scenes and characters. You are limited only by your imagination. There is something incredibly exciting about going on stage not knowing what’s going to happen, while trusting your teammates to support you as you take the audience on a ridiculous and surreal journey just about anywhere. It’s a very inclusive form of entertainment and always starts with a single suggestion from the audience. But while they are in on the joke from the start, they have no idea where it’s going to end up. That’s the job of the improvisers and the ICC has some very talented, skilled and supportive performers. When they’ve got your back, you’ll soar.
Improv Comedy Copenhagen has only just taken flight. It officially opened its doors on Frederiksholms Kanal on September 15 with special guest the US Ambassador Rufus Gifford, who even joined the performers on stage to serve up spontaneous monologues from which the team had to improvise sketches in front of a packed audience. Gifford endorses the ICC as not only a playground for his beloved American-style improv, but also as a place to develop valuable life skills such as collaboration, self confidence and communication. Having performed down there several times now, I concur. I realise my endorsement doesn’t have quite the official weight of the American Embassy, so your best bet is just to go down there and see for yourself. Go on. Don’t even think about it – just say yes. And… M