New Delhi: “Monu is dead, we do not have money anymore to sustain the maintenance of a giraffe. This is not the first giraffe that has died in my hands. Years ago, you pestered me to buy one for you, and then, the giraffe got somehow blasted into pieces.” While this may sound gibberish right out of a Samuel Beckett play, it is actually the premise of an improv jam carried out by a Delhi-based group on 5 May 2022 — the latest stress buster being practised by young Indians.
Improvisational theatre, better known as improv, is premised around an absurd plot and is essentially a form of interactive comedy carried out by unscripted, unrehearsed scenes based on suggestions by the audience. While this form of interactive comedy was made famous in the 1990s by the American television show, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’, more and more Indians, especially young working professionals are taking it up as a hobby. They see it as a safe and informal space to exercise their creative muscles without censure. Some troupes are even using the improv format to address mental wellness.
“Currently, improv in India is like a lovechild of theatre and comedy,” says Baneet Chhabra, the 28-year-old founder of Playground Improvisational Theatre and Comedy Collective. Most of the members of his troupe have anywhere between four weeks to four years of experience. “We have started taking art too seriously. Improv can be just an activity you participate in because you like it. It is a disposable artwork, something that is forgiving and helps you be in a community.” Chhabra adds.
For Sukesh, 38, a “pandemic improviser” who found his calling during the first wave of Covid-19 via online jams, improv demands trust among participants. “It makes us feel vulnerable, but you learn to trust because the essence of a good improv is to develop on the ideas of your partner and keep faith in the direction they will take the plot.” He has been associated with a variety of different improv groups and is currently a part of Playground as well.
Expect the unexpected
In improv, there’s an element of surprise that keeps everyone — the audience and the actors — on their toes. And often, it ends with a good laugh.
Mrinal, who has taken improv to rural areas such as Bir in Himachal Pradesh, recalled how a 60-year-old lady attended his workshop thinking they were “improve” classes. “There was one scene where she was supposed to be a drug dealer,” the 35-year-old actor says. But with no frame of reference, she just was herself throughout the scene. “She responded the way she normally would, but in the context of dealing with drugs. The audience was in splits.”
Aaryan Kadri, an undergraduate student at Pandit Deendayal Energy University in Ahmedabad, took up improv and stand-up comedy while still in school. For his first brush with the theatre form, he and a fellow improviser were enacting the role of co-pilots. As part of the scene, Kadri had to welcome passengers on board. And so, he began. “Two pilots went into a cockpit and crashed into a building…”
Where young adults come out to play
Unlike the rigour of long-form scripted plays or stand-up monologues, improv is more informal and the actors don’t have to memorise any lines. It’s a space for people to meet and jam for a couple of hours a week. For young working professionals, it’s a chance to break free from the monotony of daily life.
It’s what attracted Chhavi, 26, another member of the Playground Improv to it. “I felt I was stuck in a rut, frustrated by the lack of variety in my own personality,” says the professional yoga teacher. One day, after an improv session, she stood in front of the mirror and chewed on a piece of imaginary tobacco for an hour. “Nothing else, but just the action of it, helped me realise I can move beyond my comfort zone. At that moment, I felt like the glass ceiling had shattered for me,” she adds.
Other members of Playground Improv describe their sessions as a “playground of adults”. “You make friends, you make mistakes and fall down, and you learn how to have fun and listen to others. The sacred tenet of improv is to just be in the movement,” says Rochan, who is part of the troupe.
Comedy and wellness during pandemic
Improv is seen as a subgenre of comedy and has become popular in the last decade in India after stand-up comedians such as Vir Das, Kaneez Surka and Kanan Gill started talking about it. They started to curate improv-related activities and workshops to invite their fellow standup comedians to try this spontaneous form of comedy as a challenge.
More people discovered improv during the pandemic after international troupes started experimenting on platforms like Zoom. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre [New York City], for instance, modified improv to serve an online audience. Performers and those giving suggestions were no longer constrained by physical space. Virtual backgrounds and filters added diversity.
Aaryan Kadri said the pandemic made him realise how limited his life was. “Beyond a couple of conversations with friends and my parents, there was nothing more,” He says. Improv introduced him to people from different parts of the world and helped him develop new skills.
It’s also being seen as a tool to improve wellness. Over the last five years, the Delhi-based community theatre platform Kaivalya Plays has introduced several improv workshops linked to wellness. Their flagship program, ‘Unravel’, offers a series of workshops that use the improv format to “positively impact” participants. They apply improv to practise mindfulness, open communication and explore identities. In the game, ‘60 seconds rant’, participants get a minute to rant about anything on their minds. The improv partner then has 30 seconds to highlight positives in that rant.
Varoon Anand, the artistic director of Kaivalya Plays and its general manager Gaurav Singh note that they also curated specific events, such as ‘Improv for doctors’ in collaboration with AIIMS, during the pandemic. It was a space to “even crack a joke about death,” they add.
Improv like other comedy formats, however, is still male-dominated. But troupes like the all-female The Adamant Eves in Bengaluru are breaking the mould. Anshu Daga, founder of the Inner Startup [a theatre-based wellness troupe], and core member of Nautankibaaz, a Gurgaon-based improv group, believes that women are still bound by society’s expectations and comedy can be an effective form of self-expression. “Many women are so restricted they are afraid of being someone else. But improv is authentic in that you say what’s on your mind,” she notes.
And it is this absurd authenticity that is attracting people to improv. It’s a pleasant break from the banality of life.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)