Sunday, 15 February 2015

Things I learnt from the UCB 101 week

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email: 

I was lucky enough to do the UCB 101 course in London this week. Many thanks to Shem and Carleen and everyone else from C3? who made it happen. It must have been a lot of work, so thank you!

This is about my own personal experience, rather than a list of all the exercises.

I had Anthony Atamanuik as a teacher, who was excellent. I was in fact slightly star struck as I've watched his Death by Roo Roo video ( so many times I think half the view count is from me. Last year I felt like a 1950s wannabe musician learning about rock n roll by listening to beat up old records smuggled in from America and then played on pirate radio, except the records were Death by Roo Roo videos.

I didn't think I'd like having a strict syllabus in a course but actually I quite enjoyed it, as Anthony still had a personal take on it and we had enough time to get his own experience. So I thought it worked out as a nice balance.

So here's the main things I got from the workshop and want to keep forever:

Be true
Be honest
Be real
Use your own life experiences
Use your own thoughts and points of view
Do and say what you would actually do and say if you were in that situation
Be a real person on stage
Be yourself

All of this is summed up by the phrase "play at the top of your intelligence".

Time and time again Anthony would point times when a character wouldn't behave like that in real life. We sometimes go into invention or thinking things up, whereas it's actually easiest and best just to see people be real on stage.

The best way to improvise is also the easiest to improvise.

Have basic agreement with the reality presented, say yes to what comes along, just respond as if it's real.  

If we treat everything on stage as if it is real, a lot of great improv then happens really naturally, as you don't have to think anything up.  

I have a habit of overdoing characters. It might be from years of performing impro in crowded noisy pubs, competing for attention with noisy kitchens next door. I've also down lots of Clowning which often amps up characters to BIG. But the course made me realise that just knowing that you are character, without feeling the need to over show it, is often enough. 

My favourite exercise was also the most simple - The Park Bench of Truth. Two people sit on a park bench in front of the audience, as themselves, and talk honestly about whatever comes up, their own point of view and their own life experiences. As Anthony said, "a conversation, you remember those?" 

I played it with Sacha and we had a lovely conversation about tooth ache, ageing, life, death, fears of hospitals, young vs old. I felt very connected to him, so much so that when break came we didn't move and just carried on playing the game without an audience. 

UCB here seems known for one main thing (Game of the Scene, and more technique) but actually whenever I've done anything with them I've been really impressed that most of the course is more about being real to the scene, treating what's on stage as if it's real, behaving realistically as you would in that situation, and using our own life experiences and points of view. The Game of the Scene is fun, but more important is the reality of the scene and the relationships in the first place.

I also found weirdly enough strong connections between UCB and Keith Johnstone, which are often seen as opposites. When UCB teachers talk about playing at the top of your intelligence, and being real and true, I think that's what Keith Johnstone is also getting at when he says be obvious, be boring, don't try to be funny. Being obvious and playing within the circle of expectation (another Keith Johnstone term) actually feels the same as playing at the top of your intelligence. Also the circle of expectation feels like a similar thing to UCB's "if this is true what else is true". So there you go, all improv and impro are friends after all!

Overall both schools of thought want real humans on stage rather than robots pretending to be humans. 

This also made me realise a big lovely thing that impro does. We all walk around life with thoughts, feelings and opinions in our head that we sometimes feel like we can't let out. Impro gives us permission to let this all out, be fully human, and be strongly connected to each other and the audience. That's got to be a good thing right?

In a world where technology puts up a lot of barriers, going right back to two people in eye contact sharing what's in their heads right here and now is a very beautiful thing.

As Anthony said, have a conversation.

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email:


  1. Well written, Steve. I too feel lucky to have taken part in the course and lucky to have had Anthony as our coach. It's a dream come true. Who would have thought?

    1. Thanks Anna Maria, lovely improvising with you all week.

  2. Fascinating post Steve - I wish I'd been there. Nice links between Keith's approach and that of UCB.

    I love the sound of the 'Park bench of truth', and Anthony's point about having a genuine conversation instead of 'making stuff up'. About a year ago I came out of a weekend improv workshop absolutely buzzing about the power that improv has to help us be undefended and to genuinely connect with (sometimes) complete strangers. So I've organised a workshop to explore how this works, using Gestalt psychology as a way of inquiring into it:

    I'll let you know what we find out.

    1. Thanks Stuart, yes please let me know how it goes.