Tell us about the show you’re bringing to the Vault Festival.
The show is called Notflix: The Improvised Musical. It’s an all female, fully improvised musical based on the last film an audience member has seen. The audience get to vote on which of two suggestions they want to see and then we turn it into a full fifty minute musical.
It’s all female, super feminist and super fun. It’s really funny but also subversive, if that’s what you want to see, but also kick ass feminist.
What inspired you to improvise musicals based on random movies?
Probably some masochistic tendencies. I’m joking.
Sarah, our director, has the desire to do improv musicals and she auditioned us. Some of us have come from an improv background. Some of us has come from more of a theatre or acting background and can sing, but weren’t as experienced in improv when we first started.
It comes from this idea of challenging yourself to create something from nothing. There’s also the freedom to be able to tell stories the way you think they should be told. If you think about Hollywood in particular, it’s a very male oriented and often quite cliched environment. The stories are all about helpless women and strong me. Our show allows us to lovingly poke fun at all the streotypes that we, as feminists – and every single person in Notflix is a feminist – find in Hollywood and that patriarchal structure.
So it’s a mixture of loving that challenge and telling the stories in the way that we want them to be told.
Tell us about how your improve group came together.
The company is called Waiting for the Call. One other member and I are still involved from when we auditioned in 2015, before it was called Notflix. At some point over the year, we came up with the idea of it being movies and using real movies rather than making completely new ones up. It formed over the course of the next year or so and we’ve basically been touring since 2015. We’ve done Edinburgh most years, we’ve become a bit of an Edinburgh staple now.
The thing about Notflix is it’s improv so everything is going to be different. The whole show is different. Sometimes the actors are different, although we do tend to stick to a core team as, with improv, you come to trust each other and know each other and that’s when the magic happens. The show has been evolving over five years and we’ve discovered things that work and don’t work.
It’s a very different show to Notflix in 2016, but the heart of what we’re trying to do is the same.
What’s your favourite film an audience member has had you improvise?
Ooh that’s hard, there have literally been hundreds.
I think a particularly fun one was the My Little Pony film, which became a parable for being yourself. We had a folk song called “The Ballad of Weirderella” about a pony called Weirderella who has been cast out by the other ponies for not being pretty enough and lightfooted enough and conforming enough. Then throughout the show we discover that actually it’s just better to be yourself. That was a very fun one because we all got to clop around being ponies and doing horse dance moves.
We’ve also had some really tough ones that ended up being learning curves. We had We Need to Talk About Kevin a few years ago. It’s a story about a boy who murdered many of his classmates. Try making that into a comedy musical!
I think those difficult ones are actually great learning curves because you realise it’s not always about the gag. It’s about the communication going on onstage and the relationships that we build in the characters that we’re making up. Actually not every Notflix show has to be hilarious gags and pony moments, it can be the truth and honesty in the moment of a mother just trying to help her son.
So those are some examples of just how differently an audience suggestion can go.
Have you ever had an instance where you’re completely unfamiliar with the film suggestions you’ve got?
Oh all the time. I haven’t seen My Little Pony at all.
What we do is we try to watch a lot films and we talk about films as well, even if we haven’t seen them. We talk about the structure of films and the structure of storytelling. Occasionally none of us will have seen a film we’re given, but that’s quite rare. But we’ve got to a point where we’ll come out of shows and people won’t believe that we haven’t seen it because it’s been improvised fairly accurately in terms of narrative.
It happens all the time that one of us won’t have heard of something, so we take a couple of bits of information from the audience member. I actually think that that can be quite freeing. It allows us to make it completely different even if we get the same film more than once.
One year, we did Dunkirk three times in a month. But every single time it was completely different as each audience member had taken something different from Dunkirk so the synopsis they gave us was different, so the way we interacted on stage was different.
It’s rare that none of us has seen a film. Although we did get one random one called War of the Buttons, which is about some people fighting over buttons in Ireland.
It happens all the time that one or a few of us haven’t heard of a film and we just go with it because that’s the joy of improv. We would never turn a movie suggestion away just because we hadn’t seen it.
What is your secret to combining music with improv?
Not being afraid to get it wrong.
I’ve made enough clangers to make me not worry. I think the moment you absolve yourself of that fear of it not being perfect is when you find the joy in it. When I was at acting school we did clowning and someone used to call it “being in the shit”. It’s relative, being in that situation where you don’t know who you are and they don’t know who you are, so you figure it out together.
Our pianists are fucking incredible, and some people don’t believe that it’s fully improvised but it absolutely is. We don’t know if the pianist is going to throw us a ballad, or a Western number, we have no idea. As the scene goes on things start to come together and you figure out where it’s going, but you can never really predict what’s going to happen.
The secret is first off practice. We do a lot of rhyming practice. We do a lot of rapping practice. We do a lot of stuff in rehearsals. Improv is, ironically, something that takes a lot of rehearsal.
And the other part of it is going “Well so what if it didn’t come our perfectly?” The audience are with us and sometimes the thing that comes out of your mouth is a way funnier line than if you’d waited at the back of the stage planning it for two minutes. I think you can tell when someone’s planned their brilliant verse of a song because it doesn’t feel natural.
I would say it’s a mixture being practicing lots and not being afraid to fuck up.
What do you hope people take away from your show?
On the surface level of it, it’s just lots of fun. It’s an hour of laugh out loud fun. If you’re a big musical fan, there will be so much in there that are little Easter eggs that you’ll just love. If you’re not a musical fan, but you just like comedy, you’ll get loads of belly laughs. And if you’re an improv fan you’ll get to see a story get woven that has a heart.
We did a Scooby Doo one and had people come out afterwards saying they were crying at the end. We had lyrics that went “When you work as a team / In the Mystery Machine / That’s how you achieve your dreams.”
For me – and I’m sure the all other women of Notflix would agree – on a deeper level, watching kick ass women being really funny, in comedy which has historically been a man’s role, when we’re playing all the characters and poke fun of all the systems oppress women and LGBT people and non-binary people and all these groups who have not had their stories told – I think there’s something really empowering, as a gay woman myself. It’s hugely empowering to feel like I can go up on stage and know that it doesn’t matter whether I’m going to play a gay character or a bi character or a straight character.
I think, on a deeper level, there’s something about using comedy to promote equality and to subvert the patriarchy and homophobia, sexism, racism, all these horrible things that we fight so angrily so often, which is very necessary. It’s nice to find a cathartic way to laugh at the oppressive systems, rather than do what happens all too often in comedy and punch down. I think that’s got old now.
It’s 2020 and we’ve been laughing at “Women! Am I right?” for so many years now. I think this show is really empowering.
And it allows straight white cis men to laugh at themselves. It allows people to laugh with us and celebrate the massively diverse world that we live in.
Are there any other shows you’re looking forward to at the Vault Festival?
There are so many! There’s a cool show called Sugar Coat. It’s an all female and non-binary punk rock band based on the true story of a young woman going through various phases of her adolescence and into adulthood. It’s very funny but it also deals with sexual abuse and pregnancy in a very cathartic and fun way. So I’m pretty excited for that.
There is always amazing comedy at Vaults, from some badass women.
I think there’s one called Blow: A Deaf Girl’s Fight about a deaf girl fighting prejudice in a tough ‘80s boxing gym. That sounds a lot of fun and really empowering. Theatre is often way too ableist so I think it’s great that that’s coming.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?
Just do it. I think. Just give it a go.
If you’re afraid to do it, it’s probably something worth trying. We have enough people who go into comedy assuming they’re going to be great at it who just sailed in on the back of privilege. I’d say if you’re scared to do it, that’s why you should try it. Even if it doesn’t become your career, it’s such a fantastic thing. Your fear of failure reduces. Your ability to command a room improves.
Also find a community to support you. I know improv has an incredibly supportive community. A lot of people who go into stand up started doing improv and they get their confidence from that. I think it’s about finding a place that you feel that you can fail in and it’s okay.
I’d say just do it and be prepared to fail. Failure is absolutely fine. When have you ever met a comedian who has become famous who says “I’ve never died on stage before”? They all have a story about it.
Give it a go, in a place where you feel safe and have a look for a community. There are a plenty of places you can go where you can try it out in a supportive atmosphere. And if you’re LGBT or a woman or non-white, it can be a lot harder, so find a place where you feel safe to do it. Comedy isn’t always a safe space, but it can be with the right people.
I think we’re in a scary but exciting time. I think we’re going through a difficult time because the world is going through a seismic shift when it comes to what it means to exist within it and it can be very scary and quite dangerous for certain people. But I think it’s a very exciting time in comedy where voices are being heard like they never have before. Women and LGBT people are being given a platform like never before.
If I’d seen more lesbian representation when I was growing up, I might not have waited until I was 19 to come out. So I think we’re in this really exciting time in comedy where things are changing and the most exciting comedians are not the posh, middle class, straight white men that they’ve always been. They come from such a wide arrange of demographics. The next decade, although politically it’s going to be very difficult, is going to be so exciting for comedy and creativity.
Notflix is at Vault Festival from 4th to 8th March.