Kenny Laurie is one of the key members of The Clap an English language improv group based in Istanbul. I met up with him to talk about improvised theatre and the creative processes that go behind it.
You can find out more information about The Clap and their shows here:
Luke: Hello Kenny. How are you?
Kenny: I’m not bad, thanks.
Luke: Lets start off with simply, who are you?
Kenny: I’m thirty years old from Lester, England, from the countryside. I’ve lived in Istanbul for three years but I’ve lived outside of England for seven years. I’ve mostly been a journalist in my career, but I’ve also been a farmer, a music teacher and a professional twat.
Luke: Ok, tell me about The Clap.
Kenny: The Clap had been going for about three years before I joined. It’s taken on multiple guises before it has become what it is today. It is essentially a seven man performing group whose bread and butter is usually Friday night shows doing the la ronde improv form. But we have branched out a little bit. Now, we do regular shows at BKM, short form at Spoken Word Istanbul, and jams at Arsen Lupen. We do most of our improv with another group called Ephemerata, but people have a tendency to refer to the whole improv community as The Clap. The Clap essentially encompasses all but two people in the Istanbul improv scene.
Luke: What is the la ronde form?
Kenny: If you know French it means "the round" and it basically means we take a one-word suggestion from the audience, we turn that into a sentence and that becomes the first sentence of the show. The la ronde part, the circle part is that the first scene will involve two people improvising from that first sentence and there will be a queue of performers, just off stage, whoever is at the front will be next. So, whenever they've seen enough, they clap, come onto the stage and the person who has been on the stage the longest out of the performers goes off the stage. This goes on until everybody has completed the circuit. This usually takes around ten to fifteen minuets. After that, it’s kind of free form anybody can clap in. We do plan to change formats soon though.
Luke: What got you into improv?
Kenny: I don't really know, I didn’t think about it for a while. I’d been thinking about some theatre and acting. But I was a bit scared about learning lines. So, improv seemed like a nice way of not dealing with that. I wanted to do comedy so it fitted with that, but I must admit, and I think a lot of cynical people, like myself have a bit of an aversion to improv. They see it as being full of very positive people, which is a bit off-putting. So I was a bit reticent to join a group of very positive people. I saw it in the newspaper and went down and something kind of clicked. It seemed to work. I started from there really. In hindsight, my hesitation was foolish and I should have known at the time.
Luke: I’ve seen you do traditional theatre as well. What are the advantages of improv over traditional theatre?
Kenny: Yep. Well, firstly not learning lines is very nice. It’s also nice if you’re a restlessly creative person, as a lot of people in theatre are. It’s nice to be able to break and do your best interpretation rather than the directors’ interpretation. It does allow you to stretch your legs more creatively. In normal theatre it’s only if you are an actor and the director that you can get to do what you want. So there’s that.
There’s also a kind of magic to the spontaneity. There kind of a nice moment where in a millisecond you realise that you've got something great to say. So, saying it and getting that immediate feedback, it’s quite unique and very enjoyable.
Luke: I’d like to know about the creative process behind the show. How do you do it?
Luke: As you wish.
Kenny: When it comes to just doing improv, as opposed to other things, my ritual is to not have a ritual. Some performers like to have a structure before they go in. They want to warm up, they want to be physically warm, they want to have done some scenes, they want to do some games to get them out of their head. I tend to be the reverse, which has previously frustrated a lot of performers. If I had it my way, I would turn up literally a minute before the show starts and walk straight onto the stage. I find that to be the best way of clearing my mind. It’s the same with football; I like to turn up just before kick-off. The longer I have to think about a thing the more likely I am to do it wrong, particularly with something like improv or playing football the art of it is to not think too much. You’ve got to get into a zone. With acting it is different you want to go over lines; you want to make sure you are prepared and everything else. My creative process is essentially that I don't have one.
Having said that I have to warm up for the sake of the group, so I don't know how well that process actually works.
At this point Kenny's menemen arrived and having learnt the fine art of taking it easy Turkish style we took a break to eat and have a drink.
Kenny: The menemen was lovely.
Luke: Right. What I’m curious about the role of rehearsal. In regular theatre it’s obvious what it's for. What about in improv?
Kenny: To be honest. I’m trying to check myself on this but fail out of instinct. Rehearsal is a misnomer and it’s probably practice. There can be a lot of division over what sort of service practice provides. Essentially, and I think even the most evangelical improvisers will understand this; there are basically rules and tenets that need to be learnt. And that's kind of sacrilege and people will say ‘there are no rules”, there is still stuff that you have to do. And to be honest it just takes time.
What is quite interesting is that, you get two kinds of people at improv. We have people who are experienced actors, very good at the acting part, making characters, being a different person, sort of getting into the head of the character they’re playing etc., which is great. There are just a few rules they need to learn. Which is things like: don't deny the reality that's going on, if the scene is going in this direction, take it in that direction, if somebody says this to you go with it rather than reject it blar blar blar.
On the other side you get people who have a lot of the facilities, they might be good actors, but there’s something in their personality that makes it hard. A lot of people are overly inhibited, a lot of people get stage fright, some people don't have any confidence in themselves, some don't connect with other people very well. We sometimes get people who aren’t very good at connecting with others, which is basically a tenet. The practice is, particularly for those people, all about working them out of those habits. It’s for people who are really good but are just afraid of making themselves look foolish. That's a difficult thing to overcome and the only way is practice and being within a culture that looks after them. That’s basically what practice is for, trying to find exercises that get rid of those inhibitions.
Essentially, it’s about learning how to craft a scene with another person, how to work with another person, how to listen to another person and take on another person's character and mind-set.
Luke: So I’ve seen a couple of your shows and I’ve noticed that you set each other up and let each other in. Is learning how to do that part of the practice?
Kenny: It’s part of the purpose of being a good teammate, which is another purpose of the practice. Fortunately, we don't have a problem with this but I’ve heard in other places there is more competition, in places like Chicago and New York where people want to get onto SNL and stand out, that they tend to solo a little bit which doesn't work.
We do set each other up. A lot of us are good friends, we meet up outside of improv we know what each other are like. It’s really like playing, like how a child plays, its fun. Say someone like Chris [Another regular member of The Clap] who is a very funny man. Its nice to throw him a ball and let him whack it, see what he’s going to do with it. That's supporting him, doing the right thing and part of being a good teem mate. Also, you feel good about it. Pragmatically, if you want to just look good, making your partner look good is the best way to achieve that.
Luke: That feeds nicely into my next question. How important is it to work with the same people?
Kenny: That's a good point actually. Very important is the answer. Really, it’s about trust. You do need to know the strengths and weakness of the people in your group. Even if somebody is like dynamite, we had somebody come over about a year ago, very experienced, been doing it for like fifteen years or something, but it was still really hard to do a scene with him because we'd never met him before. It's really important to know who you're working with.
It’s led to conflicts in the past. We’ve been pulled in two directions because; first and foremost The Clap is a community group. We’d like to get good at improv but really it’s about having fun, giving people a sense of purpose, secondly we are an improv group who tries to form stuff for audiences.
We have had conflicts over the fundamental philosophy. You want to be a community group and be as good as possible, but occasionally those two things come into conflict. We’ve talked for a year and a half about closing the rehearsals so only the performers get to rehearse. That way they can have a bit more time to ferment and don't get mobbed by numbers.
I personally always thought we are a community group first and foremost. We have tried to remedy it by getting two rehearsal rooms in the same place, performers practise separately from the others, but they are in the same place at the same time and can go for drinks together afterwards. That's my way of remedying it.
But, if my sole goal was to do improv as well as humanly possible besides everything else I would close the other performances, that trust and everything is important.
Luke: Is there a risk of becoming stale if you’re always working with the same people and you’re not getting new members into the main roster?
Kenny: That's it as well. That was part of the argument I used against closing rehearsals to beginners. For that very reason, you don't know when people are going to turn up. You don't know when somebody’s going to walk in the door. We had a guy who came to our show on Sunday. He’s just moved here from South Korea, like three days ago, and he’s been doing improv for seven years. If we had that policy we wouldn't be able to let him in, which would be nuts. How more self-defeating could you be?
To keep it fresh you need as many people as possible and in terms of quality you need to find ways to get better without blocking people out.
Luke: I want to move on to action on stage now. You’re always playing a character. Where do the ideas for a character come from?
Kenny: Well I suppose it depends where you are within the scene. To answer the question quickly, they are just usually characters from real life. Often semi-stereotypes. There’s only really a handful that most people do most of the time, there’s like a redneck, a posho, there’s like a homeless guy, anything. Aspects of the character come out.
The surface level characterisations: an accent, a posture, there only a certain amount of them done. The character, in terms of their internal self: the things they say, the things they think, really just come as the scene unfolds and so everything that gets said is true. Lets say, I’m a big crusty redneck and then my scene partner mentions about how I’m really down with gay marriage, then my internal character has changed but the external remains the same. You just have to accept that reality.
The internal character tends to just evolve as the scene does and you learn what is going on.
Luke: So the character gains a personality, he’s not just a redneck anymore he’s a redneck in favour of gay marriage?
Kenny: Yes, exactly.
Luke: So do you ask yourself questions, like: Why is he in favour of gay marriage?
Kenny: Yeah, and what kind of person could grow up in that community and still come out with these values. There is also a trope called ‘if this then what else’, or something like that. That basically means if he’s a redneck who’s into gay marriage, what else is he into that a stereotypical character might not be into? Or would it be funny to have a guy who’s the most blisteringly right wing person in the world but that's the one thing he is liberal on? Or decide to have him be a person of contradiction, he doesn't like homosexuality but he doesn't mind gay marriage.
Luke: So, as a writer, I’m constantly watching people in a slightly voyeuristic way. I’m constantly looking for gestures, turns of phrase, little human quirks. Saying ‘Oh that's nice, I’m going to use that later.’ Do you have a process a bit like that for improv?
Kenny: I think it is. Though it’s more like osmosis. I’m a bit like you, I like to people watch, come up with life stories. You just take that in; get it impressed on your brain so you can spit it out later. There is a great improviser in America, who when asked what’s the best way to train for improv he said something to the effect of ‘just have a normal life, connect with friends and watch people.’
Luke: A lot of writers give the same advice. Just have a life first.
Kenny: Exactly. Have a life first. I think that’s true.
Luke: What other artistic disciplines feed into improv? Obviously theatre, and for me the connection with music has always been apparent. What do you think about that?
Kenny: I think you're right actually. My background is mainly music and sport. I think they fit in. With music there is a harmony element to it, there is a rhythm, there can’t be dissidence. You get a similar bond as the bond you make with people who you make music with. There is something about that working together and trying to read each other’s minds.
Like I said, the comparison with football, with any team sport. If you want to come in so to speak and do well, the only way to do that is by being a good teammate and sacrificing yourself to the whole. If I could give advice to any improviser, sportsman, if you want to look good, you have to play as a team. Make others look good and you will as well.
Other disciplines. Theatre, obviously it helps if you're a good actor. Hmm, I’m almost challenging myself to see what else there is. Writing, poetry.
Well, writing in a way is almost the opposite of improv because the last thing you want to do when you’re improvising is to punch the narrative down a certain way. That is where some dissidence can come in. if a person comes into a scene and is like “I’m going to like try and lead this scene and form a narrative”. But the other person hasn't been informed what that is because it is improvisation and then doesn't get it right and you’re constantly trying to get it back on track rather than letting it play out naturally.
With a writer you’re in charge of your domain. You decide and you don't need to tell anyone. Which is something we find quite difficult when we’re sketch writing. We almost have to forget our improvising.
Luke: That kind of feeds into a question I was going to ask later so I might as well ask it now. Have you ever finished an improv show and thought, ‘I need to write that down, refine it and turn it into a scripted play’?
Kenny: I haven’t personally, but I know others have. When we started the sketch show we started digging a bit more. Paying a bit more attention.
I personally don't remember many of the shows I’ve done so it would serve me to write some of them down. We have done it once. I remember Ephemerata; the two guys who perform alongside The Clap did a show about a year and a half ago about a one armed typist. It was very funny, I was watching them and thinking it would be great if we could write it down and chip off the fat and make this into an episode.
Luke: But you aren’t interested in doing that?
Kenny: I’m interested but keep forgetting.
Kenny: Just one more thing. The audience has a different mind-set when they come to see improv. Even compared to a sketch comedy show. Firstly, you give the performers a longer leash. So you allow them to make mistakes and you understand that what they are doing is difficult. You don't want to watch a sketch that's been written that isn’t funny. What’s the point? Whereas, an improv show where there is five minuets without any jokes happening you can live with that because you understand they’re trying to work it out and get where they’re trying to go.
And people laugh at different things. The example I always give is, obviously, you have to mime in improv, but a lot of people forget that they’re holding a glass of beer. And they talk and they point and they without realising drop their pint. If their scene partner notices and catches the pint and says ‘here, you dropped your pint.’ The audience gives you a laugh. You could never put that into scripted comedy and get the same reaction.
If I think of the last show we did, it was a funny one. The audience enjoyed it a lot, it was weird. It was not completely cohesive, didn't make a lot of sense. I think if you verbatim plonked it onto the stage as a scripted piece, the audience would have sat there going ‘What is going on?’. It’s really only the fact that it’s improvised that lets you get away with it.
Luke: Your performances with The Clap are comedic. Is that by choice or necessity?
Kenny: For me or the group?
Luke: For the group.
Kenny: [thinks for some time] Necessity. It’s hard enough to get an improv crowd as it is. Extract the comedy from it and you've got problems.
Luke: What I’m trying to lean towards here is would it be possible to do a dramatic improvised piece?
Kenny: You absolutely could. People do. I don't know if we could do it right now. We’ve always done comedy. But you know what I think if you’re improvising something it’s almost impossible to do it and not be funny.
I think there are a couple of things to it. You could do a dramatic performance but you’d have to be a fucking good performer. And you’d have to really restrain yourself because when you’re uncomfortable you make jokes. And laughter is the one really obvious and noticeable way a crowd can provide immediate feedback. A lot of the time on stage, doing improv you’re uncomfortable, particularly early on in scenes. That's why you get crazy premises like ‘my son just bit off the head of a dog’ and it’s obviously come from a place of discomfort. So you could do a dramatic performance but in terms of the comedy, I don't think necessity is even the right word, it’s just by definition.
I honestly don't think you could improvise and try not to make a joke.
Luke: Is the need to be funny limiting?
Kenny: Again there is a bit of controversy in the general improv community over this. Some people, myself included, think of it as entertainment so I’m quite happy to lean on comedy. As far as I’m concerned, within reason, if I come out of a show and the audience tells me they enjoyed it then I’m happy.
There are people who don't see it that way. For them it’s more of an art form and a craft. Obviously, the truth is somewhere in-between.
Certainly the people on the other side certainly feel that the need to be funny retards what they’re doing. Like I said, you can probably walk on the line because you can practice your craft and end up being funny, you can’t not.
Certainly, chasing laughs does not work. You do have to allow the comedy to come naturally. It’s a bit different with short form like we do at spoken word [Spoken Word Istanbul], that is just gags. But the long form, which is our bread and butter. Well, we are always told “if the audience isn’t laughing it doesn't mean you’re doing it wrong and if they are it doesn't mean you are doing it right.“
If we had a performer who just chases laughs, well we did, and we guided him out of that and tried to suggest another way of doing it. Overt comedy does probably retard the thing itself.
However, understand that you do have a duty to entertain and that will involve making funny choices.
Luke: Alright, do you want to say anything about the sketch show?
Kenny: About the writing?
Luke: Yeah, what’s going on with that? I haven’t seen it yet.
Kenny: We do it twice a month at BKM. We got approached by them in October to do a sketch show. We were very excited about it and its good for the group, in terms of trying new stuff. It’s good because The Clap is only seven people and spots don't come open very often. We have a large community and the larger it grows the harder it becomes to find them stuff to do. So the sketch show does fulfill those needs.
The process has been quite interesting, everybody has their own style. I think we’ve done four shows now. So, four lots of two sketches. Everybody has their own writing style which has been interesting to watch. Small groups have already started to appear, there are people who seem to write better together. There also seems to be a pool of people who know how to write a script, it doesn't seem to mater who they've got around them. What will come out will be half decent.
A lot of the hard stuff isn’t the jokes or the premise or anything; it’s the mundane stuff in-between, the nuts and bolts.
I find my own creative process. I can’t be the romantic lone genius working alone. Firstly, I’m not a genius, and if I work alone I’m just aware of the fact that I’m alone.
Basically, we sit down just like we are now and talk. Like if we were in a pub, shooting shit and mentally log anything that makes us laugh then jam them together. One of you needs to stay sober and type. I generally prefer to be the sober one writing. I certainly can’t do anything creative under any level of inebriation. Even if only minor.
It’s been an interesting process, learning, really without much direction what makes a sketch good. I was actually talking to Chris [a clap member] the other day. We had to get our next lot of sketches ready for the next show. We are finding a lot of peoples lines that they believe to be funny and jokes that they believe to be funny. They just come up with a basic process and drop gags into it. It doesn't really work because the story lacks cohesion and the characters within it aren’t connecting with each other if they’re just making jokes. I don't think it’s very funny to just watch a character who in his universe is funny. It’s funnier to watch them from a different universe. When the stage and the audience are in two different universes.
It’s like watching your family at dinner. You might be able to make each other laugh, but no one else will find it funny. As a family member you can watch objectively what is amusing at an idiosyncratic level. That's where comedy comes from.
We actually had two sketches on Sunday that show the two extremes of this kind of thing. We had one sketch that was, basically, about a guy asking for a woman’s hand in marriage and being rejected. There wasn’t any line, in isolation, which was funny, there weren’t any gags. It was very funny because it was about the way that Turkish and expat families connect, or don't connect, as the case may be, about hospitality and these sort of things. It was what you might call a pure sketch, not gaggy but the characterisations were funny.
On the other side, we had one with Chris. He is somewhat of a tour de force of comedy, just a funny funny guy. The sketch was a guy on a tinder date and the bloke is not someone you want to date. The person opposite him is a complete stranger, just a woman who wishes she wasn't there. Every single line that Chris said was funny was a gag but it wasn't funny in their universe. The character opposite him in the sketch didn't find it funny. In the sketch Chris’s character was trying to be charming, but just wasn't. The two protagonists did not find the situation amusing, but someone listening in on the next table would have loved it. It was about a simple a premise as you could possibly have but you could read any line in isolation and find it funny. So it’s been interesting to work those things out, find out what makes a sketch funny like "Where do you get the tension from? You need that early, what’s the word? Twist, in the first five lines that gets everybody laughing. We’ve gone from reality and now we are in this realm. Working with the structure, having a good ending, that’s always important and tough.
Luke: That's what Monty Python famously struggled with, ending their sketches and eventually sort of gave up on endings, just said ‘right, send in the cornel, we’re done.’
Kenny: Yeah, exactly, and it can be bloody difficult. Saying that though a good ending can make the whole thing.
Luke: Fantastic, so we are the Bosphorus Review of Books so it would be inappropriate to not ask, what are you reading at the moment?
Kenny: I’m reading a book called The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis of Money Ball fame. I’ve read a lot of his books. It’s about Daniel Kahnerman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologists who as the book title slightly exaggerates had a friendship that changed the world. Basically they were pioneers of not really psychology but decision-making. There were just two extraordinary people who managed to become friends even though they were polar opposites. One of them just won the Nobel Prize for Economics because of their work on decision-making. Kind of getting away from humans being rational human beings who make rational decisions to morons who make moronic decisions.
Luke: That's possibly becoming more and more true with every passing day. I think that's a good place to end this. Thank you for talking to me.
Kenny: My pleasure.