Improv comedy tends to get swept under the mat, playing the less-famous, goofy little sibling to stand-up. But 11-piece improv company The Maydays are changing all of that, bringing something fresh and exciting to the world of laughs. They regularly perform at Komedia Brighton, The Miller in London, and at large-scale corporate and private events. They’ve headlined sell-out international festivals from Dublin to Barcelona and performed in many of the major improvised shows in the USA. They’re preparing to bring their twisted, dark musical tale Happily Never After to the Brighton Fringe Festival this May, so we caught up with ensemble member Jen Rowe to chat all things comedy, fear, and goth musicals.
Firstly, we ask her how she got into comedy. Shockingly, she didn’t come out of the womb making jokes – she used to work for Schoolsnet. But after the dot-com bubble burst, she moved to Brighton and attended local drama school ACT, graduating in 2005. She said her principal told her she had been impressive at improv and asked her to contact The Maydays. “I didn’t really know that I had been good at improv, but I got involved anyway and the rest is history,” she explained.
Twelve years later, improv has completely changed Jen’s outlook on life for the better. “I’m definitely more confident and I have my own gang now, ” she says, “and generally, I also have much more of a sense of being present.
“We are ever-present on the internet at the moment, but just being with another person and concentrating on what they’re saying without having your phone on the table is becoming rare.
“But as soon as you’re up there on stage doing improv, you have to be present. Because if you’re not there, you’re not reacting to the audience around you.”
The art of crafting theatre live in the moment without a script has spawned the careers of countless big-name stars including the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Bill Murray. No wonder, then, that improv is fast becoming the next big thing in the comedy sphere. Jen tells us: “Learning comedy is expanding all the time and the improv community itself is getting much bigger. Stand-up has been quite big for a while now, and there’s been Jill Edwards doing her stand-up course, but improv has always been the little brother to stand-up.
“It’s becoming much more visible with Showstoppers leading the way and getting into the West End as well as Austentatious following suit very soon. That’s really good for the rest of us!”
On, then, to the shows! The group’s identifier, Happily Never After, has been called ‘hilarious’ by improv legend Colin Mochrie, who is famed for his frequent appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway. Jen describes the 60-minute show as ‘weird, quirky, dark, and funny’. Taking inspiration from Tim Burton, the Brothers Grimm, and Lemony Snicket, Happily Never After is a gothic musical full of black comedy, stripy costumes, and haunting music. Being improv, it’s also a different show every night with the troupe drawing on audience suggestions to craft their fairy tale. “It hits on all the things we already do, but allows us to do them more,” Jen says. “It’s a beautiful show – and sometimes very funny!”
Along with Happily Never After, the company are bringing a performance where the audience pick the performance to the Brighton Fringe Festival. Run at the beginning and end of the event, The Fringe Show sees the 11 recreating other Fringe events, as selected by the audience. Jen describes the spectacle as ‘lovely fun’. So, if you’ve always wanted to know what it looks like when a comedian tries their hand at being a Chekhovian Mime or a Bavarian Heavy Metal artist, this is the show for you.
“We get people to tear out any event from the fringe and put them in a hat, then pull them out and try and perform our version of the show to the best of our ability,” says Jen. “Sometimes, when we get something involving dance, it’s chaotic. But the point is not to take the mickey out of it – it’s to take the mickey out of ourselves and to try and do it well.”
As well as performing, The Maydays also take delight in introducing people to comedy through teaching. Their busy schedule is jam-packed with free tasters every few months, drop-ins every Thursday and Saturday, beginner’s courses every term, and two residential retreats annually.
We ask Jen what it’s like to teach improv. She says: “I particularly enjoy the beginner’s classes because it’s really nice discovering people who are just trying out for the first time. Some people come along to get more confident, and a lot of people who come do it because they’re self-employed and it’s useful for their presentations.Other people just want to have a laugh! So you get a really massive mix of people involved.
“It’s just very nice watching somebody get their first laugh, which invariably happens within 15 minutes, and then watching them get addicted!”
Although a very diverse mix of people come to shows and classes (with participants ranging from 20something to well past retirement age), Jen has noticed one trend – doctors love to do improv. “ I talked to a few of them recently and they said it’s because they have to be right on other things during their job all day – they usually can not afford to get anything wrong,” explains Jen. “The freedom to go ‘no, here, you can completely mess it up’ helps! Comedy is a great way to ‘let your hair down’.”
We ask Jen to tell us more about failure and nerves. Do they still bother her after more than a decade with The Maydays? “It’s weird,” she tells us, “when I do scripted performances I get nervous about forgetting my lines, but there’s not that problem with improvising.
“It’s one of those things where you have to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. One of the things we say straight up on the first day is ‘you can not fail at this’, which I think is really important. You just can’t fail.
“If anything goes ‘wrong’ it just creates a new opportunity. Often, when things go ‘wrong’, it’s just a twist.”
Finally, we hit Jen with our typical Brighton Journal question, and her message to the world is a poignant one: “If you fear failure, then you won’t achieve your full potential. That’s the message of improv. If you don’t try something, then you’ll never know if it’s going to be the thing which changes your life.”
Happily Never After will be showing at 9:30 pm between May 18 and 20 at The Warren: Studio 2, which is in Otherplace Brighton. The Fringe Show will take place at the Komedia Studio on May 5 and June 2. For more details and tickets, click here.
You can also watch the trailer for Happily Never After below: