Finland International Improv Festival (FIIF 2.0) took place during the last week of May (28.05 - 01.06) in Tampere, southern Finland and was organized by JadaJada Improv and a team of volunteers. The festival featured the shows of many international improvisational theatre teams, workshops with experienced instructors, “special-format” shows and most importantly, laughter.
Jaa! and Bifurcation Point
I participated in the ranks on Improgrupp Jaa!, a young and fabulous improv group from Estonia. We’d decided to perform a music-based long-form format and gave a series of shows (in both Estonian and English) in preparation to FIIF.
The boat to Helsinki was at 8 am, which meant little sleep and an early start. I’d packed my six day bag, taking care to include items for the predicted rain, which did not happen. Indeed, the city was mostly ablaze, peaking at 28 degrees on the day of departure.
07:30 saw the harbor of Tallinn where improvisers were slowly showing up. There were 11 of us. Yes - eleven, undici, yksitoista. By far the largest team at the FIIF, but also the youngest, most eager to learn and see awesome improv. Rahel, the ever-practical travel-arranger handed out information packets for the trip, containing boat and train tickets, schedule and performance information, all neatly in order.
We had some free time in Helsinki and people scattered. Some to shops, others for lunch, I to wander the streets. I stick to my last-year impression: the architecture of Helsinki is tall, monotonous and just a bit unnervingly creepy. There was a lot of beauty too, like a living statue of Darth Vader, dressed in black despite the blazing heat.
Finland is an expensive country compared to Estonia. Simple items cost twice or more and yes, now I get why the Finns drink alcohol freely when visiting their southern cousin… but the thing I felt most crossed about was the following comparison: public restroom in VR station: 1 €. The album of my favourite Finnish band, Nightwish: 5 € [a sandwich costs about the same].
Ten minute walk from the VR station in Tampere and we found ourselves in Dreamhostel, checking in and greeting the man himself, cheerful as ever. Jaa! was split to two rooms, sharing with Improvisaatioteatteri JOO!, our northern counterpart [Improgrupp Jaa! = Improvisaatioteatteri JOO! = Improv group/theater Yes!]. Registration fees were exchanged (I believe this was the most cash any of us had had with them for a long time) and blue festival shirts and passes were handed out. Trent made good-hearted fun on my beard.
Some of Jaa! ended up on a private-ish city tour with a cheerful volunteer from the staff. The walk-about ended in the legendary O’Connel’s Irish Bar to see and partake in Improv Karaoke, something we did not make it to the previous year. There was a live band of improvisers and plenty of actors to jump on stage and sing a song about anything. I am a sucker for improvised songs and did not disappoint (ketchup!). The eleven of us sang the Estonian traditional, regilaul, and at some point, a pink bra was produced and neatly put to rest on top of one of the microphones.
Wednesday marked the beginning of what was to become (a good kind of) routine: waking at nine, shower and breakfast [or not, as it most commonly happened], warm-up event at ten, a 3-hour workshop with one of the instructors during the day and several improv shows at Tampereen Ylioppilasteatteri in the evenings. Afterparty shows well over midnight at OC’s. This schedule saw little opportunities for lunch / dinner, indeed, in most cases I was living off water and whatever I could eat on the go; crashing to bed each night, spent and satisfied.
Ryan Millar: Taking It Easy – Learning to Get Out of Your Own Way
Ryan is an improviser, writer, trainer, storyteller and comedian living in Amsterdam. He has over fifteen years experience teaching, training and entertaining, working in different countries and languages. Performing scripted and unscripted material, hosting shows and events and generally making audiences happy – that’s what he does. http://ryan-millar.com
My first workshop was with Ryan, an overall nice person and a confident improviser.
This workshop is designed to help you (and your scene partner) get out of your own way and allow the joy of the scene to take centre stage. Getting to this point can be exhilarating and liberating. And once you know how to do it, it gets easier.
- What it was about: Rediscovering the fun of being in a scene. Not worrying.
- Why I took it: I feel under pressure to be "good".
- Most important lesson: Listen to your partner. All the words (s)he says are of importance. React honestly, avoid clutter and you'll enjoy yourself quite a bit more.
Improgrupp Jaa! [Estonia]
We were the first team to go on stage. There was time to look over the venue and set up the sound - my trusty laptop with Mixxx and CC Attribution music collection. I was a bit nervous worried that my laptop might freeze again as it did during one of our shows in Estonia. Luckily, that did not happen. The show itself went better than expected. The music offers were good and the scenes on stage strong.
Our format requires intense concentration from the sound guy (having to follow the scenework, look for the next song to play and managing audio levels for two channels at the same time) and so I can not remember what the show was actually about, only bits and pieces. The audience liked it though and from what I gather from the actors, they did too. In short: nailed it.
4fun (spiediens.com / rigasimprovizacijasteatris.lv) [Latvia]
4fun was a team combined from two groups in Latvia and performed short-form games with some unique twists and offers. Audience members were “asked” to come to the stage and help (including one totally innocent [def: unruined by the ways of improv comedy] Estonian actor and some not so innocent comrades). They’d also put two girls on chairs, with a bell and try to approach them; each bell ring marked failure. The guys lifespan could be measured in one digit numbers. Hilarious, honest humor.
This was the team most familiar to me, indeed we’ve had some fun times together. The format was a long-form with short-form group games mixed in. As an improviser myself, I mostly always watch improv with insiders eyes and it was interesting to try to identify the games the team organically incorporated. Especially some short, Finnish-accented, unexpected punch lines (“I have a problem…. every Saturday morning… I wake up. [pause]”).
I woke late and discovered that there was a contact improvisation workshop at ten. We’d done something of the type with Jaa! and what I’d experienced seemed nice, so I decided to go. Had I had some more time, I suspect I would have talked myself out of it. Luckily, I did not.
There are several definitions as to what contact improvisation actually is and they can be roughly divided as to more dance or therapy centric. For the purpose of this writeup, I’ll go with Danny Lepkoff’s:
Contact improvisation is a duet movement form. Two people move together, in contact, maintaining a spontaneous physical dialogue through the kinesthetic signals of shared weight and a common or counterpoised momentum. The body, in order to open to the sensations of momentum, weight, and balance, must learn to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain amount of willful volition to the natural flow of movement at hand. Skills such as rolling, falling, and being upside down are explored, guiding the body to an awareness of its own natural movement possibilities.
I won’t go into details on what the group did. Suffice to say that this and the following day are my most treasured memories from FIIF. We had the best possible instructor and participants. Everyone felt safe and not judged. I left with an easy feeling in my chest and limbs and had to sit quietly for some time by myself to “come back down” and process the thoughts and emotions buzzing through my body.
Nadine Antler: It is never about the cake - Relationships and Stories in Scenes
Nadine has taught many workshops for actors, improvisers, social workers, teachers, students and business people. She has been a guest lecturer on improvisation and theatre pedagogics at the University of Wuerzburg since 2009. www.kaktussen.de In this workshop, the focus will be on making our scenework more compelling by finding strong relationships and letting them drive the story. Nadine will show us, how we can play so that the audience is pulled into the story.
- What it was about: Scenes are remembered and enjoyed if there is a story based on a solid foundation and relationships.
- Why I took it: I find myself struggling to create meaningful platforms with my partner.
- Most important lesson: Establish a strong platform for the scene and base it on honest relationships between people.
It is quite possible to earn a living with improvisation, especially in the growing field of applied improv - using improv techniques in everyday lives, especially in corporations: teaching people teamwork and presentation skills. Trent and his guests shared their experiences in this interesting new field.
Improvised fairy tales for the little ones! Costumes, storytelling and audience participation. The audience was scarce, but there were small ones present and participating. Every once in a while the writer would stand up and coax the kids to offer suggestions as to where the story might go. There were some high-reaching (literally) acrobatic feats, costume and character changes and yes, a happy ending.
Belgische Improvisatie Liga [Belgium]
BIL kicked the whole theatre outside to prepare… and suitably so, because when the doors reopened we were greeted by strange quirky characters from … the 80-s? BIL was the only team to incorporate strong character work from before the start of the show until the very end. Respect. The format was an interesting one and the lucky winner to call BINGO! got what I can only assume was a box of the best chocolate in existence.
Eki Paki [Slovenija]
Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a murder, or to be more precise, a murder mystery. A mansion in Victorian England, with inhabitants of different motives and a naked body covered with stamps, on top of a horse, no less. Oh, and a ghost of the dead grandfather.
I can say without a doubt that this show had the most brilliantly sarcastic and creepy butler I’ve seen played on any stage. There was a real kissing scene, which surprised me a little, in a very positive way. I talked about ‘keeping it real’ with Jstar later on and concluded that this is a matter of culture and trust amongst the troupe.
Easylaughts [The Netherlands]
Four directors, four different visions for the next top-of-the-box-office-movie. Only things hardly go according to plan in improv, do they? There’s truth in comedy and sometimes, just a bit of playful mockery. As the four world-famous directors tried to play out their vision of a perfect movie, it became a spontaneous running joke that the French director, his star actors and the poor fish didn’t reach further than the beginning shot of a river - for several, several scenes… and it wasn’t a movie about rivers. There was swearing in deeply accented French and a lot of laughter.
One and two-man shows
Three minimum cast short shows were played at O’Connell’s, amongst them Ryan’s and Rod’s “The Republic”.
The group from the previous day had changed so we started with the basics again… but moved on to more dynamic movements quickly. The first day had been an introduction to trust, listening and movement and those skills were now put to good use as equal partners explored their bodies and ways of movement.
The experience was extremely satisfying and [at least for me] therapeutic. Recommended reading: “The Contact Duet as a Paradigm
for Client/Therapist Interaction”, a thesis paper by Adwoa Lemieux. I was disheartened to find no solid evidence of beginner/casual CI activity in Estonia.
JStar Atlanta: Just The 2 Of Us
JSTAR is the founder and artistic director of the 9 year old Basement Theatre in Atlanta, GA USA. He has studied at IO (Improv olympic), Second City and The Annoyance in Chicago as well as UCB New York, and Keith Johnstone. www.thebasementtheatre.com In this workshop we'll learn the strengths of the 2 person scene, the excitement of falling in love on stage, as well as formats for improv duos that create rich exciting 2 person shows!
- What it was about: Focus on the relationship. Not only yes, but yes AND!. Be honest and trust your partner.
- Why I took it: I want to improve my scenework skills.
- Most important lesson: React honestly. Add to what your partner gives you.
Jstar introduced a two-person format based on physical space, positions and emotions which I’m excited to try out with my buddy soon.
Trent sat down with the workshop instructors to discuss improv in their corner of the world. You can listen to the recording (soon) at Improverted.
Sadly, I missed most of the show. From what I saw from the end, the guys had… mojo, as defined by Austin Powers.
Improvisaatioteatteri Joo! [Finland]
You’re not starting your shows running on stage, grabbing a few microphones and improvising a duet? You should.
I was on stage with some wonderful people. Unfortunately, I did not feel sure in myself and able to let go, so, as a consequence, I didn’t push myself to the stage. Heartfelt gratitude to Ryan Millar who noticed and “dragged” me along to start a new scene.
What ensued can only be described as “What if the cast of Whose Line [the US version, silly] decided to do long-form?”. ¡Zarzamora! was perhaps the oldest [in terms of individual actors] team present and that was obvious in the expertise they carried their show. The story of the invention of the humble doorbell was as amusing as it was spontaneous. Lots of honest and sometimes sarcastic humor. Lots of energy… and more than enough laughter.
Rod Ben Zeev: Long Form Workshop
Rod taught a special workshop wherein three long-form formats were introduced in the span of two hours. I did not participate, but had the opportunity to observe. The Bat, which we did during Christmas, took on a wholly different meaning.
Rod Ben Zeev: Finding Your Flow
Rod Ben Zeev has been performing, directing and teaching impro for over twelve years on four continents in three languages to audiences aged 5 to 95. www.rodbenzeev.com/Home.html Finding flow in scenes is difficult. When you have it, it’s the most powerful feeling in the world, everything you say and do works. In this workshop we learn how to connect the body language with the spoken text in scenes using meditation.
- What it was about: Having flow means really being in the moment and reacting without The Mechanism (of planning) distracting you from honesty.
- Why I took it: I tend to overthink.
- Most important lesson: Listen, be honest, react and take it easy.
Finnish All Star Show
I’ve heard of improvisers doing Shakespeare plays… but Finnish family drama, performed by an expert cast? This show was different from all of the others in that its aim was not to be funny. The more infrequent laughter pauses didn’t mean that the show was boring, on the contrary, I found myself leaning forwards and doing all sorts of things with my facial muscles as the drama unfolded.
The tempo of the show was slower and somber, lots of dramatic moments, the most prominent of them the tragic suicide of a small boy… which also turned into stark contrast moments later: Simo Routarinne’s character shot himself, his father sang a dreadfully sad song and… AND…! Simo couldn’t contain his laughter [the body was still on stage], the characters noticed and he was brought back to life. The boy was dead no more and the pregnant woman was unpreagnanted (©).
Although Trent said the cast came together for the first and the last time, for only one play, I’d certainly like to see them more.
All of the teams still present got some more stagetime, one after the other. BIL improvised a soap-opera, which was better than absolutely all of whatever I was forced to endure during my childhood. Jaa! did freeform. All of the workshops on letting go had had the desired effect on me and I was able to get rid of some of the stage tension. easylaughs had found some mustaches and converted themselves into… “La Moustaaach!”.
The show featured Simo Routarinne as a storyteller and a cast of improvisers to perform scenes inspired by his true stories. facebook.com/storinatampere
The last night and morning were sad ones for me - the festival was ending and it’d be two years since I next got to forget being a responsible adult and just play, live and be.
We woke early (those coming from the sauna at dawn even earlier), cleaned and returned our keys. Goodbyes were said in the kitchen and we went our separate ways. Dear person to whom I owe an ice-cream - this will get done one day. Train and boat times were used to rest up from the nights activities.
I got some experience in navigating on my own in Helsinki so the third trip to Tampere shouldn’t be a problem. All too soon we were on a ship and landing in Tallinn. Hugs were exchanged and we went our separate ways.
The week of FIIF was my first ever “real” vacation - a few precious days where I could forget all the responsibility of a student and a IT professional. Days where I could be surrounded by like-minded people who knew how to live life to the fullest. I was without my laptop, Facebook, emails and even a decent internet connection and quite happy with the situation.
The workshops and shows reminded me the reason I fell in love with improv. I learned a lot from some of the best and brightest and gained conviction about my future goals in improv. I want to stay in the field for a long, long time. I want to contribute to the development of improv in Estonia (which is still in its baby steps) and at some point add IO summer intensive to my resume.
I plan to keep on laughing.
- Uri Lifshitz
- Andrus Aavik
FIIF participants and guests - what was your experience like? Leave a comment below about your favourite moments at the FIIF. Photographers - link your public galleries if you don’t mind sharing them with the world.
This post took a week to write and already I’ve forgotten the finer details. Oh memory, thou art a heartless bitch - which is one of the reasons for this reminiscence.