GETTING TO KNOW: NICK BYRNE

Nick Byrne is Artistic Director of Improvention – international festival of unscripted theatre, and Impro ACT, which creates new performance structures for improvisation, as well as running regular public courses and corporate training in the techniques that make improvisation effective.

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Nick Byrne talks to The Street ahead of the launch of  IMPROVENTION 2016.

IMPROVENTION 2016 IS ALMOST HERE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CONCEPT?

It’s a performance festival with artists from across the globe appearing in more than 30 shows. This year we have performers from Sweden, USA, Austria, Canada, Taiwan, South Africa, New Zealand, Israel, France, and more. Every style of unscripted theatre is on show, from the short-form comedic work that most would be familiar with from Theatresports or Whose Line Is It Anyway, through to long-form unscripted dramatic plays, music theatre, puppetry, physical and experimental work.

Improvention is highly participatory and inclusive for the more than 100 improvisational artists and students of the art attending, with 50 workshops and a program that allows all to perform in our Canberra Impro Challenge section of the program.

It’s also a convention of improvising theatre companies, covering aspects of collaboration, resource sharing, etc, including a focus, this year, on gender issues for the improve stage.

HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO DEVELOP THE CONCEPT INTO AN EIGHT-DAY FESTIVAL OF THEATRE SHOWS, WORKSHOPS AND CONFERENCE SESSIONS, now ATTRACTING NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL PARTICIPANTS?

Through inclusivity, collaboration, and the development of a genuine global community.

Improvention began as the graduation show of our first courses in Canberra in 2005, when it was then simply called The Canberra Impro Theatre Challenge. We invited a couple of guests from Sydney, to give the show more punch. By the following year, more guests came, and we ran a couple of workshops, with extra shows stretching us to a full weekend. We grew organically from there.

As a smaller city, we wondered how to bring the same opportunities to Canberra, as Sydney and Melbourne enjoyed. Improvising companies operated without a lot of collaboration, and so we included a convention to discuss this. From that point, Improvention, became the central event on the Australian calendar, in terms of inviting international guests, who would then get work in other cities around Australia and New Zealand, through our increased collaboration, to make their visit to the Festival worthwhile.

We couldn’t afford to bring whole troupes from around the world to present shows, so instead we invited directors, who taught workshops in their performance structures, and cast their Festival shows from the available improvisers. I had no idea this would prove such a good idea – it was just a practical measure, but it was what the internationals talked about when they got home. They were so excited to get to play with each other, rather than just for each other, and as a result, their colleagues abroad started to request a place at Improvention, and the rest is history. Other international festivals are now adopting this model, as a result.

WHAT IS THE PROGRAMMING RATIONALE FOR PUBLIC SHOWS?

The program is usually quite eclectic. I seek to present the full diversity of what improvisers can do, to combat stereotypes of who we are as performing artists. I see my role as building public awareness of what our genre of theatre is, beyond the public preconceptions.

I look to showcase the different techniques of this year’s international and national guest directors, because many geographic and historical factors mean that extremely varied techniques are on show. I look to have some work that is very physical, some that is musical, some that is funny, some that is popularist, and some that is extremely experimental.

I also look to play my part in displaying cultural & gender diversity in our theatre-makers, as well as to give some newer artists an opportunity to work alongside the gurus of their craft, and take leaps in their artistic development.

I try to create a program full of double bills, so that audiences can see two different shows and come away surprised, though I generally try to make evenings that meet each audience’s stylistic expectations. On one night, they can watch the truly dramatic Strindberg inspired “The Kammarspel” alongside the shadowy “Hour of The Wolf”, and the next night they can see an international star showcase in “Yes” alongside the short-form comedy gold of “The Canberra Impro Challenge Grand Finale”.

HOW HAVE YOU DEVELOPED SUCH A HUGH FOLLOWING FOR IMPROVENTION?

We are still working to do so, in terms of the general public, but for the more than 100 out-of-town improvisers that visit Canberra for the week, and for the local improvising community, the Festival has become one the largest participatory events anywhere in the world

I think the educational opportunities for these improvisers to learn from the largest assembled collection of world masters, anywhere, is completely unrivalled, even in North America or Europe, and Improvention is one of very few, (if any other) festivals where all attending improvisers can perform somewhere in the program.

Finally, the improvising community is truly global, and the artists that visit Improvention spread the word, and we do our best to give them the type of experience that they simply must share. In return, they have invited me to their events, and later in the year, I have been invited to direct, perform, and teach, in more than 10 European cities, where I will have the chance to network further.

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF IMPROVISATION, THEY OFTEN THINK OF THEATRESPORTS OR A FUNNY SKIT. LOOKING AT THE PROGRAM FOR 2016, THERE IS SO MUCH MORE ON OFFER. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SEEN FROM AN ISLAND, AN EXPERIENTIAL COLLABORATION BETWEEN AN AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS ARTIST AND AN IMPROVISER FROM THE REUNION ISLAND.

Yes, there is so much more to improvised performance than Theatresports. What we do is simply another skillset, from which to present theatre. A wordless physical performance can easily be described as theatre, as can an opera, as can a piece of verbatim theatre that uses a series of interviews rather than a script, perse, as its script. Improvisation is simply theatre that doesn’t happen to use a script.

After meeting Kamarra Bell-Wykes and other indigenous artists at The Australian Theatre Forum in 2015, I began to actively pursue a goal I’d had for a several years, to activate indigenous storytelling technique and cultural inclusivity into our program, which developed, last year into a workshop at Improvention. Keng-Sam, from Reunion Island (FRA), was one of our outstanding international guests, that year, who had a rich culture in his own homeland, and the two artists decided to collaborate on “Seen From An Island” in 2016.

In this production, audiences will be immersed in a world of storytelling traditions from our big island, and Keng-Sam’s smaller one. A workshop with artists from around Australia and the world will form the cast of this show, so I’m looking forward to many surprises, myself. “Seen From An Island” is also a double bill feast for the culturally minded, with Act II being a presentation by the all-Taiwanese troupe, “Guts Improv”, who will incorporate audience suggestions into aspects of Taiwanese culture.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE IN THIS YEAR’S PROGRAM? WHY?

I’d never nominate a favourite. For one thing, the program is so diverse, performances are hard to compare in that way, and for another thing, I’m an improviser diplomat, as much as a director.

One of the many highlights for me will be “Ants” in Street 1 on Thursday, July 7. It’s another collaboration between outstanding Austrian director, Beatrix Brunschko, and a returning guest from last year, Tom Johnson, from USA. Both work from a basis they call ‘emergence’, which exemplifies my feelings about improvisation. Like ants, an improviser needs no idea of the final product of their labours or how their tiny offers will contribute to it, and yet, they go about their work diligently, expertly, with full commitment, trusting that something incredible will emerge.

For the sheer fun of it, I would have to say that this Saturday, July 2nd’s, “Improvision Song Contest” will just be an amazing night to open the Festival. Guests from all our visiting nations will glam-up, and create songs on the spot with our improvising stage band, backing vocals, lighting, the full shebang. It’s Eurovision improvised, and I’m calling it the real July 2 vote! My 12 points goes to Improvision.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE NEW FORMATS EMERGING IN IMPROVISATION?

About 25% of the performance formats at Improvention are premiering. Creating new work is what we do. The rest are structural scaffolds for shows, that do not relate to narrative or usually character, but merely form.

One exciting new format is “A World Between Words”, directed by Melbourne’s Nigel Sutton. This is a very physical, and as the name suggests, largely silent, always wordless format, that was generated in a week-long creative development, here in Canberra in January, with guests from around Australia and as far afield as Singapore, plus local improvisers.

My own new format, “Parallel” will also be personally exciting to present at Improvention. It seeks to tell three stories at once, with different performers in each story remaining on stage when their story is not in focus, becoming part of the less-literal components of the other stories. I was really happy with our earlier Canberra season, and since I have been invited to present this format in Europe, it will be a wonderful opportunity at Improvention to try it with a combination of local and international artists.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY IN IMPROVISATION?

I am personally most inspired by the experimental, rather than the slick. I am always looking to try something that has not been done before. It’s what I’ve sought to do by creating new formats that need new teaching and rehearsal modes, as well, such as for “The Displaced” (analogies for refugee stories), “Crescendo”, the drama and performance of life in a ten-piece band, “Drivers” examining our internal stream-of-consciousness monologues, and now, “Parallel”, as described above.

I am most inspired, in terms of technique, by the school of thought typified by Randy Dixon (Seattle), and his international Orcas Island Project, members of which visit us at most Improventions, including this one. In this method, rather than trying to seamlessly design clear and linear narratives in real time on stage, I like to allow the audience an opportunity to immerse themselves in their own imaginations, and privately become collaborators in the process of joining some of the dots.

I am daily inspired by the supportive local, national, and international community of improvisers. The training we do to achieve improvisation are the same as techniques to become more effectively socialised in life, generally, and the result is truly global family of artists. When it feels like this, it becomes a calling, as much as an artform or a job.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I am currently reading “Collective Improvisation – From Theatre to Film and Beyond” by a previous guest from Slovenia, Sonja Vilc. It’s a wonderful description of what improvisation is, even for the lay-person, but it also examines a remarkable project she was involved in called, ”Should I Stay or Should I Go”, an improvised feature film collaboration between five European countries, which we are presenting at the National Film and Sound archives on July 3 and 4.

I’ve been watching the box-set of the Swedish-Danish crime thriller series, “The Bridge”, which is a remarkable piece of television drama, particularly in its examination of the way we relate to those in differing states of mind to our own. I’ve also been watching “Rake” on the ABC, which is one of the best pieces of Australian television in recent years; funny and poignant, a reflection of Australian society, with outstanding scripting and performance.

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