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Stuff that Isn’t and the Bardic Tap

October 21st, 2008

This is an entry for those interested in the art of acting, and specially for Sophia in London who is studying the art:

In researching the esoteric gathering of Elizabethan intellectuals that became known as the ‘School of Night’ I came across this article about Ken Campbell whose work deserves exploration:

Who needs scripts anyway?

This weekend sees the master of improvisation, Ken Campbell, performing a 50-hour improvathan. Get your sleeping bags ready …

The Goons
Off the cuff … The Goons having trouble controlling their scripts. Photograph: Chris Ware/Getty/Hulton Archive

Speech-based improvisation seems a pretty familiar routine, perhaps rather too familiar. Some witty people on stage pick up a few cues and “amusing” props from the audience and riff a bit, usually spluttering into incoherence and dead ends pretty quickly.

It’s an impressive trick, but the results are more or less the same: a twitchy race for the next gag, before which any kind of plot and character gives way. Not something that compares to the rich artfulness of a script.

But suppose we’re missing something really extraordinary with this rather modest estimation? Ken Campbell has made a career pursuing the far reaches of human imagination, with shows weaving together extraordinary notions from quantum physics to early Christian heresy. He’s now set his sights on improvisation as a means to trump the entire corpus of written literature, setting out to prove that scripts are really unnecessary once you have a team of sufficiently fluent improvisers.

All you need to do is “turn on the bardic tap”, he explains to an audience at the Hen & Chickens theatre in north London. Eyes popping with mischief, he leads us through what he’d have you believe is the long, secret history of making stuff up on the spot.

With the help of a team of four actors whose poetic plumbing seems to work pretty well, he says that the sonnets of Shakespeare (who may possibly have written his own plays, but it’s pretty unlikely) are nothing to get over-excited about. His own actors can recite them with metric precision while counting down noisily from 100 to 0. In a “book launch”, Campbell can start the actors reading from a novel, remove the book, and have them continue seamlessly, in the same prose style.

Literature, after all, began with rhapsodes who could bewitch with extemporary epics tailored to the preoccupations of any given audience. And we’re all familiar, aren’t we, with Iharu Saikaku, the 17th-century Japanese writer who extemporised a 23,500 poem timed to match the lifespan of a mayfly.

Campbell’s own ambitions are moving into similarly expansive territory. At the 2006 Edinburgh festival his actors performed Cardenio, Shakespeare’s lost play, off the cuff. This weekend he is performing a 50-hour play at the People Show Studios in Bethnal Green in London, upping the ante from a 36-hour drama delivered in west London a couple of years back. Campbell and his School of Night – named after Walter Ralegh’s secret society whose members included Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare – have been working together for some years now.

“I don’t understand the worship of writers in this country,” says Campbell, “since none of them are much good.” It’s a giddy notion, and a bracing wind-up to the theatrical establishment, but after an hour in his company, it’s on the brink of credibility. Mike Leigh, after all, works all his plays up from improvisations (although it takes three months and a lot of editing) and Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of many shows on TV and film where the script is missing.

This weekend’s two-day play will be a stern test of everyone, audience included (lightweights like myself can drop in for an hour or two). It’s bound to be on the baggy side. But the plan at the moment is to have a string of hour-long performances that pass an even stricter test. A series of critics will be invited to these, and turn up with a sealed envelope containing their own, five-star, review of a show nobody’s ever seen. The review will be read out to the actors and audience. It will then be performed.

I remember hearing Campbell on a radio talk show where he complained of his fellow guests that “you’re all talking about stuff that is. I’m interested in stuff that isn’t.”) And the reviewer’s fantasy-made-real clearly isn’t. But I’ll be booking a ticket.