Features Q&A and Interviews Published 13 April 2012

Cartoon de Salvo

Alex Murdoch on the thrills and challenges of long form improv.

Carmel Doohan

Cartoon de Salvo are making it up on the spot. The three-man company don’t have any props or set to aid them in their improvisation; what they do have is a band equipped with a harp, a double bass and a steel pan. They don’t use Whose Line? techniques; they are not out to create a series of skits or sight gags – instead they build a story together, creating characters as they go along, sweeping up the whole room into their game of make believe.

Prompted by audience suggestions for ‘a film that hasn’t been made yet,’ with no conferring and no time to plan things out, they begin to create a 90 minute play. This is long form improv and it’s pretty exciting to watch. I found myself thinking: there must be a trick here. Surely they have some strategy to remove some of the risk from the situation?

The next morning when I met up with director and company co-founder Alex Murdoch (who I had last night played both a remarkably believable monkey and a gay sailor) I tried to find out what this secret was. When I asked her to tell me about the rules of long-form improv, she laughed. This was a question she’d been asked a few times before. “There is only one rule,” she told me. “Accept every single new idea that happens” In improv there is a concept called “Yes, And”; you accept what is suggested and then you build on it. There are, she insisted, no structural safety nets beyond that.

Cartoon de Salvo’s Made Up at Soho Theatre. Photo: Edmund Collier

Putting themselves in this situation night after night, an immense amount of trust has built up between the company’s three members. Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch founded Cartoon de Salvo together and Neil Haigh is their first associate artist. For their current show, the aptly titled Made Up, they have collaborated with Brighton band The Adventurists to create a performance that moves away from the showy and competitive style that improv often takes and instead sees them striving to create characters they can really get their teeth into.

It was during an earlier show, Hard-Hearted Hannah – where the audience chose the songs which the group then had to incorporate into their stories- that Murdoch realised how great it would be to work in collaboration with a band. In a frequently requested song- The Smiths’ ‘Please, please let me get what I want’ – she was responsible for the mandolin solo. With nothing to do musically until the end of the song, she continued performing and found that improvising to music felt wonderful. “With music playing, it felt like everything I did was the right choice. It felt supported. The most fearful thing about improv is that you put idea out into the unknown and you can’t help but ask- is that a good idea? With music, you somehow feel that it is.”

Murdoch speaks eloquently about the company’s craft. Improv, she tells me, is all about offers. People make verbal emotional offers- such as ‘I’m in love with you.’ or ‘why are you so jumpy?’ – but music makes abstract emotional offers. And these are more complex- they don’t say exactly what you have to do with them and this opens things up in a very exciting way.

The Adventurists are more than up to the challenge of creating a musical score on the hoof; they are multi-talented and seemingly capable of pulling off any musical style. Their timing is perfect and their contributions help shape the story into something structured. Having a full band to play with is something the company are enjoying very much. Murdoch worries that improv can sometimes be a bit scratch-like, a bit rough around the edges, and as “a very theatrical theatre company” they want more than this. “I want it to feel like a ‘proper show’ and this band make it feel like it is.”


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.



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