It's a cold, foggy evening in December, and Lure Switch in Lado Sarai is just turning abuzz with guests pouring in for some weekend recreation. Suddenly, the lights go off and a gang of masked men take the gathering hostage, brandishing guns and demanding that everybody get down on the floor. They kick, shout and – wait for it – bow as they make for the makeshift stage. The audience breaks out into relieved applause and the funnymen of Humour Me, a fairly new improve theatre group, begin their gig for the night.
Having introduced themselves and sung a few ridiculous songs, host Dhruv Sachdeva demands suggestions for scenes, characters and song themes from the audience, and they are bombarded with equally outrageous requests – Rakhi Sawant accompanying a superhero on a mission; a south Indian waiter who doesn't stop scratching all the wrong parts of his anatomy; a man with OCD who thinks he is in a video game. The actors themselves, including Pranay Manchanda and Clifford Alphonso, among others, are visibly taken by surprise, and what ensues is bone-tickling confusion.
India's comedy scene has seen an immense boost in the past five years – there's a stand up comedian putting on an act almost every night of the week and theatre isn't all that serious anymore either. Improv is the new format of fun nights that is gaining traction in urbane circles – while Mumbai's hugely popular The Comedy Store now regularly hosts Improv Comedy Mumbai (ICM), Dhruv Sachdeva's Humour Me has been humouring Delhi for about a year now.
So what exactly is Improv? "The word is short for improvisational theatre, meaning no scripts or lines of dialogue are written before the show. Improvisers use suggestions that they get from the audience to inspire the scenes that they create. The lack of scripts keeps both the performers and the audience on their toes; no one is exactly sure what will happen next in the scene," explains Adam Dow, director of ICM. Emulating the hugely popular television show 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?', a regular improv night would include much ribaldry in the form of music, play-acts, games, abundant mimicry and a lot of sarcasm. The best part is, safe in the knowledge that nothing is planned, any mistakes can only add to the humour being processed at that very moment.
Improvisers need a lot listening skills, spontaneity, teamwork, and acting ability, natural understanding of story and good communication skills. You practice the routines and the drills so that when it comes to game night the audience get’s to see performers at the top of their ability for the show.
Though it might look like improv performers are simply goofing on stage, they do have to prepare themselves to be in sync with each other and with their audience to be able to keep the spontaneity running. "Improvisers need a lot listening skills, spontaneity, teamwork, and acting ability, natural understanding of story and good communication skills. I know it sounds weird the idea of practicing to improvise but again it's like any sport form. You practice the routines and the drills so that when it comes to game night the audience get's to see performers at the top of their ability for the show," says Dow. The ICM's Bollywood routine, where they spoof up every stereotype of the Hindi cinema, is particularly popular.
"People will always need entertainment – be it family gossip or national politics. We asked ourselves whether entertainment must be found only in an auditorium or a theatre. Improv is novel, in that it is unconventional entertainment in unconventional spaces – and no, it isn't like a flash mob," says Sachdeva, who is also pitching his start-up as a creative entertainment solution for corporate rejuvenation.
"In reality, everybody thinks of themselves as a rockstar, but the work space shatters this 'illusion' everyday. We also believe that an actor can sell you absolutely anything. So we've been having workshops and 'rejuvenation' sessions for corporate clients where we not only infuse the monotony of a corporate work space with some action, but also teach marketers to put the fun back in their job," he explains.
So far, they've done these workshops for McKinsey and Company, Coca Cola, MHRD and SHRM among others.
So be it theatrical transformation to develop skills or just plain old recreation over the weekend, improv seems to be the next big thing in the comic spotlight. Like Sachdeva points out, "Life could be like a film. We're here to provide the background score!"