Shetland Comedy at the Edinburgh International Improv Festival

by Alex Garrick-Wright -

After a triumphant appearance at the first Edinburgh International Improv Festival, Shetland’s only comedy group, the Imposters, have spoken to Promote Shetland about their first experience of being funny off-island.

Back in late 2015, local comedian Marjolein Robertson put out a call in the local media for people to come and try out her improvised comedy workshops. Improvised comedy (‘improv’) is a special branch of comedy where the jokes, gags and sketches are created on-the-fly without any pre-planning; the most famous example being Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?

A handful of locals answered the call, and by January 2016, the Imposters comedy troupe took to the stage for the first time. In the 3 years since, the Imposters- Marjolein Robertson, Alex Garrick-Wright, Ashlea Tulloch, Les Sinclair, Matthew Simpson, Thomas Jones and Jill Charleson- have performed regular shows to sold-out venues across the isles.

Despite being a hit in Shetland, the group have always been aware of their isolation from the wider Scottish and UK comedy communities. So, when the first Edinburgh International Improv Festival rolled around, the Imposters quickly registered to travel, attend a slew of workshops and comedy shows- and perform to a non-Shetland audience for the first ever time!

Securing sponsorship from extremely generous local organisations NorthLink Ferries (who heavily subsidised the group’s travel costs), software developer Mesomorphic, and digital marketing firm NB Communication, the troupe were eager to get to Edinburgh and represent Shetland on the comedy stage.

Sadly, two of the Imposters- Jill and Ashlea- were unable to travel with the group due to a sudden bereavement and broken ankle respectively, within weeks of the festival.

The Imposters’ first show- at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, was incredibly well received. Somewhat hyped by the festival organisers, their show, on the final night of the festival, was one of the best-attended of the weekend. Dozens of comedy fans and performers had come to see just what this group- who had come from seemingly nowhere, but could sell-out venues with ease on their home turf- could do.

Within the first few moments, based off of the audience’s suggestion of “Milk”, the audience were doubled over with laughter at the story of milking cows, mass burials, farmyard romance, attempted murder and finally ending with Matthew’s imminent death by milking. As the lights came up on the Imposters for a bow, the applause was deafening. Shetland had made its mark on the comedy scene.

The Imposters told Promote Shetland about the EIIF experience:

• Were you nervous about the festival?

Marjolein: “I was incredibly nervous, due to a number of factors including it being the first time as a troupe performing off the isles, also in front of other improvisers including professionals, but the biggest nerve factor was the feeling of wanting to do Shetland proud, represent ourselves well to the wider world of improv.”

Thomas: “I was mainly excited to get the opportunity to practice improv with some totally new people at the workshops we attended, as well as receiving coaching from professional improvisers. I think in hindsight I felt more nervous about improvising with a bunch of strangers than I was about doing our show; as it turned out everyone we met was really nice and it was great meeting other people who were so enthusiastic about improv.”

Les: “Yes, I was nervous. Would we be seen as just some country bumpkins? Would we remember NOT to put in references to Whalsay accents, Da Wheel bar or Smirk? Before the performance loads of people expressed great interest in the fact that we were from Shetland.”

Matthew: “Absolutely. The hour before I show I've never felt so sick. I got in my head about our show and that somehow all the other improvisers we'd met over the weekend would think "that's not how improv works" and ostracise us for it. I knew that wouldn't ever happen but I could rationalise with myself!”

Alex: “I don’t usually get nervous before shows but I was seriously feeling it before we went on stage. We just had no metric to gauge how good we were compared to the other improv groups out there. My parents were in the front row too, the first time they’d ever seen me do improv, so that was extra pressure!”

• How did it feel performing to a totally new, non-Shetland audience?

Marjolein: “What combatted the nerves was the fact we are a close team, we enjoy performing together and supporting one another and we had spent three days of the Festival attending and taking part in workshops, so had had a lot of teaching and practice before the show itself.”

Thomas: “Yeah it was great - I was a little apprehensive since our audiences back home are so supportive and enthusiastic and I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I needn’t have worried. All the shows I attended over the weekend had a really warm and appreciative crowd, including our own!”

Les: “It was great. A good feeling knowing that our weirdness was accepted by people we didn’t know or were related to. Although, we did discover that Marjolein and me are distantly related.”

Matthew: “To be honest it felt pretty much the same down in Edinburgh as it does in Shetland. People like to laugh and we like to make people laugh. There wasn't any need to change how we improvise, and I'm not even sure there's anything that we could have done differently.”

Alex: “Aside from having to keep the Shetland references in the can, pretty much the same. The EIIF audiences were incredibly enthusiastic and made it an absolute joy to perform.”

• How do you think the performance went?

Marjolein: “As a whole the Festival was fantastic, it was an amazing opportunity to meet other improvisers and learn about games they play, how they coach one another and just make friends. Our own show as well, which was quite daunting to do after watching other groups and meeting some of improv's big names, was a delight to perform from start to finish. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences on stage as we told our story, made up on the spot, of a dairy farm inspection, all inspired by the word 'milk'. The audience was great and we felt truly like part of the Festival.”

Thomas: “I liked it a lot. I guess since we’d spent literally three days practicing improv and watching shows we were probably fairly well primed for our performance. People seemed to laugh a lot and folks had some good feedback afterwards, so I think it went down well.”

Les: “The performance went exceedingly well. Lots of proper belly-laughs from the audience. The positive comments from various people afterwards were incredible. I feel that we definitely left our mark on the improv community.”

Matthew: “The performance went really well. I was overjoyed with the response from the people that came to see us, both the public and other improvisers at the festival. It really feels like we've become part of the Scottish improv community rather than being on the outskirts of it.”

Alex: “Incredible. There was hardly a moment the audience weren’t laughing; they absolutely loved it. The place was jammed; I think we had a certain novelty value being from Shetland, but I think we were funnier than they’d expected. The amount of positive feedback we received afterwards was genuinely incredible.”

• How do you think the festival went?

Marjolein: “Again the highlight was going to Edinburgh International Improv Festival, an event with performers from London, Copenhagen, New York and LA to name a few, share the stage and entertain along with them. It felt really great.”

Thomas: “It all seemed to go really smoothly, the organisers did a really good job of running it. I felt really welcomed as a performer and the programme was great, I saw some amazing shows over the course of the weekend. I think the festival did a great job of bringing together like-minded people, and I guess it can only be better in future years.”

Les: “The whole festival went fantastically well. Great workshops. Interesting participants. Friendly atmosphere.”

Matthew: “The festival was amazing. I spent the whole weekend in Edinburgh being constantly amazed with everything. I learned so much in the workshops, I got to see a ton of different improv styles from all over Scotland, Britain, and the USA, I took part in one of the jams to play with some brand new people, and I made a ton of new improv friends.”

Alex: “Couldn’t have been better. Every minute we spent in each workshop and at each show made us a little better, more aware, sharper, funnier. We’ve come back much stronger as a group and we’re going to be able to work on that. We made a lot of new friends and now we’re a part of the comedy community.”

• Are you looking forward to going back?

Marjolein: “This was the first EIIF, and everyone spoke about continuing, making it an annual event, I really hope Shetland Comedy can perform again, we definitely endeavour to and with the lovely reception we received, both as people and as our show, we hope to so in future.”

Thomas: “Absolutely! It seemed like a success from my point of view so I really hope the guys continue to organise this amazing festival. I hope that next time the Imposters can all make it down and we can put on an even better show than last time!”

Les: “Definitely!”

Matthew: “I couldn't be more excited. I love improv and being able to live it for an entire weekend with a load of other people like me is an absolute dream.”

Alex: “I’d go back tomorrow if I could. It was an incredible weekend and I can’t wait for next year when we can all go down together and really show them what we’re made of.”

Posted in: Creative Scene

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