Performance with a purpose: Meet Arjun Mehra, Artistic Director of Improv Comedy Bangalore

The professional improv company is changing the way we view theatre, providing individuals with essential life long skills, and strengthening communities. They are even offering online courses and workshops during these times of social distancing
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Improvisational theatre, an ‘unplanned’ and ‘unscripted’ art form, is one of the most creative ways to express your deep-seated emotions, tell a story and provoke a response from the audience.

While some might fear getting on stage and letting loose, Improv Comedy Bangalore, a professional Improv company aims to help individuals break out of their comfort zone, experiment varied roles and characters, and gain a newfound sense of confidence in the process.

It helps one develop essential life skills and is a great outlet for community building, from the varied stage shows, coaching and creative solutions that the company offers.

Arjun Mehra, Artistic Director of Improv Comedy Bangalore.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, ICB has taken the stage to the screen and continues to shine with online improv classes and workshops that are currently being offered, such as ‘How to build a world of characters,’ ‘How to improvise compelling stories', and most recently on the weekend a look into ‘Patterns and Repetitions’ both in our daily lives and when it comes to building characters.

In an exclusive interview with YS Weekender, Arjun Mehra, Artistic Director, Improv Comedy Bangalore, talks about his love for improvisational theatre, how he ventured into the space, how the performing arts will change in the next one year amidst the lockdown, and the current workshops and online classes ICB is offering.

YSW: When was ICB Founded and what was the goal behind it?

AM: ICB was founded in 2015 by four friends, Abhishek Desai, Madhu Shukla, Nasir Engineer, Rohit Nair who wanted to put on shows together.

It was still a novelty back then with only a couple of other groups putting on improv shows at the time.

The goal was to explore a different genre and outlet of storytelling.

ICB is a professional theatre company.



YSW: Tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you chance upon Theatre and Improv?

AM: Quite contrary to where I am right now, I was not a theatre nut to begin with. I stayed miles away from the stage for most of my school life. I was so awkward on stage that I’d usually be hidden somewhere in the middle of the choir, or in an odd-costume (for instance, I played a burger once!)

I built up a significant amount of my public speaking confidence when I made it to the Parliamentary Debate team at Christ University.

I went through so many tournaments (I think 17 in total) in three years, and got so used to failing and then moving on, that almost all of my stage fear was gone by the time I left. But again, I was still far removed from anything related to theatre.

However, if you put me on stage now, I can talk the audience’s ears off.

YSW: Who or what were your major influences in the field of improvisational Theatre?

AM: My first brush with improv came via watching re-run after re-run of Whose Line Is It Anyway, Drew Carey’s Improv-a-ganza, and The CollegeHumor shows.

I know The College Humor isn’t quite improv, but a lot of my comedy and wordplay instinct came from their sketches.

I also watched a lot of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson - I still believe his opening monologues were some of the warmest routines on TV as they are so casual, disarming, and genuinely funny.

My sense of toeing the line of what is acceptable to an audience and what isn’t also came from watching Craig Ferguson at work - he had a pantomime horse, and a remote-controlled gay robot skeleton as his sidekicks. It’s like he recreated his imagination on stage! This was one of my biggest inspirations with regard to breaking convention and just owning your crazy.

Arjun in the midst of an improv scene.



YSW: How did you pursue your love for improv?

AM: I moved to Barcelona for my Masters in 2015, and was there for about a year and half. The workload was a walk in the park, so I had a lot of free time on hand, and I really needed something to do.

So, I started looking for stuff to do around Barcelona, and that very evening at 5pm, at Ciutadella Park, there was a meetup for ‘Improv in the Park’ in English, no less. So, I decided to attend.

I’d been playing the games, from the improv shows I’d been watching, alone for too long. Jeremie Dayglider was my first ever improv teacher, and it is only because of how safe and fun she had made the experience that I kept going back, for the meetups.

Today she is still a very dear friend. She was part of the Barcelona Improv Group, and I soon joined their weekly jams, and their classes and started building my skills.

In 2016, the troupe hosted the Barcelona Improv Group Improv Festival 4 (BIG IF 4), where improvisers and performers from across the world descended upon Barcelona for a five-day long extravaganza of workshops and shows. It was such great exposure for me to discover the varieties of improv, to meet and rub shoulders with legends of the craft, and to get so much inspiration to keep doing more.

YSW: What happened after you left Barcelona?

AM: I moved back to Dubai to my home where I had grown up. In Dubai, there is The Courtyard Playhouse, a purpose-built improv theatre, which is arguably the most unique improv space in the world.

The next two years went by in a blink, and it is in this time that I really found my footing with improv and performing on stage. I performed in more than 250 shows, 3-4 times a week

ICB Team.



YSW: What is the improv scene like in Bengaluru?

AM: I finally moved to Bengaluru in 2018 where I joined Improv Comedy here, and I’ve worked and played with them since then.

I became Artistic Director (AD) a few months ago. In fact, a few days after the lockdown! At present, I am also the Regional Representative for the region Middle-East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, for the International Theatresports Institute (ITI).

YSW: Who is your role model in improv currently?

AM:  Today, I find inspiration from too many performers to list. But since I’ve been grounded in Keith Johnstone’s style of Improv, I follow most of what he says, and does. I had the honor of working with him for 10 days in a small town outside of Copenhagen, called Nyokobing Sjaelland, at the Danish National School of Performing Arts.

Arjun with his inspiration Keith Johnstone, whom he had the opportunity to work with in Denmark.



YSW: Why do you feel Indians need Improv Theatre in their life?

AM: I feel like everyone needs improv theatre in their life. It teaches you to fail and how to deal with it. It teaches spontaneity and dealing with all the curveballs life throws at you.

You become more aware of things happening around you, and you also find that you are a better listener, and as a result a better communicator. You learn how to brainstorm without judging yourself or judging others, how to play better in teams (both on stage and at work), and to just have a ton of fun.

But improv isn’t a magic pill, obviously. It’s a discipline. It isn’t about the punchline, but about being aware of the moment, and reacting honestly and intelligently.

YSW: Since you have brought Improv to top firms such as Google, Uber, IBM, Philips, Paperboat, what has the response been like?

AM: The response has been positive. We’ve done everything from a show for an event to one-time workshops/team-bonding activities, to long-term workshops.

The most rewarding moment is to watch slightly rigid teams break out into laughter and get silly together for a couple of hours with some of the exercises we do with them.

That, right there, is the first step of making a more cohesive team - getting them to laugh together. We then work closely with the teams on listening skills, failing without fear, calls and responses when communicating to one another, etc.

All the workshops are unique as they are created specifically in accordance with the requirements of each company, and team.

An Improv event at Mount Carmel College that was judged by ICB.



YSW: Bengaluru Improv Festival is the first and only Improv festival in Bengaluru, who were some of the performers and artists present that were crowd favourites?

AM: We’ve had two editions of BIF so far, in 2018 and 2019. Both were really successful ventures because we managed to take the first conclusive steps to putting Bengaluru and ourselves on the global improv map.

We’ve had top tier performers fly in from the US, Europe, Australia, and from across the country. Both BIFs were so exciting to see unfold - workshops were packed and every show was sold out.

Some of the big names we had across both editions were Ben Verhoeven, Charlotte de Metsenaere, Menelaos Prokos, Nick Byrne, Katarzyna Chmara, amongst others.

Outside the festival, we’ve also had a bunch of international visiting improvisers like Jonathan Pitts, Laura Doornewaard, Gael Perry and Christiane Brew.

YSW: With the COVID-19 lockdown keeping people indoors how do you feel the performing arts space will change in the next one year?

AM: Performing arts have taken a massive hit with the lockdown. Some of the most revered theatres in the world are in danger of being permanently shut, and that’s really dangerous for the industry.

But it is heartening to see that some people are adapting to the current scenario. You see concerts and shows now happening via zoom, so that the audience can watch them from the comfort of their homes. Everyone’s got a front row seat now. While this throws up a lot of obstacles, there’s also the chance for new discoveries, learnings and possibilities.

Given the social distancing measures that will likely be in place for a while, audience seating is going to look a lot different, with multiple seats left vacant between each member of the audience.

Online Classes and Workshops are currently being held via Zoom amidst the pandemic.



YSW: Is ICB currently taking workshops and classes online?

AM: At ICB we started conducting online improv jams about a week into the lockdown, and we started shows a week after.

The primary motivation behind the first set of shows was to run a fundraiser to help daily wage migrant workers.

Across six shows, in four weeks, we managed to raise about INR 75K. Each week we tied up with a different organisation to contribute 100% of all our proceeds for the causes.

We offer jams, 5 days a week, and shows on the other two days (Wednesday and Thursday) at 7PM IST, all via Zoom. We also offer workshops every weekend!

YSW: What is the virtual experience like?

AM: I miss having the audience physically present at a show. The noise, the cheer, the applause, the chit-chat before the show began - there are so many moments outside of the performance itself that make the evening an entertaining, memorable one.

Besides, the audience members have been so participative in the shows through the chat, and blowing it up with typed applauses and comments - it’s really precious to see them go the extra mile and try to bridge the gap between physical and digital.

On the flip side, we’ve had the chance to watch so many performances online! We’re waking up at odd hours to watch groups in San Francisco, Austin, Toronto, Bogota, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin, Dubai, etc. put on their shows.

In an odd way, the community is more connected than ever before. We’ve had the privilege to play with some of these groups as well, waking up as early as 4:30 AM and staying up till as late as 2:30AM to be part of a show. It’s brilliant!

YSW: What are ICB’s plans in the upcoming weeks?

AM: We’re collaborating with Nautankibaaz Improv Comedy in NCR to put on a format called Theatresports. The week after, we’re collaborating with OML for a series of improv shows every fortnight.

YSW: What is your advice to aspiring performers and actors out there?

AM: Find a community to grow with. Learn how to fail. Don’t stop trying.

Edited by Asha Chowdary

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