There’s a rich improv scene brewing in Dublin

Erin Hug just wants to follow her dream to open a wig store, but Pearl O’Rourke is having none of it.

There’s a rich improv scene brewing in Dublin, with many excellent troupes putting on regular performances in theatres, pubs, and coffee shops around town. There are monthly improv jams, where performers from different groups meet up to do short and long scenes together, and we’ve recently hosted the inaugural Improv Fest Ireland, which featured more than twenty performances by improvisers from around the world over the course of a week.

When in Dublin, one group that’s not to be missed is Tumbleweed. In the last year as I’ve got into improv myself, forming my own troupe with classmates from an improv course, I’ve gone to a lot of shows in Dublin; Tumbleweed are something special.

The ladies of Tumbleweed – Pearl O’Rourke, Kelly Shatter and Erin Hug – specialise in longform improvisation, where a tapestry of short scenes are interconnected by themes, characters, or intersecting storylines.

Pearl O’Rourke, Kelly Shatter, and Erin Hug speaking as one.

Many people might be familiar with short form improv games from Whose Line Is It Anyway, the popular British TV show that enjoyed an American incarnation. Short form games are usually about taking a funny mechanic and then building a scene around it. For example, you can have two improvisers providing the dialogue for another two who are acting out the scene. Or you might have three characters doing a one-minute scene, which they then repeat in thirty seconds and ten seconds with the dialogue and action staying the same. Another classic involves three characters, one of whom must be sitting, one must be standing, and one must be leaning at any given time. These games are a lot of fun to watch, and many troupes that do only short format improv come to master it.

But longform improv is capable of more complexity and, often, deeper laughs. In longform improv, the scenes are just that: scenes inspired by an audience suggestion. They may be interconnected with an explicit format, for example in one called the Harold where certain scenes are revisited in a certain order. Or they may flow more freely, sometimes connecting up, sometimes staying separate and complementary. In longform, the characters and stories take centre stage. Tumbleweed usually perform montages, which consist of a series of scenes from a single suggestion, and offer more flexibility than some of the long formats which I’ve found more restrictive. I’ve seen Tumbleweed do short-form games in their own shows and in an improv battle to raise money for Improv Fest Ireland. They never fail to bring relationships and intrigue into even the more gimmicky games, but their longform is inspiring.

You might think that longform improv would be hard on audiences; after all, if the performers have to keep thinking about all the characters and situations that they just made up and look for patterns and linking points, doesn’t the audience have to do the same? And haven’t they had a few pints?
Kelly Shatter disciplines a doll who talks back, played by Pearl O’Rourke.

In a recent set, they started with a one-word suggestion from the audience: wigs. From wigs, they brought forth a spectrum of characters: a couple on a first date, two elderly ladies discussing their husbands, workers at a doll factory, a son whose doll mutilation uncovers a family history of wig making, and a bevy of tiny dancing dolls.

The audience is packed into the upstairs corner of a pub, and the stage is pretty small, but everyone engages with the stories that Tumbleweed tell right from the get-go, and buys into the stories being told. Later scenes raise the stakes, showing flashbacks and backstory seamlessly. Amid the escalating chaos, it’s inspiring to see Tumbleweed keep revisiting stories and characters with an admirable attention to detail. One elderly woman comforts another about the collection of shorn dolls that inhabit her upstairs bedroom, exclaiming, “You must be so mortified! Ah go on, take a bun.” It’s not the first time she’s said that, and the audience loves the callback to an earlier joke.

You might think that longform improv would be hard on audiences; after all, if the performers have to keep thinking about all the characters and situations that they just made up and look for patterns and linking points, doesn’t the audience have to do the same? And haven’t they had a few pints? But most audiences are more than willing to invest in a deeper plot, which means that by the end of a montage they’ve followed the twists and turns and come happily through to the other side.

What sweetens the deal is that Tumbleweed do their long form sets as part of a variety night they host, with assorted Dublin area musicians and storytellers. Tumbleweed’s set is the highlight of the evening, but the other acts are usually excellent as well. Their October variety night had a tinge of melancholy, since it also served as a send-off for Erin Hug (the Ble of Tumbleweed), but she’s likely to be back over for shows, and Tumbleweed will roll on.

You can follow Tumbleweed on Facebook for details about upcoming shows, and they are well worth seeing. Their next variety night is on tonight, upstairs in the Wellington Pub, on Baggot Street in Dublin, with doors opening at 8:30 pm.

Feature photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash. It shows the word “laugh” in orange neon letters against a brick wall.

Photos, courtesy of Keven Handy, show three casually dressed young women performing on stage in the following scenes: Two young women sit side by side, one looks tearful, the other defiant, as they argue about wigs; All three performers smiling as they lean in and try improvise simultaneous dialogue; One woman stands above and behind another, in a scene about badly behaved dolls.

Jessamyn Fairfield is a scientist and writer who tweets @ultrajessamyn. She performs comedy improv in the fair city of Dublin with Not The Eyes.