For many performers, the highlight of the summer is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest performing arts festival. People bring shows from all over the world to take part in this bustling event. This is true of Shellshock! Improvised Comedy, who’ve performed at the Fringe annually since 2009. I’ve spent the last few weeks as part of the cast of this year’s show, “Hysterical Artefacts”, which premiered at the end of Easter term before going to the Durham and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. We’ve had a great time with the show, audiences have loved it, and it’s an experience that I’m incredibly proud of.

“Oh wow, it must be so scary going on stage every night without a script!”

A lot of people have said this to me recently, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, scripts scare me – memorised lines can all too easily go wrong on the night. Improvisation is my true passion; there’s an unparalleled thrill from creating something original each night without knowing what’s going to happen, which a script simply can’t offer.

But you can’t just walk onstage without any plan at all, there has to be some vague structure to set you up. All sorts of different improv formats exist, and Shellshock! traditionally creates a brand new show each year to take to the Fringe. This has to be done carefully: insufficient structure can leave performers floundering and struggling to know what to do, whereas too much structure puts unnecessary obstacles in the way and can even stop the show from being unique each night.

In “Hysterical Artefacts”, we open each night with one of us as a museum curator, welcoming the audience to the unveiling of a brand new museum exhibit. The audience chooses which historical period it comes from, and gives a few other details about the exhibit. The rest of us then form an exhibit freezeframe which the curator has to explain, even if we’re assembled in really weird positions! This has been a fun game for us, giving each other really strange and unusual poses to justify. The curator then narrates the story of how the exhibit came to be, with the main part of the show being us performing that origin story.

For a 50-minute show, we must balance on a tightrope between having insufficient material to work with and being forced to fit far too much into the show – the planned structure acts only as a framing device, allowing the show to set itself up but then giving us almost complete freedom. There’s another extra challenge we’ve set ourselves with the show’s format, but you’ll have to watch it for yourself to find that out!

Several months after devising the show, our fantastic pair of directors ran the show’s rehearsals for us. Rehearsing improv is a strange concept, as it’s entirely unscripted. However, a football match has no script, and so we discuss improv theory in a similar way, using a variety of exercises and drills to help us develop the performance skills we require. All the feedback our directors have given us is skill-based (you can’t ask someone to deliver a line differently, because that character won’t exist to say that line again) and huge acknowledgment must be given to them. By the time we began doing run-throughs of the show, they had already upgraded up the whole cast’s skills from even a mere week earlier.

With just a little practice, the absence of a script very easily became second nature. Mistakes truly don’t exist in improv as whatever you say becomes true. Some decisions have a higher price to pay than others, but there are fundamentally no incorrect choices. The bigger challenge was making sure that we kept things fresh by not repeating ourselves. There are a couple of tricks we used to do this, the most important being our show log. We’d kept a huge table of the various suggestions that we’d received each night and the different characters that we’d each played, and we spent time looking back at the shows to spot any patterns we could have fallen into. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a pattern, but if one improviser always plays a king or always plays a shopkeeper then they may tend to play the role fairly similarly each time. We’re possibly stricter about this than other groups might be, but the extra challenge of not doing the same thing twice has really kept the show fresh and unique, especially over weeks of consecutive shows.

We also had to develop a broad understanding of history – it’s no good somebody suggesting the Edwardian era as a historical period if some of us have no idea what that is. We need to be able to cope with anything, and getting a feel for the span of history was an important part of the rehearsal process; in fact, it was a constant process that continued throughout the show’s run. I feel I have a much better general understanding of history now that I’ve done the show, and I’m sure it’ll be useful for more improv shows in the future.

We faced other challenges too: marketing a show at a festival without an established audience yet, and marketing the same show at a festival with more than 3500 other shows are quite different experiences. There’s certainly more skill involved with handing out flyers in the street than you might expect! We had some audiences containing children, and a night with a very small audience, which each posed their own challenges. We even had a night with a very rowdy drunk audience – although by the time we finished, their heckles had been worked in as an integral part of that night’s show, and we had great fun playing with them and giving them a challenge right back. Each of these nights had a completely different feel, and kudos must go to all of the other performers for expertly dealing with whatever was thrown at them.

Overall, the show has been incredible – it culminated in an entirely sold-out final two nights, of which I couldn’t be prouder. The buzz of excitement that comes from walking onstage each night with nothing prepared – and then being able to have the audience in stitches – is unrivalled. Some nights, I couldn’t even tell you how it happened; we’ve developed many improv skills to the level that they’re instinctive and are able to work together seamlessly to create improv magic (quite literally out of nothing) each night.

By Ben Bradley

Shellshock!’s show, “Hysterical Artefacts” will be returning to Durham for a final performance on Sunday 8th October 2023.