The contemporary British theatre company Improbable was founded in 1996 by artistic directors Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Lee Simpson and producer Nick Sweeting.
The company has a non-hierarchical structure, where the roles of the three main creative makers are blurred, exchanged or shared between themselves as well as with various other collaborators and associates.
70 Hill Lane was Improbrale’s first production as a company, first performed at The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, on 18 October 1996. Since then, the company has produced a wide spectrum of work, ranging from object animation, puppetry performances, theatrical biographies, site-specific work, visual theatre, entirely devised work, text-based work, theatrical adaptations, musicals, collaborative productions, open-space events and most recently; opera.
Improbable theatre is constantly and unpredictably changing and moving forward to incorporate new stimuli, however, the principles of their work have remained close to the original impulses; an impulse to explore the unknown, a commitment to keep theatre alive and vital, an integral use of objects, puppets and masks and the creation of a genuine sense of ensemble.
An attempt to pin down an Improbable “method” is a challenging task. As their work indicates, their process is different for every project; they do not have one absolute method of working. It is a fluid process that is constantly changing depending on what makes the company interested and engaged, “every show is different and has its own story” (Crouch). The company’s work pattern embodies the idea of change, working in different venues, inducing transformations in each place they work in. The nature of what the company does combines a mixture of quite new and quite traditional theatrical forms.
Julian Crouch: Initially a mask and puppet maker, he is a self-taught director, designer, writer, maker and teacher who works in theatre, opera, film and television. He worked and improvised with masks and objects since his early beginnings. He started his career in theatre with Trickster Theatre Company, founded by Nigel Jamieson, with which he toured the world from the mid 1980s. He then collaborated, on various site specific productions, with the Welfare State International (a British theatre company, well known for large-scale outdoor spectacular events, taking art out of theatres and galleries into the street). During that time he also attended a workshop with Bread and Puppet Theater (a politically radical American theatre company that promotes the 'cheap art' movement, using music, dance, masks and puppets in street performances to get their point across). Working with both companies had a profound influence on his work, and he continues to draw inspiration from their approach. Crouch often creates his masks and figures instinctively in an improvisational process, which will be explained further as we go on. He started a successful creative partnership with McDermott in 1992.
You can view some of Crouch's art work and designs by clicking here.
Phelim McDermott: A director, performer and writer. After completing a degree in performing arts at Middlesex Polytechnic in 1985, he formed a theatre company, dereck, dereck Productions, with Julia Bardsley. Between 1985 and 1989 they created Cupboard Man (1985), a solo performance for McDermott adapted from the Ian McEwan short story and which received an Edinburgh Fringe First award, Gaudete (1986), an adaptation of Ted Hughes epic poem, which received a Time Out Director’s Award, as well as The Vinegar Works (1989), adapted from the illustrated books of Edward Gorey, in addition to The Glass Hill and The Sweet Shop Owner.
Even in those early productions objects seemed to play a prominent role. Cupboard Man, according to McDermott, was a story about a man who lives in a cupboard. And Gaudete was a show about a lot of old furniture.
After reading Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, the internationally recognised improvisation teacher, who later became one of the main influences on McDermott’s work in particular and on Improbable in general, McDermott joined a workshop with Johnston, and became strongly influenced by his concept of improvisation. He was particularly intrigued by the emphasis on the process and not the product.
He was also influenced by Johnston’s perception of failure which became like a work emblem of his. Exploring new and unfamiliar grounds might be accompanied by inevitable failure. This has to be allowed to happen in order to create something new, whereas going back to what is known as successful or what is familiar leads to banality and repetitiveness. The element of risk is essential for preserving the vitality of creation.
Out of this interest, McDermott started to meet other performers who shared his enthusiasm for improvisation and formed the Impro Café at the Gallery of the Tricycle Theatre. That happened during a period when improvisation was not yet widely known. Through that he met more improvisation performers including Lee Simpson.
Lee Simpson: A comedy improviser and a member of the Comedy Store Players, who worked with McDermott since 1987 and became one of the founding members of Improbable. He is a performer, writer who also worked as a radio presenter.
Simpson's presence "drives the company and makes things tick," according to Nick Sweeting. His improvisation skills are strong; he is highly inventive and loves taking risks onstage. According to Sweeting, he actually "embodies what the group are all about."
Simpson states on the company's website that "it is [the] obvious lack of direction that he feels is the real essence of his work. [And that] his real name is Len."
Simpson will be giving the Improbable workshop announced earlier that will take place on Wednesday 17th.
Nick Sweeting: Since starting a freelance career with a short spell at The Chicago International Theatre Festival, Sweeting has worked with a broad range of national and international clients, including The David Glass Ensemble, Phoenix Dance, Lip Service, Wierzalin Theatre (Poland), Nada Theatre (France) and Mouthpeace (South Africa). In the mid 1990s he was a co-founder of both Told by an Idiot and Improbable. Over the last few years he has concentrated more and more on his work with Improbable, as they tour more widely, working in collaboration with a series of key presenting partners in Europe and North America.
Improbable's Past Work
70 Hill Lane (1996)
Shockheaded Peter (1997) (A Cultural Industry production)
The Hanging Man (2003)
Theatre of Blood (2005)
Stars are Out Tonight (2005)
The Wolves in the Walls (2006)
Panic (UK tour, January 2008. London Premier at the Barbican, Spring 2009)
Some of the above productions are still touring, such as Satyagraha, which will open in New York in 2008, and The Wolves in the Walls which will open in New York this week.
Animo is still revived under the umbrella of The Animo International Project, working with local puppeteers and animators both in a workshop and performance context.
Refer to company's website for more information on each of the above productions.