Sophia Marshall talks white-washing, women and whimsy with the cast of Dinner Time, a BME-led production from Bristol Improv.
Bristol Improv Theatre is the UK’s first theatre exclusively for improv – and has only recently opened after its major refurbishments. The Pegg Theatre is hosting the Bristol University Improv Society to perform an all new-entirely-improvised-full-length-play, Dinner Time. The cast are friendly and entertaining to talk to, we gather round a table, I set up a borrowed zoom-mic, and we begin.
What is Dinner Time?
Philippe: ‘Food you eat at the end of the day…’
He is met with sarcastic ‘well done’s from his fellow cast members – the camaraderie is endearing and welcoming.
Patrick: ‘It’s this year’s long-form show, and the setting is at a dinner party. Unlike our previous shows, which are like lots of short scenes, this is two long scenes, like two acts.’
Flora: ‘Pre-dinner and Post-dinner. My only experience of long-form improv was Spon Trek, which was a parody of Star Trek. It was really out there, like “Oh look! Were now on a completely different planet!” or “How do I land a spaceship?” but I like this format because it’s more down-to-earth.’
‘How do you write characters for people of colour?…just write characters as you normally would, with all their quirks, intricacies and backstories.’
James: ‘The audience never actually see the meal, [that’s off stage] because it’d be boring to watch people eating.’
Then everyone jokes about how actually it might be entertaining to watch James just eat for a whole show. He’s good at space work – I’m told. The Dinner Time cast is an exclusively BME cast, and to Pravanya Pillay, the director explains how important shows like these are.
‘comedy isn’t exclusive to white people’
Prav: ‘It’s not progressive to complain about how white the industry is and do nothing about it… It’s important to give BME performers a platform to call their own. It’s time to carve out a space within mainstream comedy instead of relegating people of colour to the fringes.
This is why [Dinner Time] will have an exclusively BME cast. This is only a small step in the right direction, but it is a start, and it’s an action that I can proudly and correctly refer to as progress.’
And what is this show in relation to how it addresses BME and comedy?
James: ‘It’s about providing a format for our BME performers, where they are playing genuine human characters without having to relate it to race. Characters that could easily have otherwise been played by a white cast. They could be played by anyone.’
Flora: ‘Yeah- I’ve come here from a sketch comedy/Revuinions background, so I think it goes back to that odd question “How do you write characters for people of colour?”, to which I always say, well, just write characters as you normally would, with all their quirks, intricacies and backstories. And why wouldn’t you?
Sarah: It’s about how comedy isn’t exclusive to white people. It’s a universal thing; everyone is funny, has a sense of humour and can make people laugh.’
What is it to be a BME person in comedy? What are the challenges, experiences or expectations?
Flora: ‘When writing stand up sets it seems like you’re expected to make jokes about your ethnicity, and my impulse was to not do that because that’s what every BME comedian does. But then, why should I avoid the subject, because that’s my experience. Why should I feel like mine won’t be relatable? Almost because white is the default, so the experience of white male comedians feels universal whereas mine is niche.’
‘I entirely believed beforehand people wouldn’t want to see another Asian stand up’
Prav: ‘When I started doing stand-up, I thought Race formed a part of my identity and I enjoy talking about my experiences and I would have loved to have turned those experiences into comedy, but it isn’t all of my identity, and I was so worried that if I talked about it I would become the “Indian Comedian”, so I decided to avoid the topic completely.’
James: ‘When I first saw Phil Wang I thought “Damn he’s taken my job as The Asian Stand-up Comedian, now I’m never gonna make it” but I realised later – “wait hang on, why can’t there be two Asian men doing stand-up at the same time?” It makes no sense that there can only be one.
But for some reason I entirely believed beforehand people wouldn’t want to see an’other Asian stand up and that he had almost taken up the one “slot” that existed.’
What experiences of media representation– positive or negative- have affected you?
Philippe: ‘I noticed Raj in The Big Bang Theory, his main joke is his voice and his culture. It’s such a cheap laugh and it’s a shame that he’s stuck with that. The whole thing very much opened my eyes to how ethnic actors are written for. Often Black Americans will be from the ‘ghetto’ or speak colloquially and be drug dealers etc.’
we wouldn’t cast anyone just to be politically correct. But [another show] was white-washed because we didn’t actually have any people of colour or women coming to the auditions
Flora: ‘I watched Fresh off the Boat the other day, an American sitcom which centres around an Asian family, and I learned that this was the first time in 30 years that there’d been a sitcom where the BME characters were central, and not just side-characters.
Knowing about issues like this sometimes puts a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, both as a person of colour and a woman- although I’m not as comfortable doing improv as I am doing sketches, I feel I ought to go up on stage in improv workshops to encourage others like me that this is a space you can get involved in.
Rev’s has a sketch show coming up with an all-white male cast, and they are very talented- we wouldn’t cast anyone just to be politically correct. But its white-washed because we didn’t actually have any people of colour or women coming to the auditions.’
Prav: ‘I forgot that if you made an exclusively BME show here you’d be taking out all the diversity from the other shows on this term. But that’s the issue- that the five people in this cast happens to be the only five people in the society who could do this show.’
‘It’s amazing to be surrounded by people who celebrate and thrive off of the weird and whimsical.’
Sarah: ‘I grew up in a predominantly white area, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realised there was an issue here. When I came to university and met others who discussed it, I realised I’d been living in a bubble. Even though there aren’t any other girls like me, other black girls in the improv society, its nice that there is still a group of us who experience the same thing and can create this show.’
At this point in the interview, I realised the zoom mic had not been recording all this immense discussion. We all laughed about it, and this interviewer was mortified. The comedy never stops.
What do you enjoy most about improvised comedy?
Philippe: ‘I’m quite new to improv, but I really like how I can get so engrossed in a character and a scene, and I sometimes forget that I’m actually just standing and rehearsing in someone’s living room. At first I was like everyone else- thinking that it was a lot of pressure to come up with something on the spot- but now I know that you get a few milliseconds to make choices, but you have to be very switched on. I like the way it uses your brain, and you really have to be there in the scene, and not anywhere else.’
Sarah: ‘I love the fact that people’s minds work in so many different ways. It opens up a range of paths for an idea or scene to go. Literally everyone is funny in their own way and improv gives people a space where anything, no matter how small, can be made into something amusing. It’s amazing to be surrounded by people who celebrate and thrive off of the weird and whimsical.’
Isra: ‘English is my second language, so when I do an improv scene, I’m learning a lot. I listen to some of the lines people come out with and think, hey, that’s an interesting thing to say in that situation. Although sometimes people- Philippe- will say something and I think I need to clean out my ears.’
What are your individual strengths as improvisers?
Flora: ‘Philippe is really good at coming up with lines, he’s so quotable. There was one the other day–
Philippe (and everyone else joining in): “Negligee? More like Negli-Yay.”’
Prav: ‘Isra is a wild-card. There was a scene in rehearsal where Sarah’s character was about to drop the bombshell that she was homeless, and we could all see it coming, because she’d been dropping hints all the way through. But then Isra said to her “I’m a woman, I can tell these things, you’re pregnant, aren’t you?”. It worked out okay in the end though- Sarah is very good at absorbing everything that’s said on stage and creating strong characters.’
James: ‘Which is good, because this is a very character driven show. A lot of the comedy will come from how we interact as people.’
Isra: ‘I like improv because it’s a place where it’s okay to be random! It’s okay to be weird and be who-ever you want. I enjoy getting the chance to act like a wild-card. Also, Flora is really good at ‘arranging the flowers’. She makes all the randomness make sense.’
Final question: What can we look forward to in the show?
‘Isra being a wild card, Philippe’s quotable lines, Sarah’s strong characters, James’ space work and Flora will make sure it all makes sense. Not to mention, we’d get to see the final result of all of Pravanya and Patrick’s hard work directing.’
Dinner Time will be performed on Friday 24th and Saturday 25th March at the Pegg Theatre. More information can be found here.
Bristol Improv holds free workshops every Thursday evening from 6pm in the S.U, and Revunions Sketch Comedy society every Wednesday from 8pm.
Are you excited about the show? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter