ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Interviews ED2019 Theatre

Rachel E Thorn and Alex Keen: Between Us

By | Published on Wednesday 14 August 2019

We’ve always been fans of improv here at ThreeWeeks – even in our early years of Fringe coverage when there was a lot less of it on offer – which means every Festival we have some improv shows on our to-see list.

And ‘Between Us’ was one that went straight on to that list when we heard about it. Partly because it sounded like a promising show, but especially because it is something of a rare beast – an improv show in the Theatre section.

So I was already interested in talking to Rachel E Thorn and Alex Keen, the duo behind it all. Then our reviewer delivered a glowing review, which swung it. I put some questions to the pair, to find out more about ‘Between Us’ and theatrical improv in general.

CM: First of all, explain the premise of the show, and its improvised nature?
RET&AK: ‘Between Us’ is a witty play that tells the inside story of one couple’s relationship. The twist is that it’s completely improvised. We ask the audience to tell us an interesting fact about someone they know called Rachel or Alex, and that anecdote is the seed we use to grow the characters and the story we tell. It should feel like a scripted play with a satisfying narrative arc.

CM: Given that it’s a similar scenario – a couple’s story – do you start with a certain structure that you improvise around?
RET&AK: All we know is that we will play characters who are in a relationship. Sometimes we start with a first date and sometimes we’ve been married for several years. We alternate scenes with soliloquys, but we don’t have an expected narrative arc that we follow. So how do we make it feel like a story? I’m not really sure! I think we owe a huge debt to hundreds of years of amazing storytelling which we’ve all inherited. Everybody knows when something feels like a story, and we just allow ourselves to tap into that.

CM: Given it’s always about characters in a relationship, can one presume it usually ends up exploring similar themes..?
RET&AK: Not at all! In the last week we’ve explored infidelity, pregnancy, depression, inequality, social pressure to conform and BDSM!

CM: How do you go about preparing for a show like this?
RET&AK: The show really hinges on our rapport as performers, so before each show we spend time reconnecting with each other, which is another way of saying we play silly improv games! New to our Edinburgh warm-up is the ‘Whose Line game’ where we can only speak in questions. Our twist is that the questions are all related to relationships, such as “don’t you miss me?” or “why is Stacey texting you at midnight?”

CM: You’re obviously skilled improvisers, which may be the main reason, but what is attractive about improvising a show? Is it not a bit scary?
RET&AK: It’s not at all scary, honestly. It’s liberating and exhilarating. The main knack with any kind of improv is getting out of your own way. Leaving your issues at the door and accessing flow state. Alex and I trust each other completely and it’s just great to go on the ride together. We get to be the writers and the performers, all at once. I had a casting for some scripted work recently, and I was a bit like, “So, I just have to say these words? You mean I can’t guide the narrative and create the character as I go? Weird!”

CM: Is being able to improvise a gift, or a skill to be developed?
RET&AK: It’s definitely both. Like anything awesome that human beings can do, there are some people to whom it comes more easily than others. But anybody can learn to improvise. Alex and I are constantly working on our improv skills. We go to workshops, get personal coaching, read books, watch other shows. In fact that’s one of the great things about improv – you’re never done. There’s always more to learn.

CM: One of the reasons I’m interested in this is because there’s loads of improv at the Fringe but it’s mostly in the comedy programme, I am sure. Are you aware of many improvised shows that are theatre?
RET&AK: It is much more unusual for improv to be used as a tool for theatre rather than comedy. And that’s a shame because improvised dramas refresh the parts that other dramas can’t reach. Knowing that a show is improvised makes it extremely compelling. Our audiences cry, gasp, wince, shout out and also shriek with laughter. One guy left the show the other night, shook both our hands, and just said, “Exhilarating!” The audience gets to come on the ride too.

CM: I’m aware that you’ve performed the show in other places before coming to Edinburgh but probably for shorter runs…? How is the longer run working out ?
RET&AK: It’s a joy. The hardest thing about being a performer is not performing, so to have the opportunity to tell a brand new story to a brand new audience every day is wonderful.

CM: Do you remember what happened in each ‘version’ and have you a favourite, thus far?
RET&AK: Because we perform in flow state, we actually find it really hard to remember what happened in the show! Our brains are so busy that they don’t seem to make memories in the same way. We keep a spreadsheet of shows to keep it straight in our heads! I particularly enjoyed the one a few days ago where the audience suggestion was that Rachel had slept with her boyfriend’s brother. The show explored how couples manage to forgive each other, as well as the impact of in-laws on a relationship. Plus we got to do some sex humour, which is always fun!

CM: What made you want to bring the show to Edinburgh?
RET&AK: We knew that Edinburgh would be a great home for the show because it’s full of audiences who want to be surprised by theatre.

CM: What have you enjoyed about being in the Festival City this year?
RET&AK: There’s so much awesome improv, every single day! ‘Happily Never After’, ‘Impromptu Shakespeare’, ‘CSI: Crime Scene Improvisation’, ‘Improvabunga’, ‘Murder She Didn’t Write’… What a treat!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about what you do the rest of the year?
RET&AK: We both perform with other improv comedy shows and we also teach narrative long-form and dramatic improvisation. It’s lovely to see our pupils’ shows and to see them in our audiences too.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
RET&AK: The UK has an amazing improvisation scene, which continues to grow year on year. We want to be part of that! Excellent improv shows are getting West End runs and becoming household names – ‘Austentatious’, ‘Showstopper’ – while up and down the country people are giving courses and jams and drop-ins a go and discovering that improv is great for your mental health and self esteem. It’s a lovely community to be part of.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
RET&AK: We’ve actually spent several mornings on the beanbags at Fringe Central brainstorming our next projects. But you’ll have to watch this space to find out what those will be! Follow us: @betweenusimprov.

‘Between Us’ was performed at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2019.