"No matter how crazy it is – we’ll just dive right in and do our best"COLIN ROTHWELL

To most people, the phrase ‘improvised musical’ would seem a bit of an oxymoron. Not so for the cast and crew of The Zero Hour Musical, as I found out when I sat down with director Adi George. So, how exactly do you improvise a musical?

“The first thing to say is it’s not magic,” said George, “it’s not some magic thing, it’s also not a cheat – we don’t script anything. It’s a skill.”  My hopes of learning the dark arts of improvisatory musical theatre dashed, Adi went on: “With an improvised musical the skills are different. How do we improvise a story? There’s a whole bunch of skills that go into that – how we create compelling characters, how we make sure we’re following an emotional arc that the audience will connect with – and then we have to ask how we improvise music.”

“It’s not the magic that people think it is – it’s just very, very hard to do”

I was impressed with the depth of thought George had put into his craft – my own attempts at improvisation usually involve desperately filling empty space. However, it is clear that he wants to create something worthwhile – a real musical. “A lot of it is memory. What will often happen in songs is someone will improvise a chorus – and it’s up to you to remember everything about that chorus from just one listen. Ultimately, it’s not the magic that people think it is – it’s just very, very hard to do.”

“Very hard to do” seems an understatement. The entire premise of each 60-minute performance is dictated by prompts from the audience. “We have to prove that we’re improvising, we don’t know what we’re gonna get each night.” Adi recounted some of the more surreal prompts they have received in the past: “Oh, we’ve had really rogue prompts – we did a show in an Ikea on the moon, a show set in a beard, a show set in Aldi – we did a show set in the Shire, underneath Birmingham. I’m still not quite sure how that works. Ultimately, we’ll arrive at a suggestion which the audience wants to see, and then – no matter how crazy it is – we’ll just dive right in and do our best, and what comes out the other side is a fully polished musical.”

This is the first improvised musical of its kind to come to the ADC. With that, is there a lot of expectation? “Oh my goodness, yes. If you talk about expectations, we’re running through millions of them. The first thing is, people expect improv to be somewhat unpolished – all of the improv shows we’ve done in the past have been with the cast just sitting around the sides of the stage, for example. I think people will expect things like that. But, what they’ll be surprised by is just how polished I’m making this show. The compass that has guided me through this whole process is ‘would a scripted musical do it?’ and if so, ‘can I think of any examples of scripted musicals that have done this?’ If the answer is no, then we can’t do it. That is what I think people won’t expect. Ultimately, I’m looking to exceed people’s expectations.”

“The better you get at improv, the more people start to say ‘I don’t believe you’”

I asked him what he would say to potential audience members put off at the prospect of spending money on improvisation. “Come in with an open mind and be prepared to be blown away,” George said proudly. “If people are expecting a scripted musical, that’s what I hope we can deliver. I want us to deliver an improvised show so polished, and so cohesive, and so musical-esque, that people think we scripted it. It’s one of the tragedies of doing improv: good improv aims to look scripted, good scripted acting aims to look improvised. And the better you get at improv, the more people start to say ‘I don’t believe you.’ So to the people who are expecting a scripted musical, go on. Expect a scripted musical. Set us that challenge – and we will exceed it.”

“Except we won’t know which scripted musical we’re doing until you tell us.”

The Zero Hour Musical runs from the 8th – 11th March, 11.00pm at the ADC