One of the founding members of Bangor Comedy, Antony Butcher, reflects on 10 years of improv… it’s a long-ish read with some personal reflections.
There is a whole generation of Bangor University students for whom Pontio will always be remembered as nothing more than a hole in the ground. For many students it was something that they were aware of but didn’t get to interact with. I’m lucky to be one of a handful of students who had a chance to get involved with the project – seeing the old building before it was knocked down, experiencing student life without it, and then as President of the Students’ Union getting involved in planning what the new space will look like. So it was a real treat earlier this year to return to see the completed building – and not just seeing it, but performing in it. This is a blog to celebrate that return to Bangor, and ten years of performing improvised comedy. But it is also a blog to reflect on what role improv comedy has played in my life, looking at some big questions, like: Do you ever wonder who you are? What makes you unique? What your purpose on this planet is?
That’s right – this is going to be one of those deep blogs – but stay with me!
Last week I was in London with my wife, celebrating her 30th birthday with a trip to see Dear Evan Hansen. It’s a great musical, and one of the many messages I left with was that the way we are using the internet is changing. People from my generation (euch, I’m old) grew up without smartphones and social media. I remember the first time I saw the internet – I was the the first person in my class of 30 allowed to see it when our School got six computers. I was eleven years old. I got Bebo whilst I was in secondary School (alas I was not cool enough for MySpace). I signed up to Facebook after I’d learnt to drive – and didn’t really start using it until I got to University. When I started using social media it was often to talk about an essay I was writing or as a part of one of the many societies that I joined, including the improvised comedy society. Social media was an extension of my “offline” life.
But these days it feels like social media has taken a different turn. Young people feel the pressure of being constantly judged. They see the perfectly framed snippets that their friends share and compare themselves negatively. Many people avoid sharing who they really are – sharing emotions and feelings – creating an environment where lots of people choose not to share their quirks.
This is where comedy comes in. It’s now been more than a decade since I accidentally joined ImpSoc – the improvised comedy society at Bangor University (they had Skittles). I went on to lead the society for two years, to help transform it into Bangor Comedy, and to pass on the reigns to the next generation. After graduating I ended up joining some fellow alumni as part of Thespianage. I started as their technician at the Edinburgh Fringe but they eventually took pity on me and invited me to join them on stage.
Those ten years have taught me two important lessons.
Firstly – the power of friendship. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like with my Thespianage friends “IRL” (thats “In Real Life” for any non-millennials). I live on the wrong side of the Pennines so normally only get to see them once or twice a month – and I can spend longer travelling than I do with the group. But over the years we’ve formed a real bond. Two of the members were my best man and groomsman for my wedding. I went on to “officiate” over my best man’s public wedding ceremony. I’ve told two members details of my life that I wouldn’t tell anyone else. My life is richer for the connections that I’ve made with this amazing group of people that I call my friends.
One of the reasons for this is the second lesson that I’ve learnt. In improv comedy, one of the key rules (well, more like guidelines) is “Yes, And”. If someone comes on stage, looks you in the eye and says “you are the most attractive penguinI’ve ever seen” – you have to accept what they say and add new information. There’s no time to think about how you look, no time to try and approach the scene in a dignified way – you just have to go for it. Over the years I’ve done some ridiculous things. For example, I once had to silently mime a baby giraffe being born and taking its first steps. And this is liberating – the ability to turn off that narrative in your head that tells you everyone is looking at you, that makes you put your head down and pretend to be no-one – and to allow your subconscious mind to run free. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a prison where you don’t feel able to be yourself because of what people might say on social media. And I worry that for lots of young people today, this will stop them doing the ridiculous things that lead them to finding a sense of purpose in their life. My membership of Thespianage is part of who I am – one of my personality islands for anyone who has seen Inside Out.
So returning to Bangor wasn’t just another show or a chance to relive old glories. It was a chance to reaffirm who I am. A chance to remind myself of what I can achieve. A chance to reflect on some of the unique things that I bring to this planet. And that’s the thought I’d like to end on – the importance of finding something that gives your life a purpose. It doesn’t have to be comedy, or cycling across America for charity. But it does have to be something where you can be you. Where you don’t worry about what other people think of you. Where you live in the moment and make friendships that matter more than the number of likes and comments the last photo you posted got. Because that’s where the magic happens.