The Serious Business of Comedy - Matt Spooner

[A reflection on participating in the Up Men Improv Comedy workshop (23rd Nov 2019)]

The world of Improvised Comedy has always fascinated me. I’ve watched comedians and actors on various TV programmes over the years and wondered at their ability to seemingly pull the funniest stuff out of thin air. To be able to achieve that, to be that full of self-confidence is something that has eluded me fully for as long as I can remember. I’ve acted and I’ve been a Tutor for over eighteen years so performing, in a way, is what I do but there’s always been that step I’ve never been quite able to take. I’m much too aware of my inner voice always being ready to tell me how bad it would be.

So, the opportunity to take part in an organised workshop for improvised comedy was something I just couldn’t and wouldn’t miss out on.  The fact that it was part of The Man Up Legacy only added to its appeal. I got the email and I registered for the workshop. I looked forward to it and felt really nervous about it all at the same time.


Saturday came and I made my way there. When I arrived, I was happy to see familiar faces, all looking as uncertain as I was. We stood bunched together, cracking jokes amongst ourselves, all of us bringing out the budding comedian that had been waiting for just this occasion.  Then the time arrived for us to make our way inside so we all piled into the Spode building and entered into the world of improvised comedy. 


The setting was a smallish room and a bigger group that I’d imagined.

Tom, the runner of the session introduced himself and suggested we sit in the customary circle as these types of gatherings require. We did the introductions and everyone gave a reason for being there and wanting to take part in the workshop. Throughout, there was a definite theme of people wanting to have the confidence to bring out the ideas and thoughts in their heads, to be able to be more comfortable and confident about themselves. This point universally agreed upon, we got to our feet and started to move.


As with many things relating to confidence, being free in your own movement without self-conscious doubt is a massive thing. Letting the opinions of others influence you on the way you move is the biggest barrier to your own physical confidence. This was soon forgotten as we weaved and bobbed around the room to different music tracks being played through a laptop, each of us opening ourselves up to this exciting experience. The movement activities continued and as they did Tom would stop us and ask us to think about where we were, how our bodies felt in the poses we’d frozen in. As we did this I became more and more aware of the actual nature of improvised comedy. It’s not just about standing in front of people and talking and aiming for the laughs, it’s all connected through movement and performance. To be able to perform you have to get yourself loose and in the zone.


Enough of movement and Tom got us into the visuals with some small set pieces and some group work on spontaneous story telling. We’re stood in a line were given a topic to cover “Buying toiletries” is the chosen one and a quick fire finger points at one then another of us as we blurt out our efforts. As is my nature, I try to adapt the theme and go slightly off at my own tangent. I’m not the only one as the imagination kicks in and the story line starts to weave. Tom stops us "Good" he says "but don’t try to improve anything, stick with what you’ve got. Focus, being in the moment is an important part of improvising."  I think that was one of the most important things I’d learnt so far.


The day continued and all the way, the conversation and humour flowed. The experience of being in a room filled with people all wanting to do the same thing is unbeatable. The fact that I knew some of them from Man Up only made it easier to indulge in the best of banter both gentle and not so gentle. The feeling of connection never lessens and days such as this one only re enforce the wish for more to come. As the last section of the day commenced, we found ourselves, in twos, front of an audience of our peers. This was it, show time!


Tom set us up and once more gave us the theme. This time, we were doing the double act. Again, the rest of the group contributed, quite a lot through laughter and some sharp asides but as before, Tom would pull us back, giving us feedback on how we’d performed.  “Project.” Said Tom “Give it to the people at the back of the room.” Every one of us stood up in front of the others and gave it our all. Luckily we were now a little more relaxed and aware of the way Improvised comedy worked. As before, as we worked through the skits I was aware of how much there was to learn about all this and how little we’d been able to cover during the day. 


Then, like all good things, the workshop had to end. We’d come to the end of our guided tour of the world of Improvised Comedy.


We sat down again and were given a chance to reflect on the day. The overwhelming response was not enough time, not enough time!


Then we started to talk freely about our feelings on what had happened during the workshop. The consensus was that the day had been eye opening, liberating and overall fantastic. All of us agreed that the opportunity to take part in an activity such as the one we’d taken part in today was, sadly a rarity. People spoke of how they could see the benefits of this type of expression in regards to mental and physical wellbeing. Having an outlet such as this was something a lot of us would welcome as part of our lives. The want to take part in more of the same a definite conclusion to the day. 


For me? I loved it all. I felt a real sense of something that with a lot more learning I could take further. Learning how to do this properly would give me a much needed way to get the stuff in  my head out when the other ways won’t work. This has been a common feeling with all of the activities I’ve taken part in with the Up Men. Every one has been a new step towards being more confident and comfortable with me and how I deal with the world around me. Being with people who don’t fit the mould, who don’t conform to the expected roles of gender or society has given me a broader understanding of myself and them as well.


It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I’m not the only one improvising as I make my way through this performance.

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Diary of a Late Bloomer - Adrian Mckenzie

[A reflection on participating in the Up Men Living Library (22nd Nov 2019)]

I’ve wanted to write a book forever, I’ve wanted to call it the Diary of a Late Bloomer forever. Over time I’ve given up on that, perhaps, because I’ve started to bloom. That said, if I must be the change that I want to see then the first step was to be a human book on the shelves of a Living Library. 


Who would want to spend their free time flicking through my pages? Would people even connect with what I had to say? What would I say? I committed myself to the full 2 hours with nothing but the title in mind and hoped for the best. I was pleasantly surprised.


Each of my readers had different connections to the title and the mutual curiosity allowed for conversations that could have easily tripled in length. There were conversations where I was like a child racing at a million miles an hour in open space before returning to the measured adult I’ve become.


I enjoyed every minute, from the first with the reader who passed their driving test in their early 50s, to the last person who ended up with me because of a mix-up.  I’m thankful for the opportunity to share stories with other late bloomers and would happily do this again.

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Sound Good? - Paul Forrester

[A reflection on participating in  Up Men Sing]

One recent Tuesday afternoon, at the end of a client meeting, I was asked about my plans for the evening.


“I’ve got a choir session,” I replied. Then, with a certain amount of glee, I added: “We sing polyphonic Eastern European folk songs. And one of our warm-up songs is a Finnish reindeer herding call.”


(We’ve since learnt that the reindeer herding song is a joik, or yoik.)


This was notable because, in the past, I wouldn’t have been so open and forthcoming with my answer. Feelings of uncertainty would have crept in; I’d have feared judgement from the people asking. I’d have said, “Oh, I’m just going to a thing” or “I’ve got to nip into Stoke for a couple of hours” and left it at that.


Up Men Sing


The choir is a new male voice choir in Stoke-on-Trent. It recognises the enjoyment we got from singing as part of Man Up in 2018. More generally, it recognises the benefits of singing as a group; the sense of connection, the release of stress, the potential mental health improvements.


We call the sessions ‘Up Men Sing’, as part of the wider ‘Up Men’ programme that’s received funding as a legacy of Man Up. The choir meets every fortnight. At the time of writing we’ve not even had three months’ worth of sessions, but we’ve made great strides learning some beautiful, uplifting songs.


And the best bit is that participating has nothing to do with how ‘good’ any of us are individually as singers. It’s about the collective power of a group of voices working together to create an amazing-sounding whole.


In the last few months of 2019 we’ll perform for the first time, sharing our progress with a wider audience.


We’ve already shared an excerpt of our journey. For one session we were granted the use of the stage of the Victoria Hall (one of the two big theatres in the city centre). Our voices filled the empty auditorium, and the wonderful Jenny Harper recorded us moving around and singing the joik.

Another part of sharing the journey was having the confidence at the end of that client meeting to talk about how I was spending the evening. When you begin to live an experience and feel the benefits first-hand, it makes it so much easier to share it with others.

Rather than talking about the theory, I can be an advocate. I can share what it’s like to have a broad smile on my face during every session. I can offer a glimpse of what it’s like to be there for the moment that happens during the learning of every new song, when we perform the different harmonies together well, and there’s a collective sense of achievement and satisfaction in the room.


When I shared these insights and proudly showed the video, my enthusiasm was reciprocated. Everyone said how good it sounded, and I was left to wonder why I’d ever been reluctant to share my passions in the past.