One of my (if not) my favourite Improv skills is gibberish. I love the fact that you can get tell a story to anyone from any country by communicating in a non-language. When supported by adept physical expression and with total commitment by a performer you are transported to a common world where we all understand each other – or at least we feel like we do.
Way back in the time of Dinosaurs (1992) our troupe were invited to perform at an Improv festival in Rotterdam. It was a glorious weekend of shows and workshops with teams from across Europe (still can’t believe we’ve left!) We were performing our show ‘The Impro Musical’ which went down a storm even though a lot of the audience were not fluent in understanding English. It puzzled me at the time. English like every other language has so many intricacies in meaning and interpretation and to truly understand it you must be immersed in the culture long enough to grasp it (let’s not even talk about regional accents!)
After the show we went back to our lodgings – a former mental health hospital on the banks of the river that had been converted into an arts hub/hostel where people lived, created and ‘smoked’ together. As we shared beers and stories on the sandbank with a glassy calm river mirroring the industrial remnants of a once thriving port I came back to the thought of the show. How did the audience get the story? A Belgian improviser Dominic was straight in with the answer. “It’s gibberish to them! They may not fully understand what you were saying but they get a few words and are familiar with the sound and metre of English so they just fill in the gaps by paying close attention to the emotions and gestures.” He then went on to improvise in ‘fake posh English’ It was hilarious – total nonsense but the vowels and tone were so familiar as he described how to cook a burger on the BBQ it made total sense. He peppered (not the burger) his gibberish with the occasion English word which had me lying on the sand creased up with laughter.
Dominic set me a challenge. There was going to be a long-form improv jam the next day in Dutch for the locals (although he was Belgian, he spoke perfect Dutch) – I was to join them for a few scenes and had to speak in gibberish Dutch. I spent the rest of the evening listening to the others speaking in their native tongue trying to pick up the sounds, cadences and a few real words (yes, no, thank you, drink and sorry). The next day I played the show with the other improvisers speaking actual Dutch. It was amazing! The audience were on the floor as I flayed around pretending to understand everyone and replying in my own ‘Dutch’, throwing in the five words of their language I had learnt. I played a bad-tempered waiter in a restaurant who kept getting the orders wrong and had to go back to the kitchen several times, muttering as I went. The strange thing is after about fifteen minutes I knew what they were saying – not exactly but I got the general idea. After the show the other players said there were points where they could understand me as well. It was a revelation.
Ever since that fateful trip I have used gibberish as a powerful tool in my bag of skills and was delighted to find the following article on the long history of gibberish dating back to Medieval times. Have a read and "blaumf nom kim vurgal shtipe!"