Updated: Feb 9
This is the story of 'The Rank-King', a new history-themed improv show, and how it went from an idea to being showcased at The Suggestibles' School of Improv 'Panic Room'.
Like most ideas I have, it started with a pun. After performing with Spontaneous Wrecks at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, I was chatting with fellow Wrecks members and School of Improv graduates Anna, Matt and Michael. We were joking about what our solo Fringe shows would be - I don't remember many of the shows we came up with, but one was definitely a Hamilton spoof musical based on the life of Neil and Christine. That one luckily never happened, but at some point, I said "I'd do a show where I'd rate all the kings and queens of England and I'd call it The Rank-King".
The venue where it all began - Ciao Roma, just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
We had a laugh, and then forgot about it. Except I didn't. The more I thought about it, the more I realised this stupid pun combined my love of improv and my love of history ... plus my slightly stranger love of making lists! Ideas started forming. The audience could suggest how to rate the monarchs. It could be anything from weirdest hair to goriest death. There could be a leaderboard. There could be improv scenes alongside the history. This could work! But it felt very niche, like I might be the only person who would actually enjoy it. So, quietly, just to see what would happen, I sent off an application for the 2019 Fringe. If they didn't want it, fine.
Months later, they got back to me... with an offer of one week of shows, and a request for a blurb and a picture for the 'Wee Blue Book' programme. Aha. This just got real.
Luckily I had a suitable picture handy
By the time of the Fringe itself, I had a format figured out. It became really important that the audience decided the category for rating the monarchs. I may have prepared as much knowledge as I could about everyone from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II and crammed it into my head, but without that audience involvement, it was just a historical talk. I wanted this to be improv - and what's improv without an audience suggestion? Having them decide the subject of the show gave them investment on what they'd then hear about, It also meant that I didn't know what I'd be talking about in advance, either. I'd be making it up as I went along... except everything I made up would have to be true!
The very first show soon arrived, and while I'd done everything I could, it was all going to be up to the audience. What would they come up with?
"Which king or queen would win on 'Love Island'?"
I've never seen 'Love Island'. Okay, let's do this!
Luckily, I had two things in my favour. One was the support of a guest improviser, Spontaneous Wrecks' resident musician Jenni Winter. Jenni jumped straight in to this totally untested format, performing scenes - sometimes solo - and keeping the audience laughing. The second was the audience themselves - it turns out that it wasn't just the initial suggestion they'd be involved in. They stayed involved throughout the whole show, deciding exactly where each king or queen would end up on the leaderboard, and they were pretty vocal about it!
As the week of shows continued, more guest improvisers dropped in, including Wrecks members Rachael, Jon and Casey. Each time we did the show, it developed and evolved, and something else clicked into place, That feeling has continued in every performance since.
The evening before Jon and Rachael's first 'Rank-King' experience
The balance between me talking about history and their improvised scenes became a key part of the show for me. The scenes gave a breathing point for the audience between trivia and stories; they also gave me a bit of time to run through the Big Book Of Kings And Queens in my head and figure out where I'd need to go next. The key aspects of improv all came into play - listening for a piece of history that could inspire a scene, offers of how to 'yes and' the truth into something more (and funny!), and reincorporation of weird and wonderful things that happened in the past.
After deciding the most environmentally friendly monarch, the best parent, and which Hogwarts house they'd all go in - turns out Henry VIII would be a Gryffindor - the Fringe was over, and so, I thought, was 'The Rank-King'. It felt final, in a way. I'd had an idea, and we made it happen. It was a nice feeling.
But it wasn't final! Open Heart Theatre invited me to perform the show at their 'Let Us Make It Up To You' night last November. I gathered together the improvisers, was extremely grateful when king of tech Peter Johnson agreed to help out, found a logo and images of the monarchs for Peter to project onto the stage, and began re-learning everything I'd forgotten since August.
It was during that show at Newcastle's Bridge Hotel where something really clicked into place. People were genuinely enjoying this! People who maybe had never liked or cared about history were cheering and shouting about whether the Empress Matilda should be higher or lower than Edward II in the category of "Who would be the best in drag?" This strange hybrid of improv and history could have a longer life than I'd thought.
The Suggestibles' Bev was at that show, and invited me to perform it at the January 'Panic Room'. I very excitedly said yes please and made a New Year's Resolution that 'The Rank-King' would officially become A Thing in 2020. We added improviser Kerris Gibson to the group I had now dubbed the Privy Council, got paper crowns for the audience, and performed the show, which, if nothing else, left a lasting memory for people that peaches and cider can be fatal. Peter even gave us entrance and exit music - we felt like royalty!
The Privy Council and I, after deciding which monarch would be killed first in a horror movie
People have often asked me how I remember it all - even with the improv scenes, the majority of the format involves me speaking off the top of my head about these 40-odd individuals who have, in an (almost) unbroken chain, shaped our country and sometimes the world for nearly a thousand years. I don't really know. I suppose I just have that kind of brain. I like learning new facts, and I like sharing them with people. 'The Rank-King' is a way for me to do that which also incorporates my love of improvising - and it's using history in a new, hopefully entertaining, way. Combining history and comedy isn't new (Blackadder, Horrible Histories, Monty Python) but you don't often see it combined with improv. At least, not the way we do it.
Bev later named me an 'improhistorian'. I love that. It's cool to think I might be one of the first improhistorians. And if we can get people to enjoy and appreciate history and realise it's not as boring as they thought at school, while also laughing at Casey turning into an eel, Rachael providing deadly Elizabethan make-up tips, or me getting a room full of people to cry "eurgh" and cringe at a gory story they've never heard before ... well, it's not bad for something that started as a stupid pun.
And Henry VI would definitely have won 'Love Island'.