Updated: Feb 8, 2021
They formed School of Improv in Newcastle in 2003, but their improv career stretches back 32 years to a rainy night in London.
As a young couple and pair of aspiring actors, Bev and Ian moved from their hometown Newcastle to London in 1987. After months of getting absolutely nowhere, they happened upon an advert in 'The Stage' looking for actors to take-part in an experimental course of improvisational workshops in Camden, led by Chris Johnston (author House of Games, and The Improvisation Game). They almost didn't get there as the rain was so heavy (and they didn't have a brolly!) but it was one of those nights that changes your life forever.
They were hooked on improv, and 2-weeks later they joined London Theatresports, and within a month were playing shows at the Arts Theatre and Canal Cafe, where they were spotted by an agent.
It was their lucky show! Canadian improviser, Alan Marriott was also performing and he was looking for a cast for his new idea - The Impro Musical. This pioneering show, the first of its kind in the world, opened at the Gate Theatre in '89 to rave reviews. The company (made up of Alan, Bev and Ian, Suki Webster, Niall Ashdown, Phillip Pellew, and musical maestro, Anthony Ingle) went on to have great success throughout the 90s, including European tours, sell-out Edinburgh Fringe shows, runs and residencies at BAC, The Banana and Donmar Warehouse. In '91 they performed The Impro Musical at the Fortune Theatre on Drury Lane, making it the first improv show to play a West End Theatre. In '92 their show was adapted for TV as The Bootleg Broadway Show, with a series for Tyne Tees and Granada, and then in '99 for BBC Radio 4.
At that same lucky Canal Cafe show, they met Lee Simpson, one of their favourite teachers of all time, and Lee is an original member of the infamous Comedy Store Players. Soon, they were guesting at the Store in Leicester Square, playing alongside Who's Line is Anyway? players such as Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, Mike McShane, Greg Proops and Richard Vranch, for many years to come.
Lee Simpson co-founded one of the world's most influential improv theatre companies, Improbable, with Phelim McDermott. Bev performed in their first show, Improbable Tales at the Nottingham Playhouse and has worked with them on-and-off for the last 30 years.
These are some of the wonderful companies they worked with at an exciting time when improv was developing rapidly as a theatrical and comedic art form. In 1993 Bev and Ian were teaching improv in the UK and Europe, and they got their first taste for theatre production, creating the 'Impro Pantso' - the original improvised pantomime, starring Josie Lawrence and Mike McShane and their Impro Musical buddies at BAC.
Now, the Impro Pantso is The Suggestibles' Christmas show, which tours North East Theatre, and has been running for 17-years at Northern Stage in Newcastle every year (till this year, for obvious reasons).
Bev and Ian founded the Suggestibles, Newcastle's first improv comedy group in 2003. The group started out at Live Theatre, simply called Improv Night. After a brief stint at the Bridge Hotel, they found their home venue of 16-years, The Cumberland Arms. Original member, Carl Kennedy remains a core player of the Suggestibles, and was one of their winning team who played to a 1500 throng at the Globe Theatre London in 2005, in Ken Campbell's 'Shall We Shog?' a three-hour improvised Shakespeare tournament made for the Bard's 500th Birthday Celebrations.
The Suggestibles' second current residency, is at the Stand Comedy Club in Newcastle, where they have played since it opened in 2012. The core team is made up of Bev, Ian, Carl, Tom Walton, Rachel Glover and Alex Ross, and the Suggestibles have had near-on 100 guest players since they formed.
Their first Newcastle improv classes started a the Actors' Centre and at Live Theatre in 2003, then known as Improvisation Foundation, this was the start of School of Improv, now the longest running training ground for improvisers in the UK.
Having returned to their hometown in 2002 to put improv on the Northeast map and to experiment with new ideas, they got into filmmaking. Their feature length improvised film, Reunion, made in partnership with Live Theatre received a Royal Television Society special commendation in 2006. Bev and Ian won 4 RTS Awards over then next few years, including Pour Quoi, the first in a series of an improvised parody of Parkour, which gained much controversy on YouTube and notoriety in The New York Times. People thought they were really French and this caused a surprising storm.
Their love of film and passion for bringing people together, led them to produce their first 4 Hour Film Challenge in 2006, where professional filmmakers and actors are challenged to make a film in a ridiculously short amount of time!
The 4 Hour Film Challenge was the closing event of the first Newcastle Improv Festival at Alphabetti Theatre in 2019, which Bev and Ian produced and funded themselves (having been turned down by Arts Council England). NiF was a nine-day festival of improvisation, at 5 venues involving visiting artists and companies from across the UK and attracting audiences from far and wide. Having just about broken even, they aim to produce their next festival, hopefully this time with ACE funding in 2022. Much of the success of the festival is down to the 25 volunteers made up of School of Improv's community who showed the most enormous amount of support for the venture.
School of Improv is all about community, and Bev and Ian's passion for teaching and nurturing improvisation, and the skills and talents of their students. Their greatest influence is their teacher, Keith Johnstone, (improv guru and author of seminal books 'Impro' and Impro for Storytellers'). They honed their teaching skills at a two-week masterclass wth Keith in Canada in 2004, and brought him to Newcastle in 2005 to coach the Suggestibles, and deliver open classes at Northern Stage.
Bev had a rare interview with Keith Johnstone on camera, and you can watch the videos here
School of Improv has moved around many venues in Newcastle to enable to grow their classes and courses. They have been delivered at Jurys Inn for the last 4 years. Over the years, Bev and Ian have created and produced numerous improv shows at numerous venues - Rat Race, Court in the Act, 4 1 Night Only, and the Panic Room, all regular nights featuring School of Improv students. Having also opened and run two music and improv 'venues within venues', The Chill Club at the Kings Head in London and The Mixer at the Legion in Jesmond, Newcastle, their dream is to open their own venue, a dedicated theatre space for Improv in Newcastle.