Interview: The Suggestibles
The Suggestibles are undoubtedly one of the most popular comedy acts in the region. Their unique brand of improvised storytelling is deservedly held in high esteem by such publications as The Guardian and The Times. Their core team of improv comedy veterans ably hold their own alongside nationally renowned comedians.
Ian McLaughlin, Bev Fox, Carl Kennedy, Gary Kitching, and Rob Atkinson invite suggestions from the audience and explore the resulting scenarios through a variety of games and activities. 7 years from its inception, The Suggestibles has become a staple of the local comedy scene, and continues to grow, pushing the boundaries of improvisational formats ever further with each performance.
Having just returned from the annual improvised Soap Opera Marathon in London, founding cast members Bev & Ian explain how the group began. “For a while we lived together in London, and we were very involved with the Improvised Musical and Comedy Store players; when we came back to Newcastle we noticed there were no improvisation groups – and immediately saw a niche for ourselves”.
Following a number of successful shows at Live Theatre – simply labelled Improv Night – Bev & Ian secured a monthly residency at The Cumberland Arms and The Suggestibles was born, performing on the last Friday of every month since.
Amazingly for an act that’s 7 years old, the core cast has remained much the same over the years. “We like to change things around now and again, but Me, Bev, and Carl have pretty much been there throughout” explains Ian. “With a cast of professional actors, our players have to take on other work to pay the bills. We recently lost Gary [a regular from very early on] for 6 months while he starred in Oh What A Lovely War, and one of the old regulars Chris Price now lives and works in London – although he’s coming back this weekend for our Anniversary show.”
Occasionally the audience are treated to a sample of local talent and, increasingly often, big names from the wider comedy world. Significant comedians to have graced The Suggestibles stage are Niall Ashdown and Andy Smart, and Ian and Bev assure me that the Suggestibles have some great guests planned for 2011.
Asked what he thinks separates The Suggestibles from the myriad other improv troupes, Ian is quick to praise his colleagues. “I think what makes or breaks an improv group is the chemistry between the actors, and we’re lucky enough to have a very strong team. Some groups can be made up of brilliant improvisers, but if the chemistry’s not right then it doesn’t quite work.”
Bev proudly opines that The Suggestibles have an unadulterated attitude to improv, in contrast to similar groups. “We’re very pure, in that we don’t rely on scripted gags, recurring characters, or familiar situations and games. We rarely decide which games to use or who’ll play them in advance. We haven’t used a set list for years”
The games themselves are adapted from standard warm-up routines that are used in the industry to teach actors to improvise. The Suggestibles do have some games of their own, however – including the ever-popular “Aspects”, a narrative re-imagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love based around a broad subject suggested by the audience.
Improvisation is far from the only format the team have explored. Ian and Gary are both performing stand-ups in their own right, and Bev & Ian write for Magic IF, the multimedia production company they consider as their ‘day job’. Within The Suggestibles guise, the cast have added many videos to YouTube, including a full sitcom and the overnight sensation Pourquoi.
“It really was a hit overnight” says Bev. “We shot the video in an afternoon, uploaded it to YouTube, and went out to the pub.” Ian adds: “When we got back we’d already had 3,000 views. We just sat at the computer and watched the numbers go up. There was some real controversial statements in the comments, and I think that controversy helped push the hit count up.”
As it stands, the original Pourquoi video has over 800,000 views. Ian explains where the idea came from. “Me and Carl decided we were going to get fit, so we started running. We went up to the park but we just got bored and started dicking about. We did a quick video but never thought anybody would want to watch it.”
The monthly slot at the Cumberland Arms now sells out most of the time, a fact which I assumed to be the reason behind two Suggestibles bi-products – online Streamed and Recorded live shows; and the move to The Mixer at the Jesmond Legion.
Ian is happy to set the record straight:
“The recording actually came from people we know who couldn’t make the live show. We’ve been going so long that people have emigrated and we’ve now got fans in America, Canada and Europe. We started putting sketches and things like Pourquoi on YouTube, and it’s grown from there.”
Bev interjects: “Once we realised there was an audience, we said ‘why not try and record a whole show?’, and we’ve since recorded a number of shows – and started live streaming, with varying success. We’d love to have people watching online and adding their own suggestions – that’s the end goal.”
As for The Mixer, Bev explains that the venue is an ongoing project between the Suggestibles and Cumberland Arms manager Jo Hodson. “We were approached to do a benefit gig for the Legion, but when we looked at the function room we realised it would have to be cleaned up, so we added a stage and PA rig, and we opened in September. It’s going really well considering it’s only been going for 4 months.” Ian adds “We’ve done things in lots of different venues like Northern Stage and the Hyena club, but The Cumberland will always be our home.”
The question many fans are asking is whether we might see a new venue for local comedy and Fringe Theatre in the Northeast, to which Ian says with a big smile: “Absolutely!”
The Suggestibles host their anniversary show tonight (January 28) at The Cumberland Arms, and you can catch them on the last Friday of the each month at the Cumberland Arms, and second monthly Saturdays at The Mixer.