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Improvising their way to national comic fame
THE likes of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Dudley Moore and Sally Phillips, can claim to have forged comedy careers in Oxford.
And in their wake a comedy group in the city has gone from strength to strength.
Oxford Imps is celebrating 10 years since it first set up this month.
Grandpont resident Hannah Madsen, 32, established the group 10 years ago in her last year at Oxford University.
Ms Madsen, who is now the producer and founder of Angel Sharp Media video production company, said: “You don’t really think of Oxford as having a comedy tradition until you realise how much there is here.
“It is actually, surprisingly, a very comedy-rich city, and that is shown by how many comedians you see on TV who are from Oxford.
“There are universities which have degrees you can take in stand-up comedy which I think Oxford University would be horrified by.”
The current 32 improv comedians – Oxford residents and students – are celebrating a decade of performances with a special show.
The performance at the New Theatre in George Street is on Thursday at 8pm.
Performing on the night will be some of the Imp’s most famous alumni including Ivo Graham from BBC3 and winner of So You Think You’re Funny, Rachel Parris from The IT Crowd and BBC Radio 4, and Joseph Morpurgo from BBC Radio 4, BBC3, and Grand Theft Impro.
Producer of the 10th anniversary show Dylan Townley said: “We are a training group. Most imps have never done improv or even comedy before they join the troupe – yet our alumni go on to do fantastically funny stuff on BBC3, Radio 4 comedy, the London stand-up circuit, and have a huge presence at the Edinburgh Fringe.”
The Oxford Imps made their debut at the Wheatsheaf pub in High Street in January 2004 and make it their Monday night home during the university term.
They have gone on to perform more than 450 shows.
- Stalwart Tom Skelton
Comedian Tom Skelton, 26, has performed in more than 400 of them – the most of any Oxford Imp.
But it could have been very different – the former Oxford University student almost missed his audition in 2006.
And for him the group has been more than just a comedy club.
He said: “Four years ago I lost my sight because of a genetic condition in my family. I left Oxford, postponed university, dropped everything. I was back to visit some friends, and they persuaded me to come to a rehearsal, and then that Monday I was on stage with them again.
“It felt so good to know that when I had lost my ability to do everything else, I could still make people laugh just as well – if not better – than I could before.
“It helps sometimes, because improv is all imagination anyway, I’m not hindered by the fact that I know there’s nothing there – for all I know, there could be.”
- For tickets to the 10th Anniversary Show call 0844 8713020 or go to atgtickets.com/oxford
Oxford Imps founder Hannah Madsen recalls the group’s beginnings:
Q How did it get started?
“I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe in my final year of university with a drama group, and was just blown away by an improv group I saw up there – I went to see them eight times. I thought, “Why does Oxford not have an improv group? It’s perfect, being full of quick-thinking people.”
“So when we came back I stayed in Oxford and set it up, thinking I would only do it for a year before I left the city for good, and it was an overnight success. Our first show was the Wheatsheaf in January 2004, but we had been rehearsing since October 2003. Every member has to do two months of rehearsals before they’re allowed on stage.
Q What’s the 10th anniversary show about?
“It’s really celebrating the success of our alumni, what other Imps have gone on to do. People have set up other improv groups, which is great, but we’re creating our own competition! It’s gone from less than 10 improv groups at the Fringe to between 40 and 50. Others have gone on to do professional comedy writing, or stand up. It’s really great.”
Q Your group has led to so many rising stars, do you ever feel jealous that you’re still here?
“The thing is, improv teaches you so many social skills, about being nice to each other, letting down barriers, opening up to each other etc. Imps has taught me so many life skills, and all of these people are my friends, so no I don’t feel jealous. I work on my video production company in Oxford. I’m usually not very hands-on with the Imps any more. It’s just because of this 10th anniversary show that I’m back in the mix. I did move away from Oxford, but then I came back.
IMP-RESSIVE FORMER MEMBERS:
- THE Oxford Imps were founded in October 2003, made up of both students and local residents.
- They made their debut performance at the Wheatsheaf pub, in January 2004.
- Since then the Wheatsheaf has been their Monday night home during university terms.
- To date, they have performed more than 450 shows.
- In 2004 the group ventured north to perform at the heart of UK comedy, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
- They have performed there every year since.
- They have sold more than 22,500 tickets and had six sell-out years.
- Oxford Imps have since toured the USA three times, selling out in New York.
- In Nashville the group were chosen as the Nashville Scene Critics’ Pick in 2012.
- The troupe also tour to Holland yearly and toured to France in 2011.
FAMOUS FORMER IMPS INCLUDE:
- Jeremy Heimans – the CEO of Purpose.com, and the co-founder of Avaaz.org
- Keli Carender – the first Tea Party protest activist
- Rose Heiney – novelist and writer for Film and TV (Miranda, Fresh Meat)
- Heather McRobie – novelist, journalist (The Guardian, New Statesman)
- Chris Turner – Stand Up Comedian (BBC New Comedy award finalist)
- Ben Van Der Velde – Stand Up Comedian (Comedy Cafe New Act of the Year)
- John Gethin, pictured right, – winner of Channel 4’s Beauty and the Geek (as the geek)
- Lee Rubenstein – Writer for Comedy Central
- Pete Bearder – Slam poet and activist
- Ralph McCubbin Howell – award-winning New Zealand playwright
- Performing at the Wheatsheaf
Oxford Imp Tom Wilkinson, 31, considers the group’s impact:
“When the Imps first stepped on to an Oxford stage, during the Bush administration, Britain was something of an improv wasteland.
“Stalwarts did good and noble work at being funny impromptu, but if asked, most people might remember the show Who’s Line Is It Anyway (which last recorded a UK show in the mid 1990s) and otherwise draw a blank as to what improv even was.
- Tom Wilkinson
“Since then, the situation has changed utterly. Not only has the number, variety and quality of improv acts exploded, but audiences now have a taste for it.
“The Imps can’t take credit for all that. But maybe they can allow themselves a small pat on the back: through shows such as Austentatious and Racing Minds, former Oxford Imps have been at the forefront of popularising improv, and the Imps’ distinctive approach – being serious about being funny – has helped make improv a credible form and driven the creation of new improv groups across the country, run by former members of the company. It’s one of the Imps’ core beliefs that improv is more than just an amazing night out: it’s a way of learning how to be a better performer, and a little bit of a better human being.”