How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part Three

Within minutes of the start, I turned to one of the only two people I knew and whispered nervously, ‘I think I need to change my character!’

I was second guessing my choices, trying to control the nerves about being in a new theatre with new people and picking the ‘right’ character to play for the next 26 hours… The lights were going up and I’d just changed my intended character accent back to kiwi. The facilitator was introducing the show and I changed her background (to fit the kiwi accent). As my character was being called up to do a scene and I still hadn’t decided whether her overarching objective was money or rural serenity…

Part Three: the Improv!

It’s been four months since I was in Bristol to play one character in the 26 hour improvised soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT). How did I stay awake, stay in character and remain a functioning improviser? With folks I had never played with before?

In Part One I wrote about the things I learned about surviving an improv marathon physically and in Part Two: surviving emotionally.  Here is what I leaned about the actual improv in a soap opera improvathon.

The Library


Fortunately, I got lucky with my last minute character crisis. I ended up defaulting to a version of myself rather than the more interesting characters I had ambitions to play. I walked on stage with my own accent, my own rural background and no pre-determined characteristics other than my job title in the world of the soap opera.

Del Close famously said that “character should be worn as a thin veil” meaning that the audience want to see the actor’s truth. I’ve always struggled with that idea, wanting to be anything but myself on stage and the marathon was no exception.

But the beauty of playing an aspect of your own truth is that it’s easier and more grounded in reality, therefore much better for creating the relationships, character perspective and character based comedy that drive an improvised narrative.

Here’s a tip from by Jason Shotts and Colleen Doyle of IO: thinking of a scale from one to say, twelve, where one is you and twelve is a cartoon, begin with the character layer at about a three. This means you have room to grow (even to a twelve if appropriate) and take your audience along for the ride rather than losing them at the beginning or having to scale back the extreme to connect to the other characters.

Listening to yourself

OK. Listening is standard improv and obviously standard improv stuff applies to the soap opera. But we’re often so busy listening to others that we forget to listen to ourselves. So we drop things we’ve named at the beginning and hunt to invent new things for ourselves. Instead we want to commit to what we’ve already created and play it stronger.

In my panic I ended up with no pre-determined character layer before I stepped on stage. Whether that was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ might depend on your current improv philosophy but at first I thought I’d made it harder for myself and I was disappointed. I felt lost. Like I was wavering in a wishy-washy no character in that first scene.

That’s where listening to myself and playing what I discovered about my character harder really helped. Despite my thought that I’d like to play a character who was driven by money my character’s first words were about companionship. So that was my character veil, her thing, her point of view. When I listened to her value for companionship and played the positive and negative aspects of that character layer harder; relationships with other characters, scene games and story arcs were formed in a grounded way. The soap opera became more relaxed for me.

Plotting together
Plotting together

Concession not conflict

John Lomas of Closer Each Day advised us all to play positively to make the soap opera format work best.

“Make scenes about people working together not conflict. And to help this: play positive characters. Characters with negative attitudes inevitably end up blocking or coming into conflict. Form relationships and allegiances. This is a soap and soap is driven by relationships, be they romantic or otherwise. Let these relationships develop and play the long game. If you are playing an antagonist, then team up with other antagonists and work together. Again, make the scenes about concession not conflict.”

This piece of advice was all I remembered in the character paralysis of walking on for that first scene. It would have been so easy to block or play negative in that state of mind but the advice reminded me to help make that very first scene a no-trouble platform scene where all the characters in the pub liked each other. We got rich characters and background to use for the rest of the show out of that one generous scene.

I also noticed later in the show how difficult it was to further the story and the relationships when I did slip into conflict with my character’s ex-husband. One trick for making it work and still being true to your character is to play conflicted instead of conflict: internalise the conflict while trying to find agreement within the scene. For example: think how much we love watching a character do something they don’t want to do. Much more funny than them refusing or doing it easily with no affect on their emotional state.

Character point of view

Despite my note about listening to myself, it took me several scenes to recognise my character’s thing had already been created. I wavered in neutral for some scenes instead of stating my character’s opinion or objective. It meant that I basically never had a scene with that other character again as there was no relationship developed.

Your character needs a point of view / an objective / a desire and or a character flaw. Something that drives them.

These collective character traits drive the show and help the facilitators / directors. It’s their job to set up each scene with characters and location and to keep track of the story arcs for the characters and the show. Having a strong POV supports them in deciding which characters to throw together and what episode or multi- episode story arcs to promote.


Be bold

Use your character point of view, your developing relationships with other characters and the organic games that develop to make bold story action choices and raise the stakes on existing choices (your own and other character’s). This is how the plot gets driven and prevents the facilitators from having to make up everything for you (remember they’re not getting any sleep either!).

And get on with it. Yes, we’re playing a long game but if there is too much bridging to a known end or paralysed conflict with no consequences then it’s not fun for audience or players. Let strong emotions drive bold actions, have actions lead to consequences and let the story move forward into the unknown.

Be Present

Lastly, just a reminder to let go of the excellent ideas that you have and listen to what is happening now. I forgot this at the last because I was so caught up in the fact that I needed to leave the soap early. In my tiredness I didn’t see or hear some excellent offers from my teammates.  I just drove my character to the sticky end I’d fixated on. It was still an awesome episode ending but it was pretty exactly the one I’d scripted moments before in my head. Who knows how much more awesome it could have been if I’d let my teammates offers affect the character and story?

Time Busters participants looking forward to going home to sleep
Time Busters participants looking forward to going home to sleep

Other Quick notes

Here are some other points which help make a good marathon or soap opera, either observed by me or other cast and crew. (Disclaimer: as with all improv guides there is often that moment of exception where a rule should totally be broken.)

– use your short character introduction at the top of each episode to help the facilitators with your character arc. You don’t just have to recite what’s happened to you to catch new audience up. You can state how your character is feeling, remind everyone of a dropped fact, say what your character is trying to achieve or even do something irrelevant to any plot that fills out your character.

– know most of the other characters. Have a history with them and a friendship that starts positive (with concession not conflict as above).

– endow yourself more than others. In particular “avoid ‘comedy’ endowing – giving another character a characteristic that they may find difficult to play or may contradict the way the character has developed.” If you are endowing another character, try for positive rather than negative attributes.

– keep the drama grounded. Any big world events will affect every character in the entire show so think relationships rather than natural disasters, especially at the beginning.

– raise the stakes for a fellow character or yourself with a relevant moral choice (these can also make great episode cliff hangers).

– have fun with the character games that arise in your scenes and let these drive the story rather than driving your character objective into plans and plotting

– obey the facilitator and the lights. Not doing so is blocking a teammate’s offer and breaking the reality of the world for the audience.

– try not to break character or step out of the scene to comment on it.

– try to vary the rhythm and staging from the scene immediately prior to yours.

– have fun!

What have I missed?

Agree or disagree with any of these? What improv note works for you in an improvised soap opera or improvathon?

(photographer Gruffudd Jones)



How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part Two

One of the loveliest actors turns to me and says ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I usually become a bitch when I’m tired.’  I nod back to her, thinking, am I a bitch when I’m tired?  Sometimes. Sometimes I’m cute and funny and uncensored though.  And sometimes I just stop listening and shut down.  What was going to happen to me emotionally on this crazy 26 hour soap opera marathon?

I was sitting in the team talk before starting the improv soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT).  How was I going to stay awake, stay in character and still be a functioning improviser let alone human being? With folks I had never played with before?

Time busters!

Well! That actor never did become a bitch.  And not only did I survive but I had an amazing experience thanks to the excellent organisation and generous playing style of the Bristol improv community.

For physical survival tips go to Part one of How to Survive an Improv Marathon. Here are a my discoveries about the Emotional or Mental journey of an improv marathon.

Part Two: Emotional

We’re sitting in that team talk. It’s almost 8pm on Friday. Most of us have already done a 12 hour day and we’re looking at a straight 26 hrs 365 second more before all of this is over.  I have to go back to Cambridge at hour 20 and I’m also nervous about being deadbeat on the train.

Reassurance to remember

Andy Yeoh from Bristol Improv Theatre had two key messages for us to remember in the depths of the night when the improv is getting darker and the audience is sparse.

1) You are not the worst improviser in the room

2) Everybody doesn’t hate you

I’ve been improvising for about 15 years now. I’ve been super anxious and self involved a lot of those years but by now I trust myself on almost any stage. I recognise the anxiety of not knowing my fellow players and I know it will be gone by the end.  When I’m feeling left out, I notice that my character isn’t showing her vulnerability so I open up on stage. I realise when I’m shutting down mentally from tiredness so take myself off for a nap for that episode.

In all this I’m supported by the openness, warmth and talent of my fellow players. Bristol have created a generous and joyful atmosphere in which to play and it truly pays off during the marathon. And when the little seeds of doubt appear in the middle of the darkness, I remember Andy’s words and dismiss my demons with an adroitness my younger self would have paid thousands for.

But the true attack on my mental wellbeing isn’t during the improv marathon. Oh no. It’s afterwards.

Vulnerability Hangover

The French call it the esprit d’escalier. Those witty replies you think of too late. The thoughts you have about what you could have done different or if you’re unkind to yourself should have done.

A good improviser on a good day is vulnerable. They’re in flow, uncensored, allowing their inner thought processes to be the tool of their work,  open to the truth and authenticity of their character and each single moment rather than planning ahead or looking behind. For some of us, this or our failure to be this, leads to a series of insecure afterthoughts and brow beating that I think are equivalent to what Vulnerability and Shame expert Brène Brown calls a Vulnerability Hangover.

These days I’m comfortable with after show or after class thoughts. Occasionally I still mentally scold myself for too long but mostly I just nail down one thing I’d like to do differently next time and then get on with going to sleep or whatever else I’m doing.

But this time I had 20 hours worth of material to process!

It hit me two days after. The day after I’d still been elated but this day the exhaustion caught up with me. Although I wasn’t brow beating myself,  I kept reliving moments, I couldn’t focus on work and all the permutations I hadn’t seen for my final character climax rose to the surface of my brain.  Ah – that would have been a better ending. Oh – that’s what that genius actor was trying to do that I didn’t see at the time. Damn – I could have…

So I treated myself gently. Took the day off work (this was one of my work-for-myself days), read an absorbing book, went for a walk, talked to some awesome people, patiently agreed with all my after-thoughts, and stored some mental notes for next time. Then went to bed early!

So that’s my emotional journey through the improv marathon.  Do your second guess demons rise during the show or after?  How do you manage them?

Next Time: Part Three of How to Survive an Improv Marathon: The Improv!

(Photographer: Jack Drewry)

How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part One

There it was! My invite to be core cast for the 26 hr improv soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT)

Time Busters - Promo Image

It started at 8pm on Friday evening so I’d already be up for 12 hours before we even started. How was I going to stay awake, stay in character and still be a functioning improviser? With folks I had never played with before?

Well! Not only did I survive but I had an amazing experience which I largely attribute to the excellent organisation and generous playing style of the Bristol improv community.

Here are a few tips I learned from the super team in Bristol and by just doing it.

Part One: Physical

I felt more awake and ready to improvise through the whole thing than I expected to. Was that luck or did some if these tips help?


The marathon was divided into sections of two hours with the soap episode being 1 hr 45 and the break / audience turn around being 15 mins. In that 15 mins you have to do everything you need to do: queue for the loo, drink, eat, hug, rest your eyes…

Bristol folk provided coffee, tea and LOTS of water. I brought water, a small bottle of emergency cola and a fruit smoothie.  I thought I’d be into the coffee all the time but it turns out that what you need and crave is the water. Lots of it. I had a few sips of cola between each episode and my normal intake of coffee (two a day).


I learned that the salads and tuna meals I’d brought with me, lightweight as they were, were just too bulky and unappealing. BIT provided fruit (mandarins, apples), breads and cookies. For me the fruit was perfect and I had some whole food bars as well. I ate much less than I expected to. What I did eat was light, quick (between episodes) and high in energy.


I get tension and tiredness headaches any way so I took a cheeky painkiller about 10 hours in. I have no idea if it helped!


Stage adrenaline keeps me going. And it can also make me shaky if I’ve just done a big emotional episode cliffhanger on no sleep. I took those 15 min breaks as a chance to breathe, go outside for air and give my body signals of relaxation. The come down from adrenaline is exhaustion so I felt significantly tireder sitting on the train coming home than I did during the show.

Staying upright

The organisers were clear about health and safety; who the first aiders were, no real shovels or sharp implements in stage. Still, we had a two tier stage, a dodgy step stage left, lots of props and fabric, and very tired improvisers zipping in and out of crowd scenes. Let’s not pretend I’m my normal alert self able to avoid all tripping hazards in a single bound.

One of my strategies was to stop and look briefly before I move; to allow myself not to rush so I could really see what and who was in front of me.

There is the opposite matter of keeping show energy up with slick transitions so (when I remembered) I began to move gently as soon as my character name was called (before the facilitator had finished calling the full set up). Later in the show those who came in fresh kept the show energy moving thank goodness!


Every improviser was scheduled to have some episodes off entirely. Some folks didn’t take them. Some slept for an hour or so on one of the benches in the bar. Some folks knew they needed real sleep to survive mentally so went home for a while.

I didn’t take my first break at four hours but by 14 hours in I was confused about my storyline and sluggish with my offers. I had no home to go to but I swear by a good nap! I discovered while working split shifts in my twenties that my body takes an exact 20 min nap, no matter the noise, no clock needed. And that’s exactly what I did!


Taking my toothbrush was the most awesome thing. This cannot be underrated. Cleaning my teeth was like cleaning my mind as well so really helped with the adrenaline release. And that minty zing had me feeling awake and ready for the next episode.

Also – you’ll have noticed that I’ve only used 20 mins of my 2hr episode break right? I also took the time to wash my face, change underwear, socks, shirt, reapply make up, deodorant, have coffee, clean teeth – giving myself signals of a morning wake up routine. Then I watched the last 15 mins of the episode so I had a sense for what was going on. I felt soooo ready to get back in that stage!!!

So that’s the physical side of surviving an improv marathon.  Did I just get lucky? How do you manage? Have your say in the comments below.

Next: Part Two of How to survive an improv marathon: Emotional and Part Three: the Improv