Singing a song is not just singing a song. Like any actor in a scene, singers need to connect to their songs. Songs in a musical need to connect to a story. How the heck do the actors and band members of Showstopper pull off a new original improv show every night? Andrew Pugsley, one of the actors/singers/dancers offered some insight to Un-Block The Music.
After graduating Edinburgh University and spending another two years at New York’s Circle In The Square Theater School, Andrew was ready to hit the pavement and work as an actor!
“I loved being in New York for those two years, but then I was ready to come back home. I just got straight into being a jobbing actor. I did a lot of touring, children’s theater, fringe shows (Fringe theater is experimental in style or subject matter.) I was touring a lot. In 2009, I moved to London. then I came across Showstopper, and now have been with them for nearly a decade.” http://www.theshowstoppers.org/
While Award Show hosts and politicians have to think on their feet, they all start out with a script, Showstopper performers do not! Andrew explains. The one thing that is the same every night is the frame. There is an MC character that is a musical theater writer, and he gets a phone call at the top of the show from a producer who says, “I’ve got a theater ready, I need a brand-new musical. You have to send it to me right away!” The MC says, “don’t worry I have the perfect musical. I will send it to you in 2 hours”. He hangs up the phone and he turns to the audience with “I need your help. I just promised him a musical, and we have to write it right now!”
(Photo by Nicholas Dawkes)
The MC then asks the audience for the setting of the musical. “It has been everything from the Russian Revolution to a trip to 7-11.” The audience then shouts out suggestions of musical styles and the title of the show, then it all begins. The cast and the band come on to the stage and perform the show with original dialog, songs and dance routines.
Un-Block The Music is surrounded by singers, actors and entertainers all of the time, but I know that this takes a certain kind of performer. I asked Andrew how they can tell from an audition if the actor can really do this? It’s a really long audition process and now that he is a senior member of the company, he is on the other side of the process. “Essentially, we will run improv workshops. We then get up and play standard improv games, have a little instruction from the team and the process of improvising a song or two. Then, it is just a case of the actors getting on their feet and having a go at improvising a scene into a song. What we are looking for when auditioning actors is not really people who already have the skill set, we are more or less looking for spirit and the right kind of energy.”
Many performers will tell you they don’t like to see themselves on a screen, they don’t like to read reviews…heck…Un-Block The Music doesn’t always like to read my editor’s final draft. Andrew admits that a big piece of being a Showstopper performer is getting past “the psychological block of not wanting to let the world see what your first thought is. We are trained to really listen to each other and be unabashedly confident. It’s a mindset more than anything else. Can you be relaxed and connected?”
Andrew says, “we have weekly training sessions just to keep up our improv skills, to keep working with each other and to keep connecting. Right now, we have about 20 people in the cast and 3 actors in training. Plus, there is the band of 10.”
At the moment, Showstopper is performing in the West End of London and are doing 8 shows a week. Showstopper won an Olivier Award which is comparable to Broadway’s Tony Award. They also play a little bit internationally and do a month run at the Edinburgh Festival every year. If you don’t know about this festival, check out the website. It’s when the arts take over this beautiful historic city. https://www.edinburghfestivalcity.com/festivals/edinburgh-international-festival
Every artist has their inspiration, and Andrew says, although he didn’t work with him directly, his continued inspiration comes from Ken Campbell who created Showstopper. “Ken Campbell, who passed away in 2008, was a crazy maverick. He was involved in all things weird and off the wall and things that seemed like they couldn’t work. He was as inspirational in his attitude as he was with his music and everything else. That was particularly true in the world of improvisation which can be corny and offer a ‘late night at the bar kind of a feel’ if you are not careful. Ken wanted to make this artform theatrical. He felt, there is no point doing it unless it is better than the real thing.” Take that…scripted Reality TV!