Flipping the script: Hong Kong group the People’s Liberation Improv provide unique comic experience
Making it up as you go along is the name of the game for Hong Kong’s first official improvised comedy troupe, the People’s Liberation Improv
Watching a 60-second version of your most recent birthday re-enacted in a room full of strangers might be some people’s worst nightmare.
Luckily the unfortunate victim at the latest People’s Liberation Improv (PLI) gig is a wholesome family man who celebrated his birthday with a game of table tennis and a low-key meal at a French restaurant.
What ensues is a farcical reinterpretation of the birthday boy’s casual family get together, complete with a crying baby, much to the amusement of the crowd at The Hub in Wan Chai.
The PLI, Hong Kong’s first official improvised comedy troupe, was established in 2007. The transient nature of much of the expat community in the city means all of the group’s original members have left. But at least in the last seven years, its core contributors have remained the same.
All nine comedians have full-time jobs, so they fit their performances around their careers – and they have no time for egos.
Member Kay Ross, a 58-year-old marketing consultant from Australia, says it is important for participants to be good team players.
“It is not just about being funny,” she says. “You have to be willing to listen. It is not about one person being the star of the show like a stand-up comedian. One of the basic principles of improv is everyone supporting each other and working for your teammates.”
The PLI aim to be culturally sensitive, as inevitably they make certain observations about Hong Kong which could become offensive if the joke is taken too far. Common themes include Hongkongers’ strong attachment to their phones, their tendency to dawdle in the street and the complications of understanding the various Cantonese tones.
Member Jeanne Lambin, a 46-year-old consultant on heritage conservation and improvised storytelling training from Chicago, says she deliberately veers away from comedy which could be interpreted as racist.
“I have that anxiety because I think it is really easy to make those jokes, so I try to stay away from them,” she says. “The Hong Kong people are such a range of people and backgrounds.”
Lambin says she finds it helpful to adopt more physical comedy techniques if language is proving a barrier with certain audiences.
“It can be a way of illustrating what is happening in a scene, so people do not have to understand the language,” she says.
The comedy scene in Hong Kong is less than 10 years old. TakeOut Comedy Club, the first full-time comedy club in Asia, opened in February 2007. Other smaller comedy nights at the Hong Kong Brew House, the Hong Kong Fringe Club and Cantonese sets at the Million Dollar Mic club have followed, but the scene is still very much in its infancy.
The PLI tend to put on a show at least once a month, often teaming up with troupes from across Asia. As well as Hong Kong, they have also performed in Macau, Manila, Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai.
Pete Grella, a 48-year-old kindergarten teacher from the United States, says their performances are like “building an artwork”.
“There is definitely camaraderie,” he says. “When any of the players from other parts of Asia are in town, we meet up and do gigs. I would love to have more improv teams here.”
Improv is very much a niche of its own in the comedy world. In many senses it relies on quick wit and imagination more than the ability to tell a joke. The PLI play short games, in the style of shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? – a British radio-turned-television programme in which four performers created characters and scenes on the spot.
They experiment with sketches in their workshops, but the nature of their performances means they cannot hold traditional rehearsals. Unlike in stand-up, they tend not to get heckled, and they still meet audience members at gigs who have never watched improv before.
Ross says those who fail to appreciate improv have not come to watch with the right mindset.
“It’s only a rare occasion that you get people walking out,” she says. “They have closed their minds to it. As long as they are accepting of it then it will make them laugh.”
Despite seeing themselves as very different from stand-up performers, the players are naturally inspired by prominent stand-up comedians.
Grella says he continues to be influenced by the likes of American greats such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin and more recently Louis C.K. while Ross says she enjoys watching British comedian Eddie Izzard.
The troupe holds workshops rather than auditions for new members and says they are increasingly attracting younger performers. They never turn people down per se, but if a performer does not seem to gel with the rest of the group then they will not officially invite them to join for gigs.
Grella says the process is all dependent on how a comedian relates to the existing members.
Key skills for a performer include the ability to be flexible within a scene and having quick reactions, Ross says.
“Part of the genius of improv is handling it when your mind goes blank,” she says. “Sometimes it can evolve into theatre. We don’t go into a scene thinking, ‘We want to make people laugh.’”
The PLI will be performing at The Hub in Wan Chai on Saturday August 20 from 9pm to 10.30pm, and at Morrison Cafe and Bar at 284 Queen’s Road Central on Saturday September 17 from 9pm to 10.30pm.
For information on coming gigs, visit the People’s Liberation Improv Facebook page