Creating Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – An Interview with Adam Meggido

“We don’t know what story we will be telling, but we need to know enough about story to be able to forge it from within, live in the moment.”

Do you love musicals? Do you love improv? What about a musical that is entirely improvised at each performance? Well, that’s exactly what Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is! Created by Adam Meggido and Dylan Emery in 2008, the show follows a writer who has to write a musical in one night, and it’s up to the audience to help him. After being given the setting, musical style, and title of the show, the cast and band create a new musical in front of the audience, with each show being a different musical! Showstopper! has since gone on to win an Olivier award and has even had its own BBC Radio 4 series.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Adam Meggido, the producer, director, and co-creator of Showstopper!. We discussed what drew him into the world of improv, what he hopes audiences take away from the show, and even some conspiracy theories from audience members!

So how did you first get involved in the world of improv?

Well, it must have been around 2004, 2005 . . .  I started working with the late great Ken Campbell. And Ken tended to round up groups of people who were interested in doing something – It didn’t really matter what. At the time I met him, he’d just come back from Alberta in Canada, where he’d seen a group called Die-Nasty performing an improvised soap opera. He said, “It’s better than the scripted stuff!” It was such high quality. He was so taken with their improvisation. Then he remembered Keith Johnstone‘s work with The Royal Court and the Theatre Machine in the 1970s, and he suddenly thought it’d be great to do improv again. And so the group of us who were working with him started working on improvising things – We had no real craft, it was just enthusiasm! One of the things that he really enjoyed doing was to ask some of us to suddenly make up a song on the spot. And some of us who were musical enjoyed doing this. And after a while, I said to Dylan Emery, who was part of this group and often on the keyboards at the time, “I reckon, if we put in enough work and get the right people together for it, we could do a whole musical improvised. And that’s the beginning of Showstopper!.

So how exactly do you go about finding people who are willing to do this kind of improvisation?

I think the word “willing” is important. How on Earth do you find people willing? You have to find the people who have the skill set. You can learn the skills, but it takes a very long time. So we’re looking for people who have a head start in the skill sets. That means they’ve got to be very comfortable working in a group, they’ve got to be skilled at different kinds of improvisation because there’s so many different schools of thought, and above all, they have to be willing to put in a lot of work, We’ve just taken on some new people recently, and I keep saying to them, “It’s a long-term project and you have to really want to do it. You have to really love it”. For Showstopper!, particularly, you really have to love musicals, you have to love performing songs, and you have to love performing music. If you don’t have that, it’s not gonna work out for you.

What is the rehearsal process like for Showstopper!?

It’s not really rehearsals, because there’s nothing to rehearse. It’s more like training. It’s time spent getting familiar with each other and developing our understanding of each other. We spend a lot of time talking about story and the analysis of story because, fundamentally, we are storytellers. We don’t know what story we will be telling, but we need to know enough about story to be able to forge it from within, live in the moment. We’ll look at what musicals are coming up, what new musicals are around, we will go and do our research on those musicals. We’ll look at what’s new and what’s around, we’ll discuss it, and we’ll do a lot of running bits. We’ll say, “Let’s run Act One of the musical”. One of the things I like to do is run a musical to a particular time. So I’ll say, “Okay, I’d like to watch a musical that is exactly 47 and a half minutes long.” And I’ll give them the title and they will start their watches. They’ve got to bring in the last note of a perfectly structured musical exactly on 47 minutes. It’s a very, very interesting exercise.

Wow! So do you go through hypothetical shows?

You can’t really do the show hypothetically. If you do that, you end up preparing for the show that you’ve just done, rather than the show that’s coming up, because there’s no way of knowing it. A lot of it is just to do with practice and understanding. The process makes the performer really have to learn about themselves a lot. Ultimately, it is clown work, and any investigation into clown is an investigation into self. So there is a lot of work being done to understand why you behave a certain way, or where your default behaviours lie. If anyone doesn’t want to understand themselves and improve, it’s not going to work out. They’re not going to want to stay at the show. It’s certainly not an environment where you can just get the lead part or show off, which of course, a lot of actors want. But those aren’t the kinds of actors who would be doing Showstopper!.

What is it that draws you to improv?

Well, I like the immediacy of theatre in general – I like the fact that we all share the same time, the same light, the same space. And I often find that theatre fails to address all of the things that makes it exciting. And one of the most exciting things about theatre is its immediacy, so to work in a medium that is all about immediacy particularly appeals to me. I also like the challenge of it! I like the peculiar slipstreams of tension that shared storytelling creates, and I like the sheer challenge of building the plane while it’s in mid-flight.

What do you hope audiences take away from Showstopper!?

Well, fundamentally, it’s an entertainment show, and we hope they have a great time. I know that our audiences, particularly the ones who come back again and again, have responded really well to the nature of the project, which is, “Can these people really make up a musical on the spot?” Also I think they’ve grown to love some of the people involved in the show, which is very heartwarming. We do have a phenomenally talented team of performers, musicians, technicians . . . I was gonna say we’re very lucky, but let’s be honest, we work very, very hard! [Laughs] We’ve had some luck, for sure, but we’ve also worked incredibly hard to put together a show that is consistently entertaining and worth the price of admission, even though it’s completely improvised. And I think that’s the most important thing. I would love people to go away from the show baffling about it like, “How do they do that?” Which I know that they do! People do walk away, and then they immediately come up with all these weird conspiracy theories. 


There isn’t a single conspiracy theory I’ve heard that isn’t actually more difficult and more complicated than improvising the show! If people don’t understand improvisation, it’s very hard to believe that it’s real. They all think, “Oh, there must be a trick. They must have learned something.” And they go away, often with great conviction, saying, “No, no, no, I know for a fact that it isn’t made up.” But it is! Everything was entirely improvised – There’s no cheats, there’s no fixes, there’s nothing planned in advance – It’s purely improvised. When we started doing this back in 2008, 2009, there was, of course, other groups doing it. There were improvisers around. But I didn’t see anyone doing it to this level of professionalism in terms of its execution. It was always done rough and ready, pub theatre, beer in hand – Very funny, but very raw. And that was its style. I didn’t see anyone try to really push it into mainstream theatre. And my background is mainstream theatre, so when I started working on this project, everybody said, “You’ll never get it into mainstream theatre, you’ll never get it into the West End, you’ll never get it to be taken as seriously as its scripted counterparts.” I just didn’t believe them, thankfully!

What are some of the conspiracy theories that you’ve heard?

Oh, I’ve got so many of them! There’s one where because we wear head mics, some people believe that there’s actually an earpiece in there, and there’s a group of people backstage telling us what to say, sing, and do. Which, if you think that through, is even more difficult, because it means that there’s a group of people who are not onstage, who are actually having to improvise a show, live in the moment, and then they tell us what to do. It’s the most absurd conceit. People think that we use plants in the audience a lot. When they ask the audience for the title, or for the kind of musical genres to sing in, they think that there are people that are paid . . . We actually overheard somebody in Edinburgh say, “I know for a fact they use paid plants because a friend of mine does it! And they apparently will pay 50 pounds a time.” It’s like, I don’t think the cast were being paid 50 pounds a time! 


We do hear all sorts of absolute nonsense. But mostly, people think they must have some kind of structure and they just kind fit it in – It’s always roughly the same story, but we just change the setting that’s asked for. But of course, that’s not the case. And the truth of it is that we do understand structure, but we don’t know what structure we’re in until we’re in it. It’s very much steered by the title. If the show is set on a cruise ship, and it’s called Booze Cruise!, we know it’s probably going to be a comedy. The title implies it’s a comedy. If the title is Disaster at Sea, then we’re probably going to go to something a bit more tragic. So we’ll be steered by the title. But then, in those first few moments, we’re trying to discover what this story is about. And we can’t discuss it whilst we’re doing it – We’re all on microphones. The mics are live all the time in case we want to sing harmonies from backstage or make sound at any point, so we can’t discuss the show. We don’t even discuss the show in the interval! We don’t plan on what’s happening in Act Two. All that we do is we get in the dressing room, we check that everyone’s okay [Laughs], and then we just clarify the things that have been said, what’s happened, and make sure we all know each other’s names. And that’s it! And then we try to take a bit of a break. Because if you plan something for Act Two, you’re gonna make it harder. It’s harder to improvise if you’re half improvising and half responding to set things and structures.

What advice would you give those looking to go into improv or comedy in general?

I think it’s important to note that there are lots of different types of improv, and there are lots of different types of improv teachers, some of whom are really quite dogmatic about what improv is. But it’s a big subject. And it would take a lot of exploring to find the kind of thing that you like to do. You might find that you like doing short-form improv and quickfire comedy, which is great, and there’s plenty of terrific places you could go to further your skills there. You might find, like me, that you prefer more of a full-on, theatrical show with a full story. You might like working in genre, you might just like it as a way of socializing, you might like it as a way of improving your communication skills. There’s so many things you can do with improv. So maybe the best thing is to read a book called Improv Beyond Rules by Adam Meggido. That might be a good way! 

Just a suggestion! [Laughs] And finally, how would you describe Showstopper! in one word?

Impossible. There’s a real sense of it being an impossible challenge, you know? From the moment the show starts and we get the phone call from the producer, “We need a new musical right now. What can you do? How can you help us? Can we do a musical right now that looks and feels like a finished product that looks and feels like it’s been written in two years and rehearsed in eight weeks? Can you do it just now?” That’s our game. That’s our impossible challenge. We never, ever allow it to become easy. The minute we get good at something, we’ll raise the bar further and push it. That’s why we have the conceit of the writer of the show, so that the writer can look at the tightrope. If we’re walking across that tightrope too comfortably, they can reach up a hand and just wobble the tightrope.

Thank you to Adam Meggido for the fantastic interview!

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical runs at the Cambridge Theatre in London on 22 May, 5 and 26 June, 17 July, 16 and 30 October, 13 and 27 November and 18 December. Tickets can be purchased here.


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