Three years ago, I uprooted from the Netherlands and landed back in London after something like 15 years away. I’ve performed a lot in both cities and whilst the core of improvising is universal, there are some differences in approach and presentation, and a lot more in how the improv communities are structured.
As Vincent Vega said in Pulp Fiction, “It's the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there, we got here, but it's just there's a little difference.”
Style is often a hard thing to define. Particularly as in both cities there is a wide range of styles of improv performed. But every place has some local preferences that give it a local flavour. I fully admit that in focussing on generalisations, I am giving a very flat view of 2 very diversified scenes.
In Amsterdam, the predominant style depends a bit on the language you are using. The Dutch approach of coming on with no plans and carefully finding everything together on stage contrasts with the (Boom) Chicago style, where you jump on with something close to a fully-formed idea. easylaughs tends to be somewhere in the middle. In general English language improv in the Netherlands tends to be almost entirely comedic. Whereas the Dutch, whilst mostly doing comedy, are much more open to dramatic scenes happening during a show.
In London, despite there being many groups performing a variety of forms and genres, there is a very strong pull to a particular style. It is very verbal and relies heavily on wordplay, cultural references and being witty or clever (and occasionally absurdist). It shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s the type of humour the British are famous for. It’s also not surprising given that the biggest competition to improv in London is stand-up. It makes for a lot of scenes where people are standing still trying to be funny.
In a nation where dry wit is held in such high esteem and where the concept of a stiff upper lip (bottling up your emotions) is a part of the culture, it’s also not shocking that a lot of characters talk rather than emote. (Although, to be honest, this is quite a common problem in improv almost everywhere.)
One key difference to the communities is size. London is a much bigger city and therefore the scene is also much bigger. There are more schools and groups teaching in London and more places to perform. There is currently one venue dedicated to improv, running shows nearly every night (when there aren’t any plagues about). There used to be two and the other one only stopped because the lease was up on their venue.
Most of these performing venues tend to be rooms above pubs – something London has plenty of – and occasionally small theatres – which London also has a good number of. This makes it easy for groups that feel ready to find somewhere to start out on their own. You can often get a pub upstairs room for practically nothing early- or mid-week if you can guarantee they will sell more beer.
These improv hubs and other shows generally need support acts, so there are plenty of performing opportunities to be had. There are also a lot of groups looking for those opportunities, so it balances out. So as a new group, it’s not too hard to find a slot to perform, although you might get a very short slot to start with. But if you do good shows, the chances increase and the slots get longer.
In Amsterdam, there are some showcases for new groups these days, but you can count them on one hand and still have fingers to spare. Amsterdam does have a few smaller theatres, but cafes and bars don’t tend to have the upstairs spaces pubs do, so it’s more of a struggle to find a new venue.
There are a couple of groups who perform in large London theatres to bigger crowds which are the rough equivalent of Boom Chicago in that respect and in terms of reach.
As I said, if you are keen, you can find your own location to do your shows. However, finding an audience is much harder. If I learnt anything from easylaughs, it’s that one secret to finding an audience is to keep doing it at a regular time and place and keep the quality up.
But who would that audience be? Unfortunately, in London the audience for improv shows is largely other improvisers. That’s not true for the very established groups, but for most groups it is. Improv has always played second fiddle to stand-up in terms of audience attraction there. But the audience being mostly other improvisers is true of a lot of places. It’s frequently true of the Dutch improv scene as well.
What two things that help, over and above the consistency I mentioned, are publicity (which only the more established groups can afford to do effectively) and finding an audience niche. easylaughs did it by focusing on expats. And in London, there is a French-language group that brings a great audience because it has a niche. And although the audience pool is smaller, the competition is almost non-existent. Most other groups are just trying to lure regular comedy-goers and competing with all the other groups PLUS stand-up. And stand-up is winning by a mile.
What is nice about the London scene is it is not as territorial as you might expect. It’s large enough that organisations don’t (generally) have a problem with students, performers and teachers moonlighting at other places.
Amsterdam could feel a little territorial at times, certainly in the English-language side, probably due to it being a smaller audience pool. Although that seems to be less now that the scene is growing.
Even in London, people may have more choices, however they do tend to stay in their hubs – i.e. with the places they first learnt from. This is probably familiarity and loyalty, but there is no pressure to do so that I have experienced or resentment when people try somewhere else.
Do I miss Amsterdam? Yes, every day. I enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond and the great chances I got to build great shows. I miss it being possible to know everyone in the English-language scene and a good portion of the Dutch scene.
Do I love London? Yes I do. It’s less fun being a small-to-medium fish finding its way in a big pond, but there is so much going on here and there are plenty of opportunities here if you put the energy in and hang out in the right places.
“What do they call a Harold?” – Jules Winnfield
“A Harold's a Harold, but they call it ‘Het Harold.’” – Vincent Vega