FRAM! Two Men, One Suggestion, Zero Script

Introducing Northern Ireland's first and only Chicago style long-form improv group

‘If you see a bad improv show you’ll never have to see it again and if you saw a really good improv show you’ll never have to see it again.’

So say FRAM! the first and only purveyor of Chicago style long-form improvisation in Northern Ireland. They are comprised of two men: Frazer Robb and Aaron Marshall, so hopefully you can work out how they came up with the name. They’ve been studying improv in Belfast for three years, initially with Rosie Pelan at Crescent Arts while they were both gigging as jobbing stand-ups. ‘We thought improv might be a good way to improve our stand-up,’ says Marshall, ‘but as it turned out we both promptly stopped doing stand-up and just did improv because we preferred it. So then we put together an improv team, which became known as Wonder Frog.’

Wonder Frog is the short-form improv troupe that the pair still perform with (alongside Colin Woodham, Emma Little, Saskia Leach and Marcus Keeley) . They have a residency at the Black Box and recently opened this year’s Belly Laughs Festival. FRAM! is a separate enterprise, however. What exactly is the difference between the two approaches? You say 'Chicago Style' and I instantly think of deep-pan pizzas. What is the difference between what FRAM! do and Josie Lawrence running a hardware store in the style of Harold Pinter in the late 80’s?

‘There have been, broadly speaking, two schools of improv,’ says Robb, patiently, ‘Keith Johnstone’s short-form work that you would know from ‘Whose line is it anyway?’; which is sketches, games, audience suggestions and fixed periods of time to come up with some sort of viable situation. Then you have long-form improv that Del Close developed out of the Second City Theatre in Chicago. There they would use improv to create sketch materiel, doing it through a process of rehearsal, refining the story into a sketch, often in front of an audience. He argued that improv is a performance art in and of itself and we would certainly say it is.’

It would be hard to argue with Close’s approach as Second City is responsible for an extraordinary skein of American comic talent. The theatre’s stage alumni are a who’s who of American comedy greats with Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and even, somewhat oddly, Joan River all strutting its boards at one time or another. 

Robb first went to Chicago to study the practice of long-form improv at the fantastically named Annoyance Theatre a year ago and has returned twice since then, bringing long-form improv to back to Belfast with a messianic gleam in his eye.

‘I teach so within the established team we have up and coming students, and beyond that further teams are springing up. The idea is that Belfast will have a scene of teams because improv is taking off all around the UK.’

If I go to see FRAM! how does it work precisely?

‘With long-form its one suggestion and we work from there. Technically we don’t even need a suggestion but we like it as it makes us and hopefully the audience feel like they’re more involved. In short-form when you only have three minutes the suggestion defines what the sketch is about. With long-form because it can be half an hour long it doesn’t matter what the word is. Obviously it inspires what we do – I don’t want to give the impression that it has no effect – but it is to inspire the scene rather than to dictate the scene.’

Is it not just going in there and making stuff up?

‘It’s more than that: it’s learning to make stuff up collaboratively. So much of it is about interacting with others and learning to react so that the end product is more than you could have come up with by yourself. I think people confuse improv with spontaneity. At the beginning of improv classes you’ll get people coming out and being spontaneous in isolation so then you’ve got two people on stage being whacky rather than working off each other and creating something.’

I’m finally convinced. FRAM! I say, give me your five word pitch.

‘Two men, one suggestion: no script.’

That’s six words, I say. They think for a second. ‘How about - two men, one suggestion: no.'