Off Stage

Making things up on the spot for an adrenaline rush

Pamy Tan (with Isaac Long) will be performing at the Singapore Improv Festival.
Pamy Tan (with Isaac Long) will be performing at the Singapore Improv Festival.PHOTO: SINGAPORE IMPROV FESTIVAL

Pamy Tan holds a full-time job writing for television, but she is well-versed in winging it off-script too.

Tan, 27, will be part of the Singapore Improv Festival from Friday to Sunday.

Short for "improvised theatre", improv sees performers relying on audience input on the spot, instead of memorising scripts and rehearsing plays in advance.

Tan, who is married with no children, has been with Singapore's The Improv Company (TIC) since 2014. She is also part of Les Musicables, a team at the company that specialises in fully improvised musicals.

How did you get into improv?

I've worked on a number of reality TV competitions where we audition contestants and get them to talk about their interests. One night, when I was working late, I had a sad revelation that if I were to be interviewed for such a show, I'd only be able to talk about my work because that's all I do.

  • BOOK IT / SINGAPORE IMPROV FESTIVAL

  • WHERE: Centre 42, 42 Waterloo Street

    WHEN: Friday to Sunday, various times

    ADMISSION: A full festival pass costs $199 (includes access to seven shows from Friday to Sunday and two workshops), while a Saturday or Sunday pass goes for $89 (includes access to three shows and one workshop on the specified date). Tickets to individual shows can be bought at sgimprovfest.peatix.com

It's not that I don't love my job. But I needed to do something else beyond just work - to enrich my life or develop a skill. Coincidentally, a former colleague studying in the United States posted some photos of an Upright Citizens Brigade improv performance in Los Angeles and that got me thinking. Some of the US TV writers-comedians- showrunners I look up to, such as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, have studied and performed improv. So I Googled "Improv in Singapore" and the first result was TIC.

I signed up for a taster Improv for Everyone workshop and quite enjoyed it, but was not sure I wanted to commit to a six-week 101 course. But, as fate would have it, I attended a Story Slam session where TIC was performing and it was like "OMG this is a sign!".

I signed up immediately after that. And I've been with TIC since.

Why did you fall in love with improv?

I fell in love with the collaborative aspect of improv. Everyone has to work together to put on a show. While this is true for all theatre forms, it is even more important for improv where everything is made up on the spot. You have to support your fellow players and listen to what is going on. The adrenaline rush from coming up with stuff on the spot is one of the most divine feelings.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I can be incredibly hyper. And while high energy is generally good for shows, I always take a couple of minutes to ground myself so that the energy is channelled effectively throughout the show. I imagine that there is a branch above my head and pull down on it and I also pull on an imaginary string from the top of my head. Then I stretch my face to remind myself to activate those facial muscles. In line with the supportive nature of improv, we also pat one another on the back to say "I've got you" and do a team cheer before going on stage.

How do you think the improv scene is doing in Singapore? Is there more recognition or are people still like "Er, what's that"?

I think the scene is doing okay. It is a young scene, but people are getting more interested in the art form and introducing their friends to it. However, this still is not happening on a wider stage. There is no straightforward remedy but, for a start, maybe drama clubs in schools could consider teaching improv - as an art form and not a warm-up game - to their students and exposing them more to improv shows.

Are you more nervous when you're doing an improv performance than any other show?

Definitely. With scripted stuff, you know that you have material to fall back on. Even if you mess up your lines, you and your fellow actors have a sense of how to steer things back on track.

With improv, every show is a blank slate. You just never know what is going to happen. But I trust that no matter what, my fellow players will support me.

What's the harshest criticism you've received?

When I started taking improv classes, an instructor told me that I needed to step back a little and let others play as well - it was a nice way of saying "don't hog the limelight". I was a little taken aback because I always saw being enthusiastic as a good thing, but I realised that it could have discouraged others from stepping up.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Making things up on the spot for an adrenaline rush'. Print Edition | Subscribe