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Andrew Hunter Murray interview - How to improvise a comedy based on Jane Austen's work
Austentatious is an entirely improvised comedy set in the style of Jane Austen. Following a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre, and a UK-wide tour, the group will play the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End later this year. We spoke to Andrew Hunter Murray who, as well as appearing in the show is a stand-up comic and QI Elf, about what to expect from the show, what makes it work, and what will be different about the West End dates.
How did you first get involved with Austentatious?
Four of us were in an improvisation comedy group at university, and when we left we were really missing improv. We thought: “Why don’t we try something longer from a single suggestion?” Once we had that idea, we just needed a theme. It just so happened that two of us had studied Jane Austen, and the others were very keen on her. It was by complete chance that we ended up doing Austen. It could have been anything.
How does it actually work on the night?
Each audience members writes down a made-up title on a piece of paper as they come in, and we pick out one of those titles at random, and that is the “lost Jane Austen work” that we will perform. The idea is that she didn’t just write six novels, she actually wrote seven or eight hundred in her short life, and we’re restoring these lost works to the public. Whatever is on the piece of paper that comes out of the hat is what we go with.
What are some of the best title suggestions you’ve had?
Our audiences are reliably insane with regards to that. We’ve had ‘Optimus Prime and Prejudice’, I think we’ve had ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Mr Darcy?’ which was a Blade Runner-type thing. People either riff on pop culture, or incredible riffs on the world of Austen. We’ve had ‘Darcy and Bingley: Electric Love’ which was an absolutely electric Brokeback Mountain-esque continuation of Pride and Prejudice. There are some unprintable ones I absolutely can’t tell you.
Do you have a specific structure that you work with on each night? How do you make the stories feel like Jane Austen works?
Everyone thinks we do and we absolutely don’t. It’s completely freefall, we have no scenes or characters or dialogue or anything. It’s completely in the lap of the gods. But we base it all in that world. We’re all in regency costume, we have a wonderful violinist and cellist who play the music so already you’re in that world. It’s always the year 1814. It’s kind of like all the characters get time off from doing the actual work of a proper Jane Austen novel and they get to go off and have adventures.
I bet it’s tough to improvise a soundtrack to something like this?
[The musicians] are the really talented ones. They have to match the mood of the scene, and then suddenly it might change, so they’ll have to completely change. But it’s a two-way street. Sometimes they spot a shift in atmosphere, change the music, and we subconsciously shift the mood of the scene. It’s very complex.
How do you rehearse for a show like this?
With great difficulty. There are so many skills that can make you a great improviser, like listening to each other on stage. You can work on them when you’re not doing a show. We have rehearsals where we will just do a short show working on particular skills, but nothing from rehearsals comes back up in the show. Everything is new.
Do you need any Austen knowledge to enjoy the show?
Literally no Austen knowledge is required. One of our members – who will remain nameless -had actually never read any Austen two years into doing the show. It became clear after about six months, which was pretty good bluffing.
You’re on tour at the moment, but you have a few dates in the West End coming up?
We’re playing the Piccadilly Theatre for three nights which we’re very excited about. It’s a big step up, we’re excited and daunted in equal measure. Given that we’re going to be in the West End for three nights, we’ve been able to put together a really exciting staging plan which we’re currently in the process of building, but that’s a secret for now.