Showstopper! The Improvised, Socially Distanced Online Musical – Q&A With Ali James

screenshot of four actors wearing red, black, and white, all separated and filmed by different cameras but edited together to look as though they're standing next to each other

This time last year, the words ‘social distancing’ would have had no place whatsoever in our vocabulary. Fast forward to July 2020, and the news that The Showstoppers would be performing a socially distanced improvised musical was enough to make my stagey heart sing for the first time in months.

So many of us are badly missing theatre and feeling somewhat helpless about the devastating challenges the arts industry is going through. However, if the creatives in this area are one thing, they’re resilient… and Showstopper’s efforts to produce a remote, socially distanced musical to be streamed to audiences at home is a prime example of that. Based entirely on audience suggestions being communicated via YouTube’s online chat feature, the talented cast and crew improvised an entire hour-long musical, complete with storylines, punchy humour and even live music from the band. Tickets were incredibly affordable, with standard and concession prices available, and in my opinion, provided excellent value for money.

screenshot of showstopper livestream on youtube, showing one male performer and chat box of audience members making suggestions for what happens next

I’ve been a fan of The Showstoppers for a long time now, and I’ve been lucky enough to physically attend a fair few shows of theirs over the years. The company’s ability to improvise so seamlessly and with such humour blows my mind every single time, and I’m thrilled to say that July’s online offering packed just as much punch as any other of their performances. This particular show found itself set in a mysterious bookshop, encapsulating complex relationship dynamics between members of the book club, an enigmatic poem that shrouds the characters in mystery, and a deceased father who wears a hat to disguise his lack of personality. Songs were also improvised in the style of Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Beetlejuice and more, and a personal highlight was Justin Brett emotively belting out “READ FOR MEEEEEE” in honour of the Phantom of the Opera, which genuinely had me belly laughing from my sofa.

So, from the perspective of an audience member, this performance ticked all the boxes for me. But how was this unique experience for the cast and crew? I couldn’t resist firing over some questions in the hope of finding out more, and the wonderful Ali James was kind enough to answer them for me…

What has life been like for you as a company over the last few months?

Like a rollercoaster, as it has been for us all! One of the good things about being an improviser is the inherent belief you can accept and build any situation which has helped us cope with the ups and downs of the last few months. Like in a scene, the reasons things happen will become clear if you stay emotionally connected. We’ve relied on regular social and rehearsal check ins online and really enjoyed each other’s distanced company!

Talk us through your set-up and tech for the livestream!

We are lucky to have an incredible technical team working on Showstopper and an imaginative and skilled production manager and editor who is also a Stopper himself, Andrew Pugsley. Andrew orchestrated a massive operation with PCA (our corporate work collaborators) and installed a make shift studio (in a church hall in Pimlico!) complete with four “pop up” personal singing booths, lights, sound mixers and personal props, not to mention cameras set up for wide shots and live visual mixing. It helps that Andrew is in our show too because he recognises the physical language we use to perform the show and can interpret it as direction of which player to cut to and when.

How was the experience of live-streaming and responding to online comments compared to interacting with a physical  audience?

It’s all about trust. We really have to trust the live feed that is coming in with comments. When someone comments “clap, clap, clap” we take that as a genuine guide they are enjoying the show, as we would on stage. Also we need to trust the show, the story and each other. Lots of looking and listening to each other’s offers so we can build the story together without the normal aural/ visual cues we take from a live crowd. The at-home audience were very generous so it was a very rewarding and different performance experience.

How did the cast find the experience of improv-ing with physical distancing measures in place? Was it more challenging?

Challenging in new ways. We weren’t able to see the little micro clues, like an inhale or mouth twitch to let you know someone is going to speak, also usually, because we know each other quite well we can often tell what our fellow players need by the look in their eye or their body language. We couldn’t see that either as we were over 8 metres apart for some and sitting, so relied on our listening skills and giving each other plenty of time and space, which seems to come across well on screen.

Now you know you can pull off this style of performance, do you think you’ll do more in the future?

We hope to. Our fans really enjoyed it, as did we!

Something I’m really passionate about is accessible, inclusive theatre, especially for those with long-term health conditions who might struggle to physically attend performances. One huge positive of lockdown has been an increase in theatre content streamed online: do you think there could be a place for initiatives like this even after ‘normal’ life resumes?

We hope so and have enjoyed creating new content and performance styles in order to access a wider audience. We’d love everybody to be able to see Showstopper and as much theatre as possible so we’ll keep striving to innovate as best we can.

And finally, in these tough times for the arts industry, how can people support your brilliant work?

You can donate to help support the cast, give us a follow on our social media, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and sign up to our mailing list!

Thank you so much Ali for taking the time to share these insights!

showstopper logo on blue background with banner reading 'the socially distanced musical' hung over the top of it

As presenter Andrew Pugsley introduced the livestream, the question he posed was ‘can we do a socially distanced improvised musical?’. And in my opinion, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Showstopper! The Socially Distanced, Improvised Musical Cast and Crew:

Cast: Ruth Bratt, Justin Brett, Ali James, Adam Meggido

The Band: Duncan Walsh Atkins (Keys), Alex Atty (Percussion)

Sound Mixer: Oscar Thompson

Lighting Gaffer/Health and Safety Supervisor: Damian Robertson

Roadcast Director and Vision Mixer, Concept and Design: Andrew Pugsley

Thank you so much to all the cast and creatives at Showstopper, for providing some much-needed relief and being a stagey highlight of these trying times. You can find out more about their work and keep informed of future performances by visiting their website. Yay!

4 thoughts on “Showstopper! The Improvised, Socially Distanced Online Musical – Q&A With Ali James”

  1. This looks like it was really great. Fingers crossed they do continue this sort of thing in the future. I am very excited about the possibility of a future with more accessible theatre as its something I really miss.

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