Joseph Chance, Adam Meggido, Alex Bartram and Andrew Pugsley make up The Society of Strange, a troupe of veteran improvisers who intend to prove that improv can be about more than just comedy. The Society of Strange bring tales inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith to the stage, completely unscripted. Each show is a unique experience which can inspire chills and laughs in equal measure.
Ahead of their first podcast recording, we caught up with the society to talk about unrehearsed eldritch horrors.
Tom: How do you account for the continued fascination that the public has with the relatively small group of writers that made up the original Weird Fiction movement? Why does their work still scare and inspire?
SOS: It’s a genre that gets under the skin. Not everything is explained (sometimes little if anything is explained) which makes it haunting and unsettling. So it stays in the mind (and maybe the soul)… With the global situation seeming to teeter on the edge of something chaotic and bleak, the big, cosmic themes of Weird Fiction seem as relevant as ever.
Tom: What first inspired you to form The Society of Strange?
SOS: Both affection for the Strange tale and a desire to do something different with improvisation.
Tom: Do you find that the work of Weird Fiction authors is particularly well suited to improv?
SOS: In many ways, it’s anti-improv – in that, to find the playing style, you have to go against much of how traditional improv is taught and perceived. Whilst our show is often funny, we’re also very happy playing scenes without laughs, and we’re also to have extended sequences with no dialogue at all, using sound and light to create a particular atmosphere for the audience. There are a few common ‘improv’ things that you won’t see us do, such as having the actors become inanimate objects or pieces of the set, or joining together to create a monster. We’re happy to throw out the rulebook when it gets in the way of the atmosphere we’re trying to create.
Tom: Have any of your previous shows with The Society of Strange taken you in directions that have surprised you? Can you describe any particularly memorable moments?
SOS: One tale was inspired by an audience member who said their buzzer once rang and they thought they heard someone over the intercom say “I have brought the meat”. This led to one of our strangest and most sinister tales. Set in the languid heat of Louisiana, a man started to be driven mad by a daily delivery truck claiming to have the meat for Mr Lafayette. It turned out that the man had murdered his wife and his insanity drove him to see her body hanging in the meat-truck over and over again. It was deeply disturbing and unravelled slowly and unexpectedly. Sometimes we are all a little shaken up by the end. It can be unsettling because we are discovering the world of the weird at exactly the same time as the audience.
Tom: I understand that some of you have worked with Ken Campbell. Can you describe the influence that his work has had on you, and on the improv scene in general?
SOS: Ken was inspired by improvisers in Canada and challenged a group of us to take up improvising when he returned. We put on shows at the Royal Court Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and it was a riot. Ken kickstarted our imaginations and we created a number of shows as a result – Showstopper!, The Improvised Musical, The School Of Night, The London 50 Hour Improvathons and The Society Of Strange. There was a small improv scene in the UK back then (around 2005) but Ken really helped to inspire several people to create some groundbreaking shows, and sparked a revival. His influence is hugely significant – and sadly very few people know about it. Ken pushed people to take risks, enjoy their work and stop at nothing.
Tom: Can you describe the experience of performing in an Improvathon?
SOS: It’s like a collective shamanic dream quest. With laughs.
Tom: What spurred the decision to move into podcasting?
SOS: Thanks to our brilliant sound designer, Christopher Ash (who improvises incredible music and soundscapes alongside the actors), our show has always had a very strong audio element. It seemed like a natural progression to begin recording shows and tap into a new audience. There are lots of fans of Weird Fiction out there, and we thought we’d see if we could bring our take on the genre to them, and have fun exploring a new medium at the same time. We became aware of the brilliant work being done at Kings Place in London (home of the London Podcast Festival) to promote and develop homegrown podcasts here in the UK. They take care of the recording side of things, and just let us concentrate on creating our weird content. So we’re very excited to be working with them to produce our live pilot.
Tom: Lastly, do you have any other upcoming projects that you’d like to let us know about?
SOS: A very different sort of show – but several of our company work on Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. It’s a full all-singing all-dancing West End musical that just happens to be made up on the spot. We won the Olivier for Best Entertainment in 2016, and since then have been touring up and down the country, with a monthly residency at the Lyric Theatre in the West End. Something to relax with after exploring the strange and cosmically unsettling!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to The Society of Strange for taking the time to speak with us! You can keep up to date with them on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and at their official website! You can also get tickets for their next London show at Kings Place on March 29th here.