The first rule of improv—that's improvisational theatre to those not in the know—is to say 'yes' to everything. That means that if a child tells you to do 15 somersaults whilst pretending to be a cat, say, you’ve got to give it your best shot, no questions asked. Such a request would have a lesser actor trembling in their boots, but it's all in a day's work for the hardworking cast of The Showstoppers’ Kids’ Show, the children's version of the build-your-own musical that has taken Edinburgh by storm in recent years.
While it is “very rare” for audiences to suggest properly "adult" content during performances of Showstoppers!, the original, grown-up version of the show, suggestions do often take a risqué tone, explains actor Pippa Evans. By allowing the kids to take charge—"they essentially direct", according to Evans—“we don’t have that danger of doing something inappropriate”. In the adult show the cast takes suggestions of musicals from the audience, but “only the most precocious child could say, ‘I want it in the style of Annie’,” says Evans. So instead the cast make up songs the kids can join in with. And they make sure they stay up to date with kids' TV to ensure that they understand all their suggestions.
The Showstoppers’ Kids’ Show brings something new to the improv scene. “Children make the best suggestions,” Evans says frankly. “They come up with the most imaginative, brilliant things and they don’t try and trip you up.” All of the Showstoppers cast have worked with children before, from working in young people’s theatre to starring on the BBC kids' talent show, The Slammer. “Plus,” Evans points out, “we’ve all been kids.”
Children come away from performances more confident and having had a great imagination work out. But there's more to it than that, says Evans. “We were in Singapore and the kids’ suggestion was to kill everybody on stage. So then we said, ‘What happens now?’ and it was great because they realise there’s no one left and they learn about consequences. Obviously we then all came back to life.”
Because children improvise all the time anyway, the genre doesn’t have quite the same novelty as it does for adults. “They’re always saying, ‘Let’s pretend to be cowboys!’ and there’s nothing weird about that,” Evans says. But what really amazes the children about this show is that they have all the power. Evans relishes the fact that they’re in a space where the cast say 'yes' to all the children’s suggestions. “They always do what adults say, but for an hour they get to tell us what to do.”
The cast will do anything and everything the kids tell them, to the best of their ability. Even those somersaults? “Whether they could really be classed as somersaults is a different matter, but I definitely moved 15 times!”