The iii! Summer Academy 2020


Presented by Improbable in partnership with Theatre Arts at Middlesex University

What is the iii summer academy?

The iii! Summer Academy is a three-week workshop programme led by two of the world’s leading improvisers – and co-Artistic Directors of Improbable – Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. It is a complete curriculum for making unforgettable theatre.

The academy is split into three week-long workshops. Taken together, they echo Improbable’s process for creating a show, beginning with core improvisatory processes; delving deeper into a new question, subject or process; and bringing everything together in a performance. Participants can attend the whole academy, or they may wish to focus on one aspect of the work in a single week. The academy concludes with a day-long Open Space for anyone who has attended any of the workshops.

Why this academy?

Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson have been at the heart of the story of improvisation since they first met in the mid 1980s, leading impro into new forms, widening its scope and taking it to places it wouldn’t otherwise have gone. With their company Improbable, they have taken improvisation everywhere from scrappy rooms above pubs to grand operatic stages. They have used it to research and present topics mythic, scientific, biographic, historical, medical and spiritual. They have transformed what it is possible to put on the stage, what happens in the rehearsal room, and even more than that – how meetings happen, how companies and buildings are run. The Summer Academy is an extraordinary chance to be part of their creative practice, to come and learn everything they know about the art of making it up as you go along.

Week 1: Core Improvisation

This week will explore core principles and processes of Improbable’s improvisatory practice. It will look at improvisation for performance, and explore meta-skills such as listening, awareness and presence. It will cover impro basics in Improbable ways, showing how, for example, impro might involve slowing down and feeling more, rather than speeding up and thinking fast. You will learn how to include and use everything that is present in the moment – emotions, worries, the weather in yourself, in the room and in the world.

Improbable’s approach to improvisation has been shaped by the work of Keith Johnston, Viola Spolin, Arnold and Amy Mindell, Michael Checkhov, Jeremy Whelan, Wesley Balk and Harrison Owen, and by processes including Open Space and Worldwork. No knowledge of this work is required (or necessarily helpful) – we provide the list in case it helps you imagine the sort of landscapes we will be traveling through.

Week 2: A deep dive into the unknown

This week addresses how the impro and performance skills explored in Week 1 can be used in conjunction with other theatre traditions, as well as other areas of practice and research, to create new forms, reach new depths as well as revolutionise the familiar.

Over its history, Improbable has brought set design, costume, puppetry, music, movement and personal testimony into the improvisational orbit. We’ve also taken improvisational practice into new writing, Shakespeare, different acting techniques, opera, and beyond theatre, out into the world for social activism. We’ve used improvisation as a methodology for exploring new areas of research be they scientific, choreographic or dramatic. In Week 2, Lee and Phelim will lead the group into an exploration of the unknown. They will look at the deeper beliefs and methodologies behind Improbable’s work, and show how they can be used in a tremendously diverse range of creative contexts. This is your chance to join two of the great theatrical experimenters, teaching how to try what has not yet been tried, or even yet imagined.

Week 3: Bringing it home

How can improvisatory processes be used to generate and perform material for performance? How do you get from an understanding of improvisatory process, or from a set of research questions, to a show?

The third week of the workshop will look at how to go from theory to practice, and will work on, among other things, devising techniques, creating and shaping narrative, Open Space as a rehearsal tool, Process Work and improvisation with a script. It will build on the core questions explored in the first two weeks of the workshop, and will be a chance to spend time working through an Improbable process and taking whatever works for you away to your own practice.

Final day: An Open Space conversation

The academy concludes with a one-day Open Space event for anyone who’s attended the workshops. It will be an opportunity to meet and spend time with other participants from the academy, reflect on the workshops, and look ahead to future questions, collaborations and next steps.

Who is this for?

The iii summer academy is for anyone interested in developing their improvisational experience, and/or learning from and using Improbable’s practice, whatever the form of your work. You might be a performer, director, researcher, writer, improviser, manager, or other practitioner. The workshops will be a supportive environment in which we’ll attempt to be responsive to the individual and collective needs of the group, and where you are encouraged to be both courageous and vulnerable in the examination of your practice. You will be given strategies to notice, nurture and manifest the work you want to do. We will aim to create a culture of play and creative risk-taking.

Specifically, the iii summer academy might be of interest to…

  • Improvisers
  • Theatre makers and practitioners
  • Actors interested in improvising, devising, or expanding / developing their practice
  • Directors, designers and practitioners working in stage or screen
  • Writers, especially those interested in devising, verbatim work and collaborative processes
  • Performance practice researchers and performance theory academics
  • Drama educators in schools, HE and FE organisations
  • Facilitators and counsellors
  • Skill seekers and professionals working in sectors beyond the arts
  • Fans of Improbable’s work


Who’s running it?

Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, who are Artistic Directors of Improbable. Together, they have directed, devised, written and performed in Improbable’s multi award-winning productions, including: 70 Hill Lane, Lifegame, Animo, Coma, Spirit, Sticky, Cinderella, The Hanging Man, The Still, The Stars Are Out Tonight (with Amici) The Tempest, Still No Idea, The Paper Man, Theatre of Blood and Lost Without Words (both with National Theatre), Satyagraha, Akhnaten, The Perfect American, and most recently Tao of Glass.

Lee started improvising in 1979 when his English teacher read Impro by Keith Johnstone and from then on, in lunchtime Drama Club, they worked through every exercise in the book. He’s been performing and teaching impro since then, and for over 30 years has been one of the Comedy Store Players. Lee’s directing outside Improbable includes Paul Merton: And This Is Me…The Two Faces of Mitchell and WebbTravels with my Virginity by Guy Dartnell, My M.S. and Me by Jim Sweeney and Palace Dreams, an outdoor show on the site of the Crystal Palace. Having taken improvisation to the roughest comedy clubs, the grandest theatres and everything in between, there can be very few people in the world with this breadth of improvisational experience.

Phelim has been directing and performing since 1984, when he co-founded derek derek with Julia Bardsley. Other directing credits include Verdi’s Aida in collaboration with English National Opera; BambinO, an opera for babies; the Olivier award-winning Shockheaded PeterAlex (The Arts Theatre); The Ghost Downstairs (Leicester Haymarket); Dr Faustus, Improbable Tales (Nottingham Playhouse); The Servant of Two Masters, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Government Inspector (West Yorkshire Playhouse) and Artistic Collaborator on She’s Leaving Home (produced by 20 Stories High). In 2003, Phelim was awarded a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) fellowship to research new ways of rehearsing and creating theatre using improvisation and process-oriented conflict facilitation techniques. As part of this work he has facilitated many Open Space Technology events. He was made an Honorary Doctor of Middlesex University in 2007.

Access information

The Summer Academy is wheelchair-accessible and there are accessible toilets in all buildings being used for the event. If you need to attend the academy with a personal assistant, or with an audio describer or BSL interpreter, please let us know. There will be no charge for tickets for personal assistants or access support staff.

Guide dogs are welcome in all Middlesex University spaces.

You are welcome to visit the workshop venue in advance, if you’d like to familiarise yourself with the space. Please contact us to arrange this.

If you have a question that is not answered here, please get in touch with us on office@improbable.co.uk or 0207 240 4556. If you use textphone, call through TextDirect by dialling prefix 18001 then our number.

I have more questions…

Feel free to get in touch with us on office@improbable.co.uk or 020 7240 4556.

Please note that the iii! Summer Academy has been postponed. We have temporarily stopped accepting new applications whilst we find new dates for the workshops. You can keep up to date through our newsletter.

Venue: Middlesex University, Hendon, London NW4 4BT (Nearest Tube: Hendon Central)
Cost: £1,250 for the full course. You can also book for a single week at £500. There is no VAT on the workshops.
Capacity: 20 places per week


Want to take part?

Places on the iii! Summer Academy are by application only.

Email office@improbable.co.uk with a short (approx. 200 words) on why you would like to come to the academy, which week(s) you’d like to attend, and what you hope to get out of it. Please also attach a biography, CV and/or a link to examples of your work. We will get back to you within 10 days to let you know whether you’ve been offered a place, and if so will send you a booking link to confirm your place. We are happy to accept payments in instalments.


Are there any bursaries? 

Yes. We have three supported places available for each week of the academy. These places are free and come with a stipend of £250 towards expenses. These places are available to:
> People who would not be able to afford a full-price place. We do not want the price of a ticket to stop someone attending the academy.

> People of colour, people who identify as D/deaf or disabled, and people who identify as trans*/non-binary. People with these protected characteristics are historically under-represented in improvisation, and we think that offering bursaries to these people is one way of helping to redress the balance.

If you would like to apply for one of these places, please apply as normal, but include a brief paragraph (around 100 words) on why you would like a bursary. The deadline for applications for bursary places 11pm on Sunday 3rd May. We will let you know whether we can offer you a bursary place by the end of Monday 11th May.

The iii! Summer Academy is presented in partnership with Theatre Arts at Middlesex University






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