I started doing a scene and then you had that flow state, right. The flow state of like “Oh, I can do these things. I know exactly what I need to say now to make this work”. And my partner's responding to me. I'm responding to them, which is going step by step. And there's no hesitation or concern about am I doing it right any more. It was only that one scene in that first workshop when that happened. But after a while it started coming back again and again. I realized I can actually do this. - Kim Tan
Kim is cofounder and Artistic Director of The Improv Company and has taught and performed improvised theatre for ten years. He has studied improv in Chicago, London and Oxford under some of the most venerated instructors still alive, and as a former board member of the Applied Improvisation Network, he is engaged in keeping up with current trends of improv training, facilitation and performance.
As Artistic Director of the Company, he ensures the quality of the Company’s instruction and performances. Over a thousand people have had their first contact with improv through the programs he designed for the Company, and it was his vision, determination and desire that led to the establishment of a thriving improv scene in Singapore, including the internationally acclaimed Singapore Improv Festival.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey Kim, so excited to have you on the show. You are someone I respect because you're an improv artist I’ve observed on stage who’s hilarious, but also you are a co-founder bringing improv to Singapore and Southeast Asia. I'm excited to have you on the show. Can you share with the folks who you are?
Kim Tan: (00:45)
Sure. Hi, Jeremy, and thanks for having me. I am Kim. I am one of the co-founders of the Improv Company. We are a theater company based in Singapore and we specialize in improv theater, improvised theater specifically, which means that when we go on stage, we create shows from scratch. We don't have a script. Instead, we create it there, sometimes with the audience. Before COVID, we will sometimes even drag audience members onstage. Can’t do that now. Then we create it. So sometimes there are a little guidelines, but by and large we don't know what the content will be until it is created right there in front of the audience. We also teach improv and we go to companies and we teach them the principles of improv in the attempt to improve their resilience and to improve their creativity.
So that's a few things that we do and we started…about eight years ago at this point, yes, eight years ago. Our birthday was on first October. So that's not too long ago.
Jeremy Au: (01:37)
How did you first get improv and how did that weird love begin for you?
Kim Tan: (01:42)
Okay. I started improvising approximately 10 or 11 years ago. I was studying in the UK. I was looking for something to do in my spare time and I found an improv club and they were selling it like, Oh, let's go and do it like, Whose line is it anyway? And I was like, Okay, I love that show. Let me try it out.
And so I went to audition. I didn't get in, but I and a bunch of the other people who didn't get it said, Hey, we don't need them, let's start our own club. And that's where I started. But that's not how I started doing in Singapore because I was in the UK at the time. I was just a player and when I came back I was looking for another improv club to join because I just loved doing it so much.
And I realized that at the time there wasn't really an active group in Singapore. There would be these groups that would do it like once a year or intermittently. But I wanted to do it all the time and so instead I started a club in NUS and after a couple of years I was like, Well, this is great, but once I'm out of NUS, I can't keep running a club.
That's not really how you make a living. Can we make a living out of this? Let's try it out. Let's make a scene here in Singapore.
Jeremy Au: (02:40)
And that’s something similar to myself. I was recommended by my wife to do improv because she took an improv class and I tried it and I was like, Oh, it's like, whose line is it anyway? And I got hooked on improv as well and started taking other classes from there. What was it like?
Do you remember your first improv class or exercise? Could you remember what it was like?
Kim Tan: (03:03)
I don't remember the first class or two. I think the first few were just kind of like, Oh, who are all these people, I'm very shy. I don't know what to do. Can I do this? Am I allowed to say these things? I'm very Singaporean. What I do remember was my breakthrough moment was I had a glass of wine before one of the workshops.
This was probably about two or three months in. And then I started doing a scene and then you had that flow state, right? The flow state of like, Oh, I can do these things. I know exactly what I need to say now to make this work. And my partner's responding to me. I'm responding to them, which is going step after step by step.
And there's no hesitation or concern about am I doing it right any more? It was only that one scene in that first workshop when that happened. But after a while it started coming back again and again. I realized I can actually do this. And then the second thing, the breakthrough moment was during my first couple of shows in that state again, that I think is that high I've been chasing ever since of always wanting to be in that moment when I know exactly what I need to do. And it's what keeps me going back again and again. Just because when you hit that moment, you're like the world is perfect. Everything is as it should be. For these few minutes on stage.
Jeremy Au: (04:10)
I think you just perfectly encapsulated what I also love about improv, I think the way I similarly describe it is those moments where I’m in a state of flow and I feel like a child because, you know, I put away everything about work. I put away everything about what should happen in the future or has happened in the past.
I'm just paying attention to the other person and I'm having fun and I'm in the moment and it is as it is. I love that moment so much. I think that's the high for sure. And what's interesting is that, you know, you have this interesting duality because you're describing the high as a performer and yet you are also the organizer, which is not a high.
So you're organizing the NUS club and then you go off. So tell us more about what it like to organize a club first at a university level, and then we'll talk more about how to do it at a commercial level. Right. So tell us more about that university level organization.
Kim Tan: (05:10)
So that was probably about nine, ten years ago. And when you start out as organizer, you're not really thinking, oh, I find organizing fun. You know, for some people, sure, they love it where it really gets them going, they love organizing. I started it because I wanted to do improv, and improv and organizing are two very different beasts.
When you're improvising out there in the workshop or you're on stage and you're just listening to the other person you respond to immediately. And if it works, it works. And if it doesn't work and you find a way to make it work, and it's very immediate, it's very visceral whereas organization, you have to have all these timelines, you have to organize way ahead of time.
You need to know exactly what goes where, which is in some ways the antithesis of improvisation. And then getting people. You have to do marketing, you have to do organization, you have to talk to the authorities to figure out what resources can you give me. So in NUS, in a club, I think in the CFA, the Centre For Arts, they would give us a room as part of a new stage is what the theatre club that I joined and they would be well very bureaucratic about it, which really doesn't help the improv part. And so having to deal with them and then dealing with the vagaries of people coming to improv class and each of them has their own agenda.
They want to have fun or the social time, they want to play and so on and so forth. And you're trying to meet all these needs as organizer. And then when it's done and you slowly, you know, you quietly beat yourself up, oh, man, I could run it this way. I could have made them happier. And then you go, you have to pick yourself up and then do it again the next week.
And this is in aid of a future goal of getting back onstage and creating improv scene and so on, so forth. But after a while you get better at it. The first time is horrible, and then after a while you learn your lessons, you get better at it, and you start meeting people's needs or even meeting their needs that they don't necessarily know that they want initially.
And then you kind of train them to want certain things and to get better at that. Together, you forge together as a team and you're finding that they are also contributing in different ways. By the time I was done with the NUS stage of my career running an improv club, I realized a few things. One is that I was brought up to be very independent, do not trust anyone, but you can't really do this alone.
And so I had opened up quite a lot and trying to seek help where I could as well as what you want as improviser is not always what anyone, everyone else wants. Surprise, other people have different needs and wants. And so you try to meet that as well in a different way. Sometimes those might also contradict your own personal wants because it's kind of for the greater good of the community or the company.
What can you do to meet that while also taking care of yourself and your own needs and all kinds of lessons along the way that they don't really teach you when you are starting out as a club.
Jeremy Au: (07:47)
That must have been a huge shift as well from the university level to then say, okay, I now want to found this as a commercial level because now there's economics involved, the fundamental business model of a theater and all these other things. What was it like to be the co-founder of an improv company?
Kim Tan: (08:10)
So, you know, when you graduated and you're thinking, what career should I do? And me and my partner, Hazel, at the time we were just fresh grads. And you're thinking, do we want to do this improv thing now or should we do what the sensible thing would be like all parents were saying at the time, go get a proper job and do that first.
And then if you want to improv on the side you can do that. And I think what the two of us were thinking is that now's the time like if we get a job, we might get distracted. We might find ourselves on a very different path. But do we want to do this? And I think for us the answer was very immediately, yes, let's do this now.
After a year, after two years that see where we are. And if it was not going well, we do have time. We don’t have kids, but we do have families. But we can financially afford this step. So we took that step initially and we were actually really lucky. We found kind of very low cost, low exposure ways to keep on going.
And a lot of it was kind of just bootstrapping ourselves and even just doing the hard work ourselves, not automating anything, trying to keep everything as lean as possible like the rent for initial space was, I think something like 500 a month, which is a little ridiculous given the real estate price in Singapore.
Jeremy Au: (09:17)
Kim Tan: (09:13)
Yeah, we shared it with an artist and it was made of wood. So every time we jumped our downstairs neighbour would get pissed and all these kind of things that I probably wouldn't accept now, at this stage where we are. I would just be like, No, let's throw some money at a problem because that's not a problem I have the energy to deal with now. At the time, we were young and we were in ways, quite naive, but we were like, we can do this, let's make it happen. And then after that, as marketing, how do we get people to understand what improv is and why they should do it? And that's that persuasion.
That conversation took place many times in many rooms over with many different people and just understanding how to persuade people that improv is worth their time. After a while, we started accumulating people around us that believed what we had told them and what we had demonstrated to them in those first classes. And it was a real learning journey, right?
Because as a club, your kind of accountability is very different. You don't have a bottom line, you just turn up and if you suck at it, you know they don't come back. But if you suck at it when you are in, well, in the real world, you lose money. And financially there are some real consequences for that. We had people scolding us in our first few classes, like, what are you doing this is really unprofessional.
And you're like, Okay, let's learn from that. Let's make it better. We keep learning these lessons over and over, year after year, and then we’re always finding new things to do. So like when we first ran the Improv Festival, our first Singapore Improv Festival, this was 2016. We learned a lot because it was a bigger scale in terms of events and anything we had done before.
We would do single shows at a time up to that point. And so suddenly we had a whole weekend of shows and we're like, okay, this is horrifyingly difficult. And also we gave ourselves like a month to deal with it, which is horrifyingly naive as well, now that we know what it takes. Actually, that was really too ambitious, so we learned and we grow.
We’re always constantly trying to figure out what is our next milestone, how can we grow, how can you scale into something more and reach more people? I would not trade this for anything. I would not take a desk job and work for someone else at this point. It's just…it's just a bit of a drug, right?
You learn all these things. You're affecting so many people. You're changing lives. And I think if I would have told my younger self eight years ago, nine years ago, hey, you should go there, I would not tell them that and be like, yeah, do this, it’s going to suck for a horribly long time in so many different ways. But you should do this.
Jeremy Au: (11:45)
It is interesting to talk about the highs you get as an improv performer and the highs as a founder. So quite different. And also you also interestingly, you talk about some of the realities, right, about the world as well. So let's talk about both of those. So let's talk about reality. So let's dive a little bit deeper to some of the realities you said of being a founder and building without the belief of everybody around you.
Versus being a performer. What was that transition like for you? What did you have to learn? I think it was a skills, attitude, or mindset?
Kim Tan: (12:16)
When I was in college, I learned political science and theater studies, neither of which did anything to prepare me for the real world. I think in my final semester I took a couple of business modules, which was okay, a little bit of working and pitching to people, but I think college did nothing for me other than that. Other than a slight kind of time to refine my technique as a coach.
It did nothing for that. So when you get out there and you're talking to people are often so many competing things and like competition isn't actually like other improv theaters. Our competition is anything that would take someone's time or energy. So like a cinema, for example or a walk in the park, why should someone do improv as opposed to going for a nice walk in the park and trying to persuade them to do that is also just that constant conversation and trying to read your audience and understanding what do they want? What do they need, can I appeal to their want and that need, which wasn't in theater studies at all. Theater studies was really about the history of theater, which was, I guess, interesting, but not the main thing. And then having to learn organization, for example, like compliance, basic compliance, they don't teach you that in theatre studies, marketing management wasn't an issue for a long time because for most of my coaches, we’re friends.
And so we have very informal conversations like, Oh, they are these students, how are they doing? How are you doing? Okay, great. But once we started hiring people full time, that was a very different kettle of fish and to understand as a fresh grad, what do they need? All these basic things you took for granted as a founder, you're running yourself and now you're turning to delegate and saying, Hey, can you do it?
And then they return and you're like, This is totally not what I was asking for. And then your team starts to grow and trying to let go of some that control initially can be…it was a learning process initially with 100% control and now it's maybe about 40% and 50% control because you need to trust people to do these things in different ways.
All that journey is different, but I think my initial argument for myself in doing that initially was, Hey, this is what it takes to go there and do improv, okay? This is a sacrifice I'll do. At this point is a little bit of a different equation where I enjoy it and I enjoy the impact it has on people.
So when I see someone taking out classes and coming out change or they make new connections or they're more open and they are getting on stage with that kind of confidence that in class one of improv 101, you wouldn’t have seen that do. That is a real tangible change that's very satisfying and it's not even a cost anymore.
It's just a needed thing to do in order to get to that extra thing. And I also still do improv, I perform and I think possibly a bit of the perks of being a founder is that I can perform when I want to as opposed to other people when they kind of have to go through us. And so I'm like, I'll do a show.
Yes, I get to do it. Awesome. I'm very happy to take that perk. I feel like arrogant. But I it's kind of an earned privilege at this point that we stuck in it for eight years. So I get to do shows when I want to. And when I don’t feel like it, I'm like, okay, let's enable other people to get that on that stage.
Jeremy Au: (15:19)
Yeah. I mean there’s plenty of spots and you know, improv is a group collaborative sport, right? And I totally get it because I think for myself, my first I started because I wanted to volunteer at an organization and social impact consulting because I had been a volunteer in that before. And so I want to set it up in Singapore and it didn't exist.
So I went about setting it up and then I ended up somehow founding it and then leading it. And then unlike you, I never got a chance to volunteer again at it because I was too busy organizing and building it, which was a shame in some ways, because I never got to reconnect at that fundamental level, which was interesting at energy level.
So I think it's totally not just in your right, but I think it's better for organization that you reconnect at a base level. Right, which is the fundamental joy. Right, which is if you as a leader don't get to re-experience the high that you first got when you first tasted improv, when you were a young, youngling, how do you stay connected to the ground?
Kim Tan: (16:21)
Because I've thought about this once in a while, because burnout is a real thing. Once in a while, I think I should step back from the coaching or should I step back from performing and the idea of doing that has been very feasible or rather quite plausible, at various points. And every time I do that, I find this increasing disconnect.
And I think if I was just running an improv theater as a business, it would be quite different. Whereas we are doing it as a way not just of earning a living, but also of increasing the numbers and increasing the engagement that our current improvisers have with the artform and with each other. And so there are tradeoffs to be made for that.
The way we are doing it, in some ways, we share some DNA with a social enterprise where profit isn't the main driver, it is a driver. But partly survival, partly is just to get people to continue to do the art form.
Jeremy Au: (17:16)
And that's a tricky part you mentioned, right, because creative and performer burnout is a real thing, often because of that mixed motivation, right? Because not just economics. And also the economics are not great, to be honest as well. Right. And then you add on all of this personal identity as well as a labour of love and all these other dynamics and interpersonal.
So I'm just curious like how do you think about how yourself or other performers are thinking about how to process that? Because it's also kind of funny, right, is that improv is all ha ha comedy. We should be happy all the time, optimistic. And then here we are, you know, working to make all of this move on time seamless.
A great experience for those learning, a great experience for those observing in the audience, a great experience for those who are performing. So how does all of that process for you?
Kim Tan: (18:07)
So it goes back to what I mentioned as a founder, as a leader, you are looking at what your people need. In terms of financial compensation, that's not really going to work out well for most improvisers. If you're coaching, okay, that can be a plausible thing to do. And we do pay our coaches and we try to pay them fairly and we pay our full time staff.
But for the performers, they tend not to get financially compensated. So we need to take care of them in other ways, whether it is making sure their needs are met, giving them the space to perform, whether it's giving them feedback or encouragement when the shows don't go well, say, Hey, can we take care of each other? And taking care of each other can come in so many ways, whether just checking on them or giving them the opportunity to express themselves or looking at, Oh, they see the scene as a whole.
What do we need? Are we doing a lot of short form? And people are finding that is plateauing and what is the next step for them or if they're doing a certain kind of show, can we broaden it? Can we open their eyes, open their horizons to other ways that they can expand themselves and to increase that engagement so that they holistically grow not just as improvisers, but also as performers and as people.
And if COVID happens and people are feeling us. And can we then show that the face of stability and say and optimism so that people don't feel the constant crashing of, oh, everything's changing all the time? Or do we just no anchor, we want to be that anchor for people? And so there's different ways of just reading each other, taking care of each other, and making sure that if someone's feeling down or they're feeling burnt out, how can we help them?
Or if they're feeling that plateau, how can we let them grow? And so on, so forth.
Jeremy Au: (19:50)
When you think about that growth, how do you personally grow? Is it I mean, beyond, of course, you know, and I guess reading improv textbooks or materials and all of that. But I'm just kind of curious, like today where you are as an improv performer, as a founder of the improv company, as a, you know, effectively an owner of the theater pushing on in the midst of a global pandemic.
There's also many pandemic restrictions. How are you seeing this next stage of personal growth? Like, what are you looking to learn? What are you reading? What are you consuming to for the stage of personal growth, for better or for worse? Yeah.
Kim Tan: (20:28)
I think as a performer, one thing the pandemic has done, which was unexpected and we are now connecting with improvisers from all over the world online through zoom or other mediums where they are running classes or their jams or meetings. So I think I've done workshops where we get improvisers to zoom in and then they watch a performance or a lesson that we are doing, and then they give feedback.
And these people can be anywhere in the US, Europe, anywhere that they are based and they can do it because of the magic of communication, the internet, and then we can connect with that, which wasn't true prior to the pandemic. I think people were doing it, but on a much smaller scale. But necessity draws everyone online, and when everyone's online, you're like, Oh, can we connect?
Can we do these things? And so our initial experiments we did were sometimes a bit abortive, it just wouldn't work. But I think one year in is a lot more polish now. People is very scheduled and a lot of it unfortunately is the US or Europe time zones, but a few of them are actually Asian focus so we can still connect in that sense.
Other than that I'm also finding now the Singapore scene is at a stage where we can talk to each other and we can garner things from each other where it wasn't really true, say six years ago, where I was one of the very few experienced improvisers and there wasn't anyone to give me feedback. Now that's not true.
A lot of improvisers now are more experience than I was when I started out, and they are developing their own voice and developing their specialties. And so if I want to venture into that and say, Oh, I want to do a puppet improv or game based improv, I now have people that I can consult with and talk to and learn from.
I think at the start you got this sense of yourself as, Oh, I'm the most experienced in the room. I need to show that high status. I think I've learned that is no longer true. I'm no longer necessarily the best at all of it. That's great, because now I can learn from other people. I don't have to be the first out the door to pave the way and the effort to get better at that is no longer as much as it used to be.
So it's a great learning to do that. But there are also other ways of growing. I can learn in terms of, say, as a business, how can I learn? How can I scale up? What can I do? And I think we've learned a number of things over the years. Like, so this year, for example, we are now doing kids camps, we are expanding into that where prior to that I hated teaching kids.
Just drained so much from all of me. But I had a couple of improvisers who offered essentially to help us get it off the ground. And they've been helping us and consulting with us and driving that change. So now we are using our space in the middle of the day where kids can go and learn improv and they are running it.
And for us we are just providing the space and enabling that to happen, while also gives the company a bit more of a stable financial base. And then also is that myself also opening up to the fact that kids can have a space in improv, it’s true and letting them experience that. I'm hoping that in ten or 15 years time when these kids have reached adulthood, they'll have been doing it for so long and we’ll be seeing new things coming out where they're learning, they're showing new areas that maybe we can't even imagine today.
But that’s kind of a long game for the improv scene in Singapore.
Jeremy Au: (23:42)
Wow, I love that long game, to be honest, because, you know, I think one thing that got experience while I was learning improv in Boston, New York was in New York really getting to see people who saw comedy, improv as a career. They really saw it as a career. They had been preparing for it from a not as early as a kid, but at least from a teenager, and working hard at it as a hobby, as a practice, as an art form, and then going to it as an adult and the economics and industries that support it.
So I think it's interesting to see that you build this out would definitely be a great way for kids to ignite and discover if they have a love for stand up slash comedy, slash, improv, slash, whatever it is that turns out for them. So what's interesting is that you're just kind of like building up this larger tent as well, right?
Of new folks coming in to spearhead different programs and initiatives, different verticals of this. And so I almost see you like these like three hats that they have. Right. So you have a performer, Kim, then you have the founder, Kim, who was a guy who built it out from 0 to 1 that's there. And then now you have this community organizer slash node traffic control Kim where everything kind of like you're not the center of it, but a key node of that overall network starting to emerge in Singapore. How do you feel about that evolution over time?
Kim Tan: (25:09)
Broadly good. I think I'm used to wearing multiple hats, right? So as a founder, as a performer, those are two quite different things, like you mentioned earlier. As a community thing, as a kind of enabler in some ways. The first time I realized this was probably four years ago, I think there was just this weekend, and I realized there were four or five improv shows happening in Singapore, none of which were organized by me and I realized I was like, Oh, this is great.
This is exactly what we set out to do. Because when you talk about improv scene and we want to do an improv scene, it's not it's not the improv company. The company is its own thing. And we obviously want to be successful. We want to have this sustainability. We want to stick around and influence the scene in positive ways.
But the scene is its own thing. And I think that was the first milestone, we were like, we have kind of made it and we want to sustain that. We want that to keep happening weekend after weekend where we are organizing shows but other people are also organizing shows. This has emotionally taken a bit of a back seat, I think a little bit of a step backwards, rather, in COVID times, because now venues are significantly numbers restricted.
So it's very difficult for independent organizer to set up their own show at the moment. But prior to that, we were actually seeing quite a big number of people running their own shows. And in fact we are now seeing new students who have come to our doors in the last two years or so starting to form their own team, so I believe well, we are doing a show in early November where I think seven of nine teams are new, but some of them are veterans, but they are new teams, but a lot of them are students who've just finished their classes and they've done the showcases, the recitals, essentially, and they're like, I want to keep doing this thing. I want to create more shows, all of which have had nothing to do with us. It will be all our role is basically saying, Hey, students, you should go form new teams, go to new teams now. And you're like, okay. And they did it. And I'm like, okay, they're all a complete new weekend of complete teams.
So as an enabler, and I'm a little concerned because I don't know how good these shows are going to be. But as an organizer, this is amazing. This is a great milestone. All these new students are going to be there if we can keep them encouraged and basically, like keep them going, in a couple of years, there’ll be all these...they’ll be doing new shows, creating new work, creating content, reaching new people, finding new audiences and new venues. Hopefully when COVID clears up. They'll be going out there and creating as much improv as possible. And you know, volume has its own quality. They’ll start reaching so many people that people wonder what's improv. And then the scene becomes it reaches a critical mass and it keeps going on its own kind of steam.
And we want to be there to help enable that and to catalyze that. But we don't want to be the only player in town.
Jeremy Au: (27:53)
Yeah, and it's amazing to see you being that individual performer, being you, being the first one to be performing it.
Kim Tan: (28:02)
And yeah, I guess I also want to be there doing shows. That's definitely a thing that's not going to stop.
Jeremy Au: (28:08)
Never going to stop, right. Does it feel weird because as a performer, you're one of the people on a stage and then as a founder, you're one of the few people bringing the stage to light. Now, finally, the show is moving down the road without you in that sense, which is good, like you said, because finally the dream is coming true, right?
The movement has momentum. Yes. Do you feel like nostalgia or do you foresee yourself getting nostalgia one day?
Kim Tan: (28:37)
In a very limited fashion? I think in some ways, fewer responsibilities and fewer things would go wrong and you know, sometimes that moment of, oh, I'm going to do a show in three weeks, that's literally the only thing I have to prepare for. Great. I can devote all my energy to that. Now, that's not going to happen.
That's not happened for a long time. There's always something to deal with, but I vastly prefer now because now we have the resources, now we have the connections, now we have the community base to go and make so much more happen. Just as a benchmark we had, I think seven shows the last weekend, the first week in October, and that's as many as we had in our first improv festival.
And that's insane. We do this on a regular basis now. We do this multiple times a year and it's not even a festival, it’s just a weekend of improv shows and we move to that level already. So clearly our festival needs to be, I don't know, 20 shows, 30 shows. We need to reach like thousands of people at this point to say we've moved up and that's great.
That's progress. I want that progress to keep going. I want us to become a mainstay in the Singapore theater scene, in the Asian theater scene and say, hey, improv is not some side gig. Improv is not just a thing some actors learn in their first year at La Salle or something. Improv is this artform is alongside anything that is happening in the theater scene, the art scene.
If someone thinking, What should I do this weekend? Improv is on that shortlist, whether it's performing or going to see it or even just, you know, just checking it out, it's going by. Oh, I would like to see something on Friday night. Oh, improv. That's good. Yeah, that's where we want to go. We don't want it to be a thing where people go, Oh, what improv?
The day that no one asked me was improv. When I say I’m an improv teacher is kind of the day I'll say I’ve made it.
Jeremy Au: (30:26)
That's amazing. I love that so much. I love that so much. I’ll just like to turn the page a little bit here, which is could you share with us a time that you have been brave?
Kim Tan: (30:37)
Okay. I think the first time will probably be when I started this, probably started the improv company because when we started, we had no idea what we were doing. So as much foolhardy, as brave, but more recently, I think this year has been a really interesting year in terms of where we've been performing. So prior to this year we will perform in like small bars or small theaters, maybe once a little show, and then it'll be done.
It'll be, you know, finished. We will kind of force into larger venues because of COVID. At the end of last year, we did a show where I think the main storyline was about a couple that was two guys, so a gay couple and they all thinking about adopting. And what happened was in our licensing application, a few a few months later we submitted a video because the show was a really good show and we were like, Let's show this to the IMDA as part of our license application.
And they got, well, concerned, shall we say, because apparently if you have a gay couple as the main storyline, your licensing needs to be restricted. So the little children cannot see the show. It cannot be the main focus essentially. And so as a result of that, I got invited in for a four hour interview with the IMDA, which as a Singaporean born and bred, it made me terrified, essentially, because I was like, Oh, I'm being investigated.
I'm in trouble with the authorities. And the 4 hours was fascinating. I mean, at the time it was very stressful and we were just like, are we, am I in trouble? Are we going to be allowed to continue operating? And the conversation has moved on since. And we've had a lot of help in particular, Singh Gee, my improviser friend from back in the day, he was in with us actually, and he called me in on this and he's been helping us pro-bono and giving us advice and corresponding with the government. We are essentially at this point having this extended conversation with them on what is improv, how can we continue to do improv shows while also with understanding that, you know, as the government, they have certain needs and requirements and they have their own agenda on what kind of art form they are going to essentially allow on stage in public.
And they have to balance their public good with their own needs. And we want to keep doing shows, we want to keep doing improv and we want to keep saying things that matter to people that are important and not also deal with the idea of censorship. And so this conversation is still ongoing. The investigations haven't been closed yet and keeping us a bit on tenterhooks.
So we are operating in this kind of semi limbo where we still have to keep doing stuff and they are giving us licenses at this point. And they've even created a special improv show checklist for us where everything that we've talked to them about so far is on that list. The only thing that isn’t there is like they just it's not just the improv company doing shows, but it essentially is our conversations are reflected in that checklist.
And so we want to make sure we can still continue to teach improv and bring that spirit of resilience and creativity to Singaporeans and whoever is living here, while also toeing the line of saying things that we want to say. I will say it has been quite inspiring. We've done a couple of political satire shows because of this.
I think prior to this year we would have done it because of that fear of crossing that line. But the line's been crossed. So really, let's go ahead and say these things that matter.
Jeremy Au: (34:02)
You know, it what's interesting is in a lot of different topics that are here, right, which is really about arts, is about saying things that do matter. And obviously what’s the public good. And these are all very big concepts, but also mean a lot to individual people. Personally, I do have loved ones who are and friends who are LGBTQ and so for that and I actually I do believe I was at that show and I was very touched by that show, actually. So I personally enjoyed that show from an artistic and I think it mattered right from a comedic perspective. But it's also funny because it touches on a real aspect of human life. And I think as my old instructor used to say, it can only be funny if it's real.
Kim Tan: (34:47)
Yeah. Truth in comedy is a common improv thing.
Jeremy Au: (34:49)
Exactly right. There's no basis in reality and real human experience. It's not funny, right? Yeah. True comedy can only come in most true of human moments. So I think there's an interesting dynamic where as a result, comedy helps us elevate us from the elephants in the room, right? Yeah. So there's that interesting tension, I think, between all the different aspects.
Yeah. So I think there’s this awkward reality in doing that. And I remember actually learning that for myself as a performer in the U.S. where also a different aspect of that would be that what is considered cultural norms in Singapore would not be considered a cultural norm in the U.S. So having to learn simple things like gender expressions, like stereotypes versus archetypes quite in line actually, especially when you're improvising on the spot.
Kim Tan: (35:42)
I’ve been there.
Jeremy Au: (35:43)
Yeah, I think every improviser has been there. It’s hard to do and it's also a function of the audience as well right.
Kim Tan: (35:49)
Yep. And so in Singapore I think we are toeing that…every context is different. So I think if you are performing a U.S. performing in Europe, for example, Australia, you are doing it slightly differently. And Singapore's context is your own brand of unique, where we have a government that does want to open up that space, but it also wants that space opened up in a circumscribed way and we are kind of feeling in the dark and saying where is that edge, can we cross this line?
If we cross this line, can I put my toe over that line and see what happens if I take a step over? What are the consequences going to be like? Can we deal with those consequences? And then, from a community standpoint, our performers are going to be concerned about that. And when they are new and kind of less experienced, there's additional fear because the they are like always that line, am I allowed to do that?
We have a lot of performers who are EP holders and their concerns are very real. There are very real consequences if they do it too much. And so for us, we move on to find where is that line, can we cross that line, are there different zones where we can be in terms of artistic expression, can we take care of our people while also maintaining the artistic integrity?
I think this conversation in Singapore is going to continue for as long as we want to do art.
Jeremy Au: (37:08)
Yeah, it's interesting, right, because how do you create a space where there hasn't been space? Yet, comedy is about lines and creating space, right?
Kim Tan: (37:18)
Yeah. So you kind of stay within the safe zone. That also takes away a lot of your power. And so we kind of have to venture out. But then if we went too far, there's consequences so, it is a bit like it's a bit of a minefield where the borders aren’t clearly defined. And that's the thing about Singapore.
We do have some laws that are deliberately vaguely defined so that that gives the government authorities more power in a way that kind of has plausible deniability. And that's just the life of a citizen living in Singapore as an artist as well.
Jeremy Au: (37:52)
Yeah. And I, you know, I think that is in the public good, which is, I think fair. I think there are key reasons why. In terms of like multiculturalism, racial, religious harmony. Yeah. So I think there's good reasons, I think, for all of that, I don't think that's a fair requirement, you know, and I think everybody's figuring it out as we go along.
Like you said, improv is a new art form. So I think if nobody builds a law with the awareness that improv is going to come along and be there. So I definitely agree with you about that. Yet, like you said, you know, the interesting part is that the court jester has been a problematic person for generations and centuries, that role of the jester.
The Joker has been valuable one for generations and generations of various kings and queens in the court, but has also has been a problematic and torturous role for them. Yeah, for the same reason.
Kim Tan: (38:51)
Part of this is also we don't know what will be said or what can be said. I might not be the one to say something that will change the world. Improv-wise in Singapore, but someone else, maybe some kid would just come do our camp ten years on the road. He does a show that blows people's minds and we want to pave the way for that.
And so it's kind of like try to figure out those boundaries so that people following our community today, as well as someone next year, in ten years’ time, they have something, they want to say something, that space is there for them to say that.
Jeremy Au: (39:20)
Mm. Interesting. Yeah, I think that's a good point because all of us have individual responsibilities as performers, yet we also have stewardship, like you said, for this to continue as an art form, for other people to appreciate the art form. One interesting thing that you mentioned about earlier was also like one big, brave moment was you deciding to build it out without really knowing what you were building. So, can you tell me what you mean by being brave in that context.
Kim Tan: (39:53)
Bravery is such an interesting concept, right? So if someone sees there’s clear physical danger and they see a fire and they're rushing to the fire, they make the choice to do that, knowing they could die or be severely injured to rescue someone. That's bravery. For us, when we started, I don't know we knew there was a fire. We were like, oh, that area, there’s a bit of a fog of war going on. We're not sure what's behind that shadow or behind that door. Let's step through it and see what happens. And then we did it knowing that other people our age will be getting, I don't know, starting salaries of like three to four grand a year.
We started out at one and we were constantly draining our finances for a few years thinking, okay, let's see where this goes. We know there's going to be a significant cost to this, but we think that is a plunge worth taking. So let's take that plunge. And every year I think for a few years we were like, Oh, man, this hurts a lot.
Kim Tan: (40:51)
This is really bad. Shall we keep going? Can we sustain this for another year? And it was eventually a choice that we kept making over and over again year after year. You know what? Let's give this another year. Let's give this another year. And at this point, I haven't had that conversation with myself for a couple of years now where we've had to ask ourselves.
Should we give us a year? The answer was immediately, Yeah, let's keep going. It's going well, let's keep this going. And so we've crossed that, we've left it behind. I think in that sense, bravery for us was taking the plunge and thinking we are going to hurt from this. How much hurt we are not sure, but we are willing to take that, even though it's an open ended question of how much and make it happen because the potential outcome is worth the potential hurt.
Jeremy Au: (41:39)
I think that's a very fair point and is true that based on your original definition of it, which is that if you're fully aware of all the dangers and risks and blood, sweat and tears and all the troubles you can put yourself through, which is also pretty inhuman because most humans have zero ability to foretell the future. Yeah, you know, I think you're right.
You don't hit that bar. Yet, I would respectfully disagree. I think you are brave in the context of still pushing out to choose to do so. And I think my suspicion is I don't think you're that naïve, anyway, from day one, I do think you got smart pretty fast and savvy and maybe you got smarter over time pretty quick about how much risk you were actually taking more and more over time.
And so over time, the actual level of bravery you were by that standard actually kind of like ticked up, right? So you might month one, you weren’t that brave by that standard that you put it at, but maybe by that standard you put it at by month three, month six, you're probably like fully priced in that hundred percent for bravery because, you know, by then you already knew how hard it was, right?
You know, the economics, the theatre, the business model.
Kim Tan: (42:51)
Yeah. And I think it’s also changed because now it's no longer a question of fiscal viability. It is, you know that, it’s also a question of artistic kind of worth and integrity. And also knowing now that we have these resources, do we have the responsibility to make something of it, to make it bigger, to scale up, to reach more people, to try to create new things in different ways, to make a different impact, because we know we've made an impact.
Can we make more of it? Can we make a different kind of impact on a different group we haven't reached before? So like now we are trying to give out scholarships to people to try and reach more underprivileged people because we realized there was a blind spot for us. We didn't realize until fairly recently, but now we have the resources.
Can we do that? And to be honest, right now, I don't know if we've made a positive impact yet. We've given out a few. Will it last? We don't know. So we'll keep doing that for a while. We will try and study it and understand more. And then we are wondering what's next year going to be like and things open up again.
Can we reach even more people? Can we use our resources with the best return given where we are? And I think there is a responsibility like if we are stable, we don't just keep where we are. We want that progress. We want to get to improve that influence, get that resilience and creativity in Singapore to new levels.
Jeremy Au: (44:11)
What's interesting is that you seem to be like creating new challenges for yourself right? Or at least reinventing the next phase for yourself, at least in this stage, right? Because you're reinventing yourself as a performer. You reinvent yourself as a founder. You reinvented yourself as a self-described enabler. And now are you talking about it in terms of artistic integrity and, you know, improving artistic representation.
So if, you know, wrapping things up here, if you had a time and you entered that cardboard box and then you travel back in time to yourself in university before you went into your first improv class. What advice would you give yourself or how would you hang out with yourself back then?
Kim Tan: (45:02)
That's a great question. I think I would want to tell myself to be less afraid. I'm a very risk averse person, that’s the way I was brought up and the first few years, we were going super cautiously, step by step by step. I would probably want to bring on some investors and partners with different skill sets from mine just so that we could grow it in different ways beyond what we were.
Me and Hazel originally capable of…when you are talking about two people and we are talking. Everything is labor intensive. We're doing everything manually by hand. Sure. Sustainable. Yeah. But if you had another two people on our team with different skill set, maybe a marketing person, then maybe someone else who is able to reach out to corporates a little bit more to organizational development so that we can really build that out faster and more aggressively. Then that base becomes, you know, that has a knock on effect compounds over time. And I think where we are now, we could have done this in a different way, a different approach, or you could have been here maybe three or four years ago. Honestly, I would just give myself advice like that now.
Hey, I should just get a couple of people in right now who are better at that than I am or better than who my team are now. And so we can in two years time, we will be at a level where if we grew organically, we would be in line of six years, but we could do that now. So yeah, I don't really need a time machine just telling myself that right now.
Jeremy Au: (46:22)
To both time machine to yourself right now and a time machine back in time as well. So twice. Awesome, Kim, I’ll love to kind of paraphrase the three big themes that I got from this discussion
The first of all, thank you so much for sharing about the highs of improv in so many different facets. I love how you describe the high of improv, not necessarily when you first took improv, like you said, but when it first click for you in terms of flow states, when time flew by so cleanly for you and when everything just flew by on stage. And yet you also described a high of being in improv and seeing people learning improv and flourishing on stage and gaining self confidence in their own voice, and also the high of seeing other people step up in their own role in the improv community as their own voice, as their own coach, as their own shows. So, I love that description of the highs of improv in so many different ways and so many different years.
The second of course, thank you also for sharing about the realities of being a performer versus a founder versus an enabler. I loved what you said about what drove you to be a performer in the early days and what was the skill gap slash things you had to learn in order to become the founder of the Improv company and working alongside Hazel to bootstrap that, what it was like, and that wooden floor where you couldn't jump otherwise you’d disturb your downstairs neighbour as well as I think the reality now of being an enabler where the ecosystem is larger and you're able to have resources to push on forward and how you now have the challenge of staying connected still to the pulse to the ground by being able to volunteer as a performer at your own shows, while also keeping to push for artistic integrity and more representation by the underprivileged in Singapore for improv.
And lastly, thank you for at least giving us a little window into like what I call society spaces and windows around artistic dynamics and movements. I think it's an interesting dynamic and tradeoffs and it's a moving fluid currents between I think, like I said, public good, the government’s understanding and learning as well as improv as a new art form as well as, like you said, the individual performer stewardship around our own responsibilities versus the future generations of kids learning improv and what they get to experience.
And there's a lot of fluidity there. And I guess our big hope is that we enjoy improv right now as performers and audience members and as participants. And in 10 to 20 or 30 years, we get to enjoy the next generation of improv performers and coaches, make us laugh our asses off.
Kim Tan: (49:15)
Actually, just to just to add on to that a little bit, I think looking forward to my deathbed, not looking forward in the sense I want to die. If I were to die happy would to be to see that Singapore as we've done enough to infuse that culture with the kind of resilience and the positive looking out for each other.
The idea in improv is you want to make your partner look good and in Singapore to lift each other up beyond just the day to day existence of grinding of the survival, the idea of survival, you know, the narrative myth that we've had fed to us in social studies, we can lift each other. We don't want to just coexist.
We want to be brothers and sisters on this stage of life right where if you are doing great, let me help you out. Let me let me acclaim you where that is needed or what is deserved and, in turn, you do the same for me. Culture change, for us would be like the Holy Grail. Like that's us winning the game.
If Singapore's culture can change one way that is where making your partner look good can be a part of our fabric where we don't really necessarily see that immediately right now where there’s competition and whatnot. But we can we compete in a way that is more than just us.
Jeremy Au: (50:26)
I love that so much. Kim, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Kim Tan: (50:30)
Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun. Thank you so much.