Interview: The pioneers of improv

14 May 2021

Karin Krug and Andreas Wolf founded the fastfood Theater while still students of the Theater Studies program at LMU.

© Volker Derlath

Karin Krug and Andreas Wolf have been the driving forces shaping improvisational theater in Germany for the past 30 years. They founded the fastfood Theater while still students of the Theater Studies program at LMU. The action on the stage is created spontaneously in response to shout-outs from the audience. The concept has been so successful that the two now not only teach students, but also coach executives. Even the coronavirus could only briefly stop these two stars of improv.

You two are improvisation artists. What would be a good opening question for this interview?

Karin Krug: (laughs) How two humanities students managed to set up a professional improv theater group ...

Andreas Wolf: ... when all the spin-offs usually come from the natural sciences.

Are you always so quick on the comeback?

Krug: No, even we are sometimes speechless. That’s part of life and it’s also healthy—whether on the stage or in your private life.

Wolf: For us, it’s more about spontaneity than a verbal attack and counterattack situation. We try to turn everything someone says into something constructive.

So how did two humanities students manage to start a theater company, then?

Krug: Improv was almost unheard of when we were students. But our lecturer Christoph Balme, who now holds the chair in theater studies at LMU, offered it as a seminar. We loved it from the start; improv gave us all so much new inspiration.

Wolf: We were so energized that we founded our own theater group together with other students after the seminar. After our debut on the LMU studio stage, we performed as fastfood Theater at Munich’s Heppel & Ettlich Theater. That was 30 years ago now.

Since then, your theater has done over 4,000 performances in Munich and abroad. Would you call yourselves the inventors of improv in Germany?

Wolf: We didn’t invent it, but we shaped it. I wrote the first ever German master’s thesis on the subject in 1994. The influences were coming mainly from the English-speaking world then. A lot of the things we developed went on to be adopted by other improv groups.

Krug: We are the most copied (laughs). There’s been a lot of momentum in the last five or six years, but we were the pioneers. And still are. The pandemic has thrown us back into pioneer status.

The coronavirus crisis will have called for a lot of improvisation on your part.

Krug: It did. I went from having plenty of work to nothing overnight. My husband is a tour guide, it was the same for him. I was also worried about the artists who’d already been engaged, as well as our permanent staff. Then — and this is what you learn in improv — I went into crisis mode. After two weeks of fear, anger and self-doubt, I thought “what if the crisis were an opportunity and we created something new out of it?”. So we called our online improv theater “Die Kunst der Stunde” (The Art of Now). And it actually works just as well as it does on stage in front of an audience.

Andreas, you have also been teaching improvisation and mask work at the Bavarian Theater Academy since 2003. What is the situation around improv in theater studies as taught at universities?

Wolf: In the academic context, improv is seen primarily as an element of applied theater. The stand-alone theoretical value of improvisation is only occasionally evident in individual students’ bachelor’s and master’s theses. Outside of theater studies, however, the value of improvisation has long been recognized. For example, I teach financial accounting students at Munich University of Applied Sciences how to present figures and developments in a way that management can understand.

Krug: And I’m frequently called in to give seminars at the universities in Munich or Augsburg. The aim is to teach students how to hone their own spontaneity, flexibility and communication skills. The students are always very enthusiastic afterwards. These are skills that have sadly been completely neglected in schools up to now.

More and more companies are noticing this, too. You two are regularly booked for training and coaching sessions. What can managers and employees learn from these sessions?

Wolf: How to deal with change. If they stop clinging on to fixed structures, they can go through their working lives with more flexibility and resilience. Also, a lot of things in companies run along a predefined pathway. And if employees don’t get where they want to go, they have a problem. With our coaching, people can learn how to reach their goals differently by applying creative skills.

Krug: Regardless of whether I’m in a company or on a stage, I have to trust myself or trust the others. But the structures in German companies are there to avoid any mistakes being made—because they don’t trust the staff to do that. If we don’t trust ourselves as human beings, we’ll achieve nothing.

Be honest now: Despite your skills and all your routine, are you sometimes afraid you might blank out on stage?

Krug: I can always think of something. And if not, I just start with nothing. If I panicked, I would be starting the scene in a panic. But what a lot of improv groups struggle with is the fact that you’re showing your inner self when you improvise. It takes a lot of routine to not take it personally when the audience attacks your on-stage persona. Without this professional attitude, it won’t work. Many improv groups have broken up for this very reason.

Is there a performance that particularly sticks in your memory?

Wolf: Yes, it was a company Christmas party at the Munich Schlachthof. The problem was, the management had just announced the layoff of half of the workforce. We just stopped after a few minutes because no one was listening.

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