Josie Lawrence is one of the original pioneers of UK improvisation. Many people know her from Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but she’s also been improvising with The Comedy Store Players for more than 30 years. Cariad Lloyd talks to her about her Odd Job.
As well as performing with the RSC, starring in EastEnders, being a central player in Channel 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and a Comedy Store Player for more than 30 years, Josie Lawrence is also a generally brilliant bird. But how does making things up become your living?
What did you want to be as a child?
Definitely an actress. I’m from a working-class family in the Midlands and there were absolutely no theatrical people in my family, but for some reason that’s all I wanted to do.
My brother and sister are twins and 10 years older than me, so I played by myself a lot. I used to open the front door every morning and then shut it and my Mum couldn’t understand why. Then they realised I was letting my imaginary friend in.
I was doing impro, but using the dressing-up box. It was like a treasure chest to me and I used to pick clothes out and just create stuff. When I was 16, I auditioned for the Barlow Players, an amateur dramatics company, which I think is a great starting point for anyone who wants to get into acting.
How did you become an improviser?
I was asked to audition for a play. Denise Black was playing the lead and her husband was providing the music. But they phoned my agent and said I hadn’t got the part. I remember going back home and crying, saying, “I won’t work again!” because after every single job when you’re starting out, it’s waitressing and thinking you’ll never work again.
But they rang back and asked me to be in the ensemble – that’s where I met Denise and her husband, Paul, and Kate McKenzie. They were already on the alternative comedy circuit of the 1980s.
That’s how I was introduced to the alternative circuit, but because of Whose Line, a lot of people think it was through standup. I’d see people like Jenny Eclair and Jo Brand doing it and I thought they were so funny but I was too shy to do that, I liked being part of a team.
“I think it’s a great sadness in the world that adults stop playing – and I think it’s lovely that we in the impro world don’t.”
I did a few guest spots with The Comedy Store Players, and I just knew I loved it but I didn’t know how I did it. Then Paul Merton got a cold while he was up in Edinburgh doing the CSP and had to pull out. I was directing a show up there, so I took over from him. If Paul hadn’t got that cold I don’t think I’d have been a Comedy Store Player.
About a year and a half later, Dan Patterson (Whose Line producer) said he was doing a thing for Channel 4. Paul and I went to the audition – we thought it was a late night Channel 4 thing that nobody would see. And it just took off. I remember reading a review in Time Out that said: “Josie Lawrence for Prime Minister.” I’d never seen my name like that in the TV listings.
I never thought that impro, which had been such a casual thing, would take off. To me it was a fun thing I did while I wasn’t doing acting, whereas now it has a life of its own – it’s wonderful.
How would you describe what you do?
Impro is a gift for me, because at my age (56), I can still play like a child and that’s what I love about it. Really crap things can happen during the week and I go to the Comedy Store and am just elated by it all. I think it’s a great sadness in the world that adults stop playing – and I think it’s lovely that we in the impro world don’t.
Do you think being a woman has affected your work in any way?
I think I’ve had to hold my own more among some guys. But the best improvisers, the ones I love working with that are men, do the important thing, which is listen.
It’s when you’re pushed to the side or made to feel invisible and not have a voice – I think the wrong kind of male improviser will do that to you, the right improviser won’t.
What I love now is there are so many fabulously strong women out there that improvise. I’m working with you [Cariad], Pippa Evans and Ruth Bratt on a new improvised show called, The Glenda J Collective, which is so much fun. So I’m glad I don’t have to be a token anymore, but I never really felt like that, to tell you the truth.
What do you think is the best thing about your job?
Comedy Store Players is the best part-time job in the world. I go there, I laugh with my friends, I am absolutely blessed.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to be an improviser?
Go and see everything there is, if you can. But if you’re living in a small town, there are lots of great people to watch on YouTube, lots of great books to read and I also think find like-minded friends and never ever go onto that stage thinking I’m going to be funny.
Whether you’re an improviser or an actor, it’s a hard profession and it never stops being hard. I had a great time in the 90s with jobs being thrown at me and now I’ve got older, it’s become a little more difficult. But I still have that same passion.
“I remember reading a review in Time Out that said: ‘Josie Lawrence for Prime Minister.’ I’d never seen my name like that in the TV listings.”
If you want to get into it now you have to feel that it’s a vocation rather than just a job. You can get so many thwacks in this profession, but if you think, “I don’t care about those thwacks; I’m going to carry on,” then that’s a great mentality to have.
Has anyone ever given you a great piece of advice?
I went to see Beryl Reid once – she’s one of my heroines – she was a fantastic standup and character actress. I had the good fortune of working with Siân Phillips who knew her, and she took me to see her in a lovely place called Honeypot Cottage. She was in her 70s by then; she had a lovely crocheted black cape on and red lipstick.
She told me how at 16 she’d run off and done standup at the Liverpool Empire and her brother followed her and stood at the side of the stage saying, “Come home!” and she wouldn’t even though the audience were taking no notice of her. She said, “I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t ever ever give up”. I think that’s the best advice I can give.
You can see Josie and the other Comedy Store Players every Wednesday and Sunday at The Comedy Store in London’s West End. For details see their website: www.comedystoreplayers.com
Cariad can be seen in Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel, which is currently touring the UK.4700 Views
Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad