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'We bring comedy to the tough things expats deal with'

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All photos: Eduardo De Los Santos
06:36 CET+01:00
Josh Lenn, originally from San Francisco, has been working in improvised comedy in Sweden for over seven years. He tells The Local how expat life is just like improvisation.

How long have you been working in comedy, and how did it all start?

I moved to Sweden seven and a half years ago, having worked as an actor in the US and I found a theatre in Sweden that had an improv festival. I went to some of the workshops and one of the theatre owners offered me the opportunity to teach there, so in autumn 2008 I began teaching improv in English. The class grew and became a small community. I do other kinds of acting too, but this is my passion.

In 2012, we created a show called Lost in Translation. It’s been running for four years and has been a big success, attracting people from all over the world. I started teaching weekly drop-in classes and taught improv to over 200 people – mostly in the international community – which was so exciting because it was on a bigger scale than previously, and people were really enjoying it. I wanted to start my own theatre so I partnered with an actor, Katarina, and we created International Theater Stockholm in March 2014.

Why do you think improvisation has proved so popular with expats in Sweden?

Well, moving to a new country is very similar to performing improv! You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know the characters – there’s no script.

For me, moving here was a big challenge and I experienced some tough times, especially in the beginning; you can feel really lonely. I didn’t have a community to lean on or a space where I felt I could be myself. I was craving a place where I could express myself and be a part of something, so I started creating it.

Something which has been great to see is that so who many students have come to the classes are trying to figure out when they’ll be able to leave Sweden when they first arrive, but after a few months, leaving is the furthest thing from their mind. Improv gives them a way to be themselves.

As well as the classes, we offer shows and lots of people contribute in different ways. We have nine or ten interns involved in stage production and marketing – it’s for anyone.

So do you find that turning the difficult aspects of moving abroad into a joke can be therapeutic for foreigners?

Extremely therapeutic! I meet a lot of people who resist Sweden or resist the differences that they face here. I even did that myself at points in my journey. Improv teaches you how to say yes and how to accept things, which helps you to embrace change and become much less judgmental. If you resist change and resist Sweden, you suffer, but if you accept it, it becomes an adventure. So improv can be extremely valuable in that respect.

We bring comedy to the tough things we deal with and celebrate the differences in an entertaining way which makes them feel less intimidating. So many people come out and do say it’s like a therapy session.

But if nothing is planned, what happens when things go wrong?

That’s actually my favourite thing about improv. We look at mistakes as gifts, we don’t see failure as a problem but as an opportunity. We fail gloriously! And that attitude is fantastic for life.

A lot of people get stage fright before a presentation or feel stupid speaking Swedish, but when you learn to celebrate failure in improv and see it is an opportunity, you become less afraid of taking big risks in other arenas.

Do you notice differences between people of different nationalities and their attitudes to comedy?

Our audiences and classes are so diverse; in a class of 14 students there could be 12 different nationalities. We get lots of native Swedes too, and the mix opens up a lot of comedic potential! Improv is a team sport so you’re really open to the diversity of the group, and all the different nationalities bring different kinds of material which widens the opportunity for humour.

Of course, in comedy you’re always walking a line between the potential to offend people. You just have to be respectful and do it in a loving way. Improv is very different from stand-up. You learn to commit to the moment and try to play the truth of a situation rather than playing it for laughs, and often the truth is what’s hilarious.

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What qualities does someone need to be good at improv?

I work with a lot of companies and students and different kinds of people and so many people I work with are scared because they think  ‘I need to be funny, creative, original’ and they think they’re none of those things, they start judging themselves. When you do improv, you have to be really obvious and really mediocre!

Once you learn the fundamentals, before you know it, you’re going on amazing adventures. You get past thinking and critiquing the words coming out of your and your partners’ mouths, we all have endless creativity. Once you get there it’s the best feeling in the world because we all have that creativity available. It’s wonderful to see people get rid of that, break through – but sometimes your thinking mind comes back to haunt you.

What shows and classes are you offering at the moment?

Lost in Translation is still running two or three times a month, and we have a show called Mission Improvible, an improvised spy thriller, which will have its spring premiere on March 4th. We also run courses and drop-in classes, and every other week, we host an improv comedy club in the basement of Café String. 

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