We wanted to know more about the improv scene in Shenzhen, so we spoke with Steven Grunthal, a Shenzhen resident and member of two improv groups called ZIP and Domesticated Humans.
NowSZ: Hi Steven. Thank you for joining us! So let’s start with the basics. What is improv?
Steven: Improv is improvised acting. It’s a play that doesn’t have a script. We make up every line of the play on the spot, based on ideas we get from the audience. Until the audience gives us an idea, we have no idea what the topic will be, who the characters will be, or what will happen. Everything comes from the idea the audience gives us, and we make everything else up in real time.
NowSZ: Is it like stand-up comedy?
Steven: So the similarity is that we’re all performing on the stage to have a good time and share a few laughs with the audience. The difference is that stand-up comedy is usually one person telling jokes that they made up and wrote down in advance. Whereas improv is a group of people acting out a story that they make up on the spot. A few members of Shenzhen’s improv community also do stand-up sometimes. I myself enjoy watching some of Shenzhen’s great stand-up comics perform, but I don’t do stand-up myself.
NowSZ: How can you put on a play if you don’t know in advance what the topic will be? Don’t you need costumes for the characters and props and scenery?
Steven: All improvised. Our bodies are the costumes. We use mime to create imaginary props. We paint the scenery with our words. The audience goes along with it because they want to believe in the reality of the scene that’s coming to life just as much as we do. The only thing on the stage when we start is a few chairs.
NowSZ: How many groups do improv in Shenzhen?
Steven: There are currently five teams that I know of in Shenzhen. ZIP started in 2016 and does short form improv in English. Domesticated Humans started in 2018 and does long form improv, also in English. FARSOME IMPROV started in 2014 and does short form improv in Chinese. Couch Potatoes started in 2020 and does playback theater in English. Blender, or “Hun” in Chinese, has just started this year  and does playback theater in Chinese.
NowSZ: So ZIP was the first group to do improv in Shenzhen?
Steven: Actually, I was part of a team called Planet Factory that formed in 2012 and did shows all through 2013 in OCT Loft and at the Hong Kong Improv Festival. I couldn’t tell you if there was any improv in Shenzhen before that because I only moved here in 2012.
NowSZ: So you took a break from it after 2013?
Steven: Kind of. I was still teaching and participating in workshops during that period, both for improv and for scripted acting. An amazingly talented writer/director/filmmaker named Tre Tennyson taught acting classes and directed a play and a film that I acted in. That was through a group called Shenzhen Film & Acting, and it was all scripted plays and films, not improv. I enjoy doing both. I grew up doing plays in high school and college.
NowSZ: So what is the difference between all the different kinds of improv you mentioned earlier?
Steven: ZIP does short form improv. This involves short, unrelated scenes, usually about five minutes each. We call these “games” because they usually have some funny rules, like maybe the improvisers can only speak in questions. This is like the TV show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Domesticated Humans does long form improv, which is more like a one-act play, with various interrelated scenes. From a single word (suggested by the audience) we invent a variety of different characters, scenes and situations which eventually weave together into a single story line.
Couch Potatoes and Blender do Playback Theater, which is a gripping emotional experience. The host interviews members of the audience about experiences they have had in their lives, and then the improvisers reenact those experiences, using live music, language, shadow theater and physical expression. This form actually uses props in the form of colored scarves to intensify the performance. It’s very therapeutic and it stimulates your emotions in a really exciting way!
NowSZ: How can people get involved?
Steven: On most Saturday evenings at 8 pm, one of the groups I mentioned is doing a show. To see Domesticated Humans on June 25 or ZIP on July 23, add JuanaChen_ on WeChat. To see Couch Potatoes perform, add qinghuadaxuemia on WeChat. To see Blender, add YouYiSi-Couple on WeChat. To see FARSOME IMPROV, add Kevinshushu on WeChat. For anybody who is interested in performing with one of these awesome groups, you should add cch_yr on WeChat. That’s Chris. He’s in all of these groups except for FARSOME IMPROV, and he can tell you which one would be most appropriate for you to audition for. He also does improv workshops through his label, YouYisi. Couch Potatoes and Blender were both born out of those workshops. Language and lack of experience are not necessarily a problem if you’re looking to get involved. Or to participate in Couch Potatoes’ beginner workshops on Mondays add anna_pelican on WeChat. Also, if you’re a singer-songwriter and would like to perform an original song at an improv show, please contact stevengrunthal on wechat.
NowSZ: Oh, cool! Do you have musical performances too?
Steven: Yup! Zip and Domesticated Humans have been really fortunate to have some of Shenzhen’s super-talented songwriters perform at our shows. We listen to their amazing original songs, interview the musician, and then improvise a scene based on whatever interesting ideas come up in the song or interview. Most recently, we featured an amazing singer named Addie. She’s got an awesome band called SAYES which performs at Brew. Chris is also a really talented musician. He plays piano, violin and a variety of other instruments when he performs with Couch Potatoes and Blender.
NowSZ: Wow! So much talent!
Steven: For sure. There are some talented people in Shenzhen! I’m lucky I get to play with them!
NowSZ: We’re lucky we got to talk with you! Thank you so much!