TALKING WITH MYSELF! Daniel Allan – New Zealand

Published by ShawnKinley on

two brown lama

Daniel Allan -
Improvisation New Zealand

TALKING WITH MYSELF  is a series of self-interviews with an improviser you might want to meet one day. Today’s guest is Daniel Allan.  From one of the most beautiful countries in the world, Daniel Allan talks to Daniel Allan about improvisation in New Zealand, the education system, doing a masters project on IMPROVISATION and a little bit about the journey to a committed life of spontaneous exploration.

Hi, this is Dan Allan and I’m here profiling Dan Allan for The Improvisation School Newsletter.
DAN: So to kick us off Dan, can you tell us a about the New Zealand improv scene?
DAN: Sure! As with a lot of things, we definitely punch above our weight in the number and quality of groups for a small country. 
Following Australia’s lead, we started with Theatresports, or at least a version of it, spreading like wildfire in the late 80s. I wrote an article about that (here).  This was all before Improvisers had set up the ITI to protect Keith’s formats (convincing Keith himself not to throw Theatresports into the public domain), and some of the key figures here were Canadian immigrants, not actually from Loose Moose, but Vancouver. 
Michael Robinson convinced Christchurch’s professional theatre, The Court, to set up an improv company called the Court Jesters. Lori Dungey helped to set up a group that became The Improvisors in Wellington, and then her and her partner of the time Jim McLarty set up ConArtists in Auckland. These three groups are all still running 30 years later, and as far as I know still delivering Theatresports, which has mostly boiled down to a secondary schools competition.
There’s a tonne of groups, especially in Auckland and Wellington working in a range of styles. I had better not try to list them all, for fear of recrimination! 
One thing that really helped diversify the number and nature of groups, and the confidence to explore formats and styles, was the NZIF which started in about 2009. It is in Wellington, runs for a week and attracts a good number of international guests. An Auckland fest has also started and both have good numbers of Australian improvisors coming over, which really strengthens those ties. There is no such thing as rivalry in Trans-tasman relations, we love our Aussie improv friends!
DAN: And, who are you in all this?
DAN: I am a pakeha guy born and bred in Aotearoa New Zealand and I have a wonderful wife named Lisa. 
My ancestors sailed here, mostly from Ireland and Scotland in the mid 19th century and landed in Whakaraupō (Lyttelton Harbour near Ōtautahi Christchurch) and Golden Bay near Whakatū Nelson. I seem to have taken my cue from my ancestors because I have lived in both these places too. 
I grew up in Christchurch, and loved it, doing lots of theatre and improv with The Court Jesters, and somewhere along the way became a drama teacher. Currently, I am living with my brother Ben in Dunedin, in the far south of the country, where both Lis and I are MFA candidates.



DAN: Master of Fine Arts.

DAN: Sounds serious!

DAN: Yeah, I guess so. I was a terrible student the first time around and I never thought I would do post-graduate study after I finished my teaching diploma way back in 2006. But the pandemic made us take stock of our lives. Lis and I have done a lot of drama, together and separately, but we didn’t have much official to show for it. We thought that as a next step we should get some qualification in order to become serious contenders to teach adults drama, maybe open our own institution one day.


DAN:  High School teaching not doing it for you anymore?

DAN: I loved my students, and it can be highly rewarding, but I am not patient enough to operate within systems that I think are doing a disservice to our young people and to the whole country as a result.
DAN: Is it really that bad?

DAN:  Oh you know, competing for senior students’ time, trying to squeeze meaningful art into three and a half hours a week, an assessment system that monopolises everyone’s attention and turns education into a box ticking exercise, the silo-ing and commodification of subjects to spit out drones for the capitalist engine, you know, just the usual!

DAN: Yeesh, moving right along! You chose to do the MFA in improv. Who knew that was possible in New Zealand?

DAN: Yeah,  it hadn’t even crossed my mind that it was an option until we looked into where we would study. We didn’t really see ourselves in the big smoke of Auckland, Canterbury University’s theatre department is defunct, Wellington had a Masters of Creative Practice which we’d heard mixed things about, but University of Otago in Dunedin offered both MFAs and MAs in Theatre. Not only that, but improvisation is an undergraduate paper here, taught by the lovely Hilary Halba and Claire Adams. 

I zoomed with the Uni and said that my biggest strength is probably improv, and Hilary was very encouraging of that. Eventually, after a bridging course in the form on an Honours paper, Hilary and Ryan Hartigan, who is also an experienced improvisor, became my supervisors. I ended up tutoring the undergraduate improv paper this year too, so that was a nice bonus.

DAN: It sounds perfect!
DAN: Sort of! It’s nice to be with my brother again, and Dunedin is a cool town.
DAN: Why improv over other theatre forms?

DAN: It’s what I had done my ’10 000  hours’ in. But also, I really wanted to interrogate the form and find a better way. I wanted to put time into something that could be a calling card for me, but also something that might genuinely help the improv community.

 I had fallen in love with Theatresports from a really young age and done some form of improv ever since, but I was letting things drift, really. I had been unfaithful, acting in things like Shakespeares and Musicals. The former had me working in a mode of deep textual analysis and savouring every poetic word of a script, the latter had emotional wow-moments and production qualities. Both left the audience besotted. 

Dipping back into improv, it seemed casual, it’s outcomes unclear, its roles undefined, it’s community filled with either hobbyists who were happy just to be learning the skill of it, or professional groups that had become complacent and content to roll out risk-free formats. 

I knew deep down that improv could be incredible, but nobody seemed to be really pushing the form, and I was adrift from the sorts of group camaraderie and leadership that I had enjoyed in the past, the momentum of a really solid group. 

I made a bit of a stir when on a panel at NZIF…

DAN: That’s the New Zealand Improv Festival?

DAN: … correct, a couple of years ago I put to the audience that compared to other theatre forms, improv was ‘mediocre by nature.’ I’m ashamed to say there’ll be a recording of it somewhere. It was only half a thought, and I couldn’t even really justify it in the moment, especially when it was jumped on by a room full of improv practitioners.

In hindsight I think I was questioning whether the form of improv was limited. Limited by its modest aims, its winky, wonky acting, its lack of grandeur, its muddly, ungoverned throng of advice and expertise, and a lack of anyone, in New Zealand at least, challenging what improv could be, or wanting anything more from it than a few chuckles. I wanted more from improv. It was either that, or break up with it.

DAN: Well I’m glad to see you’re sticking with improv!

DAN: Oh I am in it for the long haul now, for sure, doubling down and locked in an MFA death grip!
DAN: So what is the gist of this MFA?

DAN: It’s working title is The Coaching Codes, and it is a dramaturgical approach to improv, inspired by the Viewpoints, where actionable codes are used to activate or explore awarenesses. 

Working in this way, direction and feedback can become shared and open to the whole group, rather than a single coach or director, and everyone can coach and direct everyone and prepare shows using the same terminology.

 The codes will be familiar to people, things like ‘Advance’ and ‘Repeat’ as they are based on existing principles, but the point of difference is that they are descriptive and actionable as opposed to critical. They are all dos, as opposed to don’ts. 

I have created what I hope is a comprehensive system and categorised them under three main responsibility areas: Acting, Writing and Directing, because I have realised through my study that if an improvisor is expected to be all three of those things then we should coach all three of those things.

DAN:  I am looking forward to reading the finished product!
DAN: Not as much as I am!
DAN: Oh, I’d say the exact same amount.
DAN: I see what you did there.
Ngā mihi,
Daniel Allan


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