Steen Raskopoulos and his improv kingdom

If having King Joffrey from Game of Thrones in his audience wasn't surreal enough, 2018 will see Steen Raskopoulos star alongside Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver

Ever since Steen Raskopoulos received a Barry Award nomination for Best Show at the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Greek Australian comedy improv performer’s star has risen.

After that accolade, Raskopoulos received an invitation to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his solo show saw him nominated in the Best Newcomer category.

That presented Raskopoulos with an opportunity to star in his own BBC TV show and has led to further new and exciting performance opportunities. These include playing sold-out shows at the Melbourne and Sydney International Comedy Festivals, including televised appearances at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne’s Palladium at Crown.

Also packing them in is the Bear Pack show. At a packed Enmore theatre in Sydney, Neos Kosmos experienced Raskopoulos and improv partner Carlo Ritchie perform their 60-minute show of improvised storytelling.

It is much like a play but, in this setting, it is the audience that sets the parameters by providing a location, a word, and a genre while the characters and plot are improvised on the night. Unlike his solo comedy performances, Raskopoulos revealed this show is not always about the laughs.

“I was taught that truth in comedy is always the best and that is where you get your best laughs from,” he told Neos Kosmos at an inner west Sydney cafe.

“There are different styles of improv. You can have your Whose Line Is It Anyway? which is made up of very quick jokes where you make people laugh minute to minute. But the long form stuff we do in Bear Pack is us drawing out more character and reaching the plots in the stories. So, if you are trying to be funny all the time, the audience gets very tired.

“Comedy is like a pressure valve so if you keep it tight and keep tightening it, you create silence, tension, and emotion. Then the audience feels like this is getting a bit uncomfortable now, we want to laugh. Then when you do hit the trigger, and cut away to a different scene, you get that big reaction.
“So, I like that style of mixed emotion and connecting with Carlo.”

Raskopoulos began in sketch comedy and improv at Sydney University studying for a Bachelor of Arts. Several years after graduating he started performing Bear Pack. As audiences continued to grow the duo moved from their intimate Sydney University venue to the larger Redfern-based setting of Giant Dwarf – previously Cleveland Street Theatre – space founded by comedy group The Chaser.

The last couple of years has seen Bear Pack perform to sold-out audiences in Australia and Scotland but one night stands out amongst all others.
“In Edinburgh this year Jack Gleason came along to watch one of our shows,” Raskopoulos says.

“So, Jack Gleason plays King Joffrey in Game of Thrones and when I saw him I thought ‘that kid looks familiar.’ After the show the ticketing lady told us, ‘King Joffrey was raving about how much he loved your show.’

“I thought, ‘that’s cool, it would be nice to meet him’, and then he came again the next night and in the Q & A we do towards the end of our show he asked a question. Then I thought, ‘this is weird, man’. He saw Carlos after our show and told him that he really wanted to see us again, but he couldn’t because he had tickets to another show.”

Raskopoulos’ output over the last two years has been remarkable, performing 58 shows in 27 days in both 2016 and 2017. In Australia, he performed both solo shows and Bear Pack and added another show with comedian Hamish Blake. Raskopoulos says his penchant for working hard was passed down through his family.

“My pappou came to Australia with literally nothing,” he says. “He set up a few businesses and learnt how to speak the language and assimilated into Australian culture and that work ethic stuck with me.

“From the ages of nine to 16, during every school holidays, Monday to Friday, my dad used to get me up at 4.30 am to work at our commercial laundry business. This is what he did with all the kids except for my younger sister and it was the best thing because I hated it. I hated doing it at the time because all my mates were going to movies and beaches in the school holidays and I would be too tired to do anything else because by the time I got home I went straight to bed.

“But it was the best thing. It instilled a work ethic and a passion that even though I didn’t want to do this it made me ask ‘what are you going to do?’ So, when I started doing improv I thought if I am going to do this thing, then I am going to have to work as hard to do that.”

Steen’s father is former Socceroos and Sydney Olympic legend Peter Raskopoulos and he says NSL diehards always enquire why he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Every old Greek man has asked me that question,” he replies.

“When dad was with Sydney Olympic when I was aged 13 to 15 I was always around that team environment and I liked that vibe and that atmosphere. Which is why I like improv and why I feel it suited me so well because it’s very much a team environment; because if I don’t turn up then I let you down.
“I also like that collaboration aspect of it. Even in my solo shows I use the audience. I love that spontaneity because they are coming into it not knowing what is happening and I am getting them up and involving them in my set.”

Along with performing on stage, Raskopoulos also has a number of impressive TV credits to his name. These include staring in BBC Three’s Top Coppers and being a cast member of the Australian version of Whose Line is it Anyway?

Remarkably, the upward trajectory is set to continue next year when Raskopoulos will share a TV screen with one of Australia’s greatest actors – Oscar-nominated and AACTA and Logie Award winner Jackie Weaver.

“I’ll be on a show on the ABC called Squinters and it also has Tim Minchin,” he says.

“It’s a comedy/drama. It’s all set in cars and all the cast are all working for this same company and driving. It’s about the conversations we have before and after work. It will be out early next year.”

With all the work Raskopoulos has put in over the years you’d think he would be a man satisfied with his output, but the 30-year-old says he can still do more.

“I see people working harder than me and people gigging way more than me,” he says.

“That is what I need to do. If they are doing that, I need to be doing more and more. Especially in the UK. I see a lot of my friends doing a lot of TV, live stuff, and touring.

“At the moment I’m writing my next live show and getting out of my comfort zone writing a completely different style of show. I’m nervous about it, but also excited about the prospects.”

All of these achievements and opportunities have Raskopoulos dreaming big and he hopes that 2018 will see him take the next step which includes trying to crack the US.

“I moved to London in October and I’ve got some shows in the works with a few TV production companies,” he says.

“I will also be doing a lot more touring. I’ve been invited to perform in Wales and Ireland and another festival in London. I will be doing a lot more Bear Pack at festivals and we’ve been invited to do a lot more shows overseas, including the US.”

Raskopoulos added, “But the dream? For me to be able to write and cast my mates and do a TV show or a feature film would be the ideal for me. If I can have a career that fits into that, that sees me starting out in sketch comedy and then moving towards more feature films, that would be the goal.

“I never wanted to be famous, I just want to be successful. If I am working consistently and performing and still getting nice crowds and reviews, I’ll keep at it. If people are coming to watch us at Enmore and Giant Dwarf and if I am still invited to perform overseas and people are still interested in me pitching TV ideas, I guess that means I am doing something right.”