Behind The Improv: John Cremer
I’m delighted to be introducing a new feature to my site, a series of interviews with many of the improvisors I have met over of the years, from those that influenced me to those I have performed or worked with.
I’m delighted to have John Cremer of The Maydays in for the debut interview. While John wasn’t my first improv teacher, he certainly was the most influential, both directly and indirectly. Directly via training and workshops (with John and The Maydays) and indirectly through the guest teachers The Maydays have brought to Europe from the US. I have also had the privilege of performing alongside John on a number of occasions.
Thanks for making time in your busy schedule for me today John! How did you get into Improv?
I saw a show in the States in Phoenix, Arizona in 1992. I was just amazed by it. At the end of the show they said we teach classes. So I started taking classes just for the fun of it, because I was so inspired by what I had seen happen on the stage. And then after enough classes, they invited me to be in a show. Once I did the show and got my first big laugh, that was it. I was hooked.
Where did you go from there?
I ended up being in every single show I could, I did 2 shows every weekend. I started teaching a group of teenagers how to improvise and then directing shows that they were in. I was then approached by Playback Theatre Company, an improvised theatre company. I spent a couple of years with them and we worked with a huge range of clients. From working with runaway teenagers in a shelter in a gritty party of Phoenix to putting on shows for big companies.
How did you find working with troubled teenagers through improv?
As you know, I have some fairly strong views on education. To me, the underlying message when you are teaching people initially is “just be yourself”. Its impossible to do it wrong and you are not going to be punished or shamed if you do or say something that is not perfect. Teenagers respond very quickly to that and they also test the boundaries, checking out with yourself if you mean that, that you are ok with them messing up. And once they realise that thats fine, then their enthusiasm is just unleashed. I love that.
Tell me how The Maydays came about?
The Maydays came about because I came back to the UK in 2001 and I decided I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t love. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a career plan but I just wanted to only do things I loved. I ended up on a year long training program, and part of that program was that once a month we would have a weekend retreat and we would split into groups to do some theatre. Most of which was fairly appauling! Someone came to me and said to me that he noticed there was always one good theatre performance every weekend and by a process of elimination, he told me that it was always the group I was in. So he offered that if I ever wanted to teach what I knew, he would be there. I took that as a message and decided that I would start teaching a weekly improv class in Brighton. That was 2003. 7 people came to the first one, I figured if I got it up to 10 people I would be in good shape. And from that, enough talented people showed up and we formed The Maydays. We did our first show in May 2004.
Many improv troupes are happy doing the same show or format each time, however with The Maydays, the group’s has really grown and gone on to do a variety of formats and shows. You’re probably one of the most famous groups in the UK. What is the secret to The Maydays success?
Ha! Its a secret! I would say that a part of our success is doing what we can to live by what I would call the deeper principles of improvisation. So I would say the external principals are what you see on stage with people collaborating, having fun and thrilling an audience. The deeper principles are more a way of working to apply those principles in your life off stage. So what we work at is holding each other accountable and supporting each other in the real world. In our struggles, be more authentic and better improvisors! I believe that when you have been improvising a while and you want to get really good, you come up against your own obstacles and limitations. Most companies go around that, where we tend to do confront this and address psychological issues and creative blocks in an ongoing way. That applies to all of us. So initially The Maydays was something I founded and directed and because human creativity won’t be contained, it became a cooperative. Alot of the change isn’t made by myself, its inspired by members of the group that are inspired by things they see. We adapt and give it our own flavour. I’m personally very resistant to change! [laughs]
Is that not an oxymoron for an improvisor?
Absolutely! But I think there is a strength to that because if anyone in the company comes up with a new idea, I fold my arms and sulk! Then they all have to gang up on me to convince me its going to work! However this means that what is brought in to the company is fairly robust before we put it out there. So there is a testing process which is my own personal insecurity and every new idea has to face it!
There is great team spirit and flexibility within The Maydays. Members of the group have successful projects on the side separate to the group. Was that every a challenge or is it something that is welcomed?
That’s an ongoing challenge! [laughs] I personally as a performer just perform with The Maydays. I just focus on that. Some of the troupe have 4 to 6 projects on the go at once which can be a double edged sword. The other projects can bring something to us in terms of learning and new approaches, but at the same time, I feel it can dissipate the energy and you put yourself in danger of spreading yourself thin.
Who is your Improv idol?
Oh wow! [long pause] I have to say, when I go to Chicago I am obviously inspired by the level of performance I see there and I also find that its sort of all the same level, in a way. You see Premiership level improv there. And there is alot around that bandwidth. For me, there is no performer that stands out of that bandwidth, because its all a high level of performace. Of course you have the usual suspects: TJ & Dave; Susan Messing and Middle Age Comeback, and all those companies which are just fabulous to watch and be inspired and intimidated by. I saw UCB in New York, which is of that same level of performance too, and was fabulous to watch.
In terms of teaching, technically and personally, I think I have gained the most, tangibly, from Bill Arnett. His precision, his quirkiness and his experience, I have found to be really valuable. The Game Of The Scene work that Alexis Gallagher, who is in The Maydays, brings to us is very valuable. In terms of just teaching from the heart, my original director, Louis Anthony Russo, is still an inspiration. He died quite a while ago and I still find myself saying things that Lou said. When I run into anyone that worked with him, remember him very fondly and will say that its taken them years to understand what he was saying. So he’s a real icon.
What has been your own favourite moment in Improv?
Oh my God! [long pause] Ah there are so many different flavours of favourite! Funniest or most disturbing… I would say my most memorable, probably because it was last year and I was so far out of my comfort zone, my favourite moment was when I got asked to appear in a show in Annoyance Theatre in Chicago. All top notch improvisors, 6 or 7 of them. Things happen quickly there. There was a point where I was the last person in to a massive, highly complex and intense group scene. And I was standing at the edge of the stage in absolutely sheer terror because I had no idea whether to edit, I had no clue what to do! TJ Jagodowski was sitting centre stage and he literally just tossed this offer over his shoulder, like a gift from God. I managed to get the offer and literally ran from the side of stage, came out through a doorway and said a line and the lights black out, it was the end of the show! I was experiencing a huge amount of relief, that I just had a way into a scene. For me that was a real peak and all you can do in that moment is do what we teach other people to do, which is to just listen. I was standing there in sheer terror and I all had was my listening. There was a split second of opportunity, the line was delivered and BOOM, its the end of the show! Its a peak for me because I happened to look brilliant, but it wasnt by design! [laughs]
What does the future hold for John Cremer and for The Maydays?
The vision is to have a venue that we run, where we perform and teach. Everything happens under one roof. We bring everything into one space, that way we concentrate the creative energy.
What two pieces of advice would you give to an improvisor reading this?
One is to remind yourself as frequently as you can that its not about you. Louis used to always say that the best improvisors are not the guys who get the big laughs. The best improvisors are the guys who set the other guy up. I know its cliche, make the other person look good, but at a deep level its not about you. So get your stuff out of the way. Thats one bit of advice that will take a lifetime to apply!
The second bit of advice is to recognise that the self critical voice in your head, is just a voice in your head. Its not the voice of God, its not who you really are and its not there to help you.
Improv aside, tell me one thing about yourself that people don’t know.
[Laughs] I’m painfully shy!
Another oxymoron John?
Yeah! The name of the [improv] company that I first started with was called The Oxymorons! [laughs]
For more about John and The Maydays, including their upcoming show on March 3rd at Impro Fest UK in London (directly after my “Neil+1” show), check out the links below
John Cremer’s Website
John will be back in Dublin in October with more of his classes! For more details please email me, info[at]lowerthetone.com