I’m delighted to bring to you an interview with someone that not I only do a consider an improv legend, but I also have the pleasure of her friendship, Órla Mc Govern. I have been fortunate to have both workshopped and performed with Órla and I always learn something from Órla every time we perform.
Órla has performed all over the US and now resides in Galway where she runs Spontaneous Theatre People and recently unveiled a new Galway based improv troupe, Sky Babies. Órla is also behind the very successful Moth & Butterfly events which feature both improv and storytelling.
So after much badgering, she finally agreed to an interview!
Hi Órla. At last I have you in the hot seat! How did you get into Improv?
I got into improv when I lived in the States, in Seattle. I got into it through the back window that was left open! Thats the best way of describing it! I was an actor first and I auditioned for a show that was full of improvisers but was a ‘semi’ acting show. I didn’t realise what the extent of improv was when I was getting into it. I was coming into it with a very character background. Everyone else in it was a really experienced improviser. But I blagged my way through the first few months of it, not knowing the rules of improv but bringing my acting skills to it instead. Because of that experience, I knew I had to get more into improv and thats where it started. Thats the official version anyway! Throughout my life I had always touched on improv, I used to make up sketches and skits but in terms of structured improv it was definitely in Seattle.
Some improvisers just like to perform, some prefer to teach. Few do both. But you do both. How has your teaching influenced your performing life and vice versa?
I’m very passionate about improv and I feel I want to share it with people. I know that sounds very hippie! I moved to Galway and there wasn’t a regular improv course or workshop in the type of improv I liked to do which is very Spolin influenced. So part of why I started to teach was to just get like minded people to work with. It was as simple as that. How it influences me as a performer is that if I don’t get to do enough improv, at least I’m giving workshops and thats my toes in the water. But as you know its not the same thing, and you do miss one if you are not doing the other.
You’ve performed all over the US with some big names from the performing world and having settled back in Ireland where the improv scene is much smaller, and in particular Galway, how does performing improv in the US compare with performing here? Are there differences in expectations?
Absolutely. I find that the general perception with improv in Ireland is different to how it was for example in Seattle. Seattle is a town that is very spoiled for choice with improv, with lots of variety from gag based short form to experimental ‘wearing ferns from the forest’ improv from Lithuania, something like that! [laughs] I think people here think of improv in a more stand-up way but that is changing. When I was in the States, I was in touch with the lads from Snatch Comedy in Cork. We had dialogues for ages before I moved back. They were one of the first groups to do long form. I did a workshop with them and out of that they came up with their own great long form style. I love doing all sorts of improv particularly character based and long form leaning or musical shows. The different types of improv in Ireland is increasing. There is something for everyone now. But the audiences still see it in a comedy vein as opposed to a theatrical vein. But it is changing.
You performed with many groups in the US but you often talk about your experience with goga. Tell me a bit about that.
New York goga was founded and the name came from Karen Herr who was part of an all girl improv troupe. She was performing in a bar and someone said, “an all girl improv group, whats that, girl on girl action?” And thats where the name came from! Its stands for Girl On Girl Action! Basically a bunch of us had performed with Karen in New York and wanted to set up a group in Seattle. We had a unique style. The group was between 3 and 5, all female. We didn’t want to do a stereotypical improv show, we wanted to just play characters really truthfully, do alot of musical improv and just be a little bit bad ass! We didn’t take any suggestions from the audience and we would come out to an AC/DC track. We would stand and face the audience in a very confrontational way. But it seemed to work. We would take our suggestions visually or from a sound that one of us picked up from the audience and just go free form for about 45 minutes.
Comedy tends to be very male dominated. Whats your view on the challenges with gender in improv?
Its something viewed differently in Ireland that it is in the States. Seattle in particular has a strong community of improvisers of both genders and its become a non issue there. I think in Ireland people will still pimp out the girl as the girlfriend, the hooker or the mistress as opposed to just letting characters evolve. When you are pushing for the gag, its a bigger tendency. I think when we are new to improv, we just want to please an audience right away and go for the gag but sometimes even women will even put themselves in these roles, so its not always the guys doing it. The more improv becomes recognised, the more we can just play as improvisers as opposed to just stereotypes. I do teach a workshop on Gender In Improv where guys and girls portray each other rather than going for the stereotypes. There is a whole conversation to be had about how in general guys and girls play gender in improv.
What teacher or performer has inspired you the most?
Thats a really hard question! I’ve performed with alot of amazing people so its hard to single out one or two!
But you are going to have to!
I had an epiphany in a workshop called “Check In” with an amazing teacher called Matt Smith, who is also a friend of mine. I also had the good luck to perform with him in a troupe called The Edge, who are one of the best troupes in the North West in the States. He just gave me creative tool, not just in performing, but into creativity that I will always remember.
What has been your most memorable improv moment?
Ooh, I have 3 of them! One of them is an unmentionable festival event where the stage was stormed by a drunken man in a wheelchair! But I won’t go into that! Another moment was when I was on my way with Goga to a festival in Portland. There was 4 of us in the troupe at the time and we were doing long form. Two of us got the flu so myself and Pam Man, who is an incredible improviser, had to do a two hander show. We did this dark, horribly disgusting mother daughter scene involving dental floss, but it was a beautiful moment! The third one doesn’t technically qualify as pure improv but I used to do a show in Seattle that ran for 10 years called The Wingding. Thats where Mrs. Nellie Murphy first got to strut her stuff.
What was the most memorable show or performer you have watched?
Another hard question! There are so many. There was a show in Portland called All Jane, No Dick who are another incredible all female troupe. I also have to mentioned Bassprov, by my friends Joe Bill and Mark Sutton which is two men in boat drinking beer and fishing! They don’t actually fish but they do drink beer!
What 2 bits of advice would you give an improviser in Ireland?
Share the love and keep on trucking! [laughs]
What does the future hold for you and what does the future hold for improv in Ireland?
I’m going to continue to do what I do and work with very cool people all over Ireland. I think the future of improv in Ireland is a bright one. I think the ideal is that groups see what each other are doing rather than holding on to their tiny corners of the country! Work together and get Ireland on the map as a centre for improv because we have so many skills in storytelling and character.
Tell me something about yourself unrelated to improv that not alot of people know.
[Long pause and much laughing]
I like hitchhiking! No, not alot of people know that I like humming the theme tune from the cartoon Bod.
Will you hum it now?
Órla’s troupe, The Sky Babies, will be performing in the Galways Fringe on Wednesday 24th July at 8pm in the Townhouse Bar. Admission €7/€5. I have the pleasure of guest performing on the night too.
For more details on the Sky Babies, click here!
For more info on Órla and Spontaneous Theatre People, Moth & Butterfly and Ms. Nellie Murphy, click here!