We often wonder at the marvel of the human brain. The mystery of how it works, its ability to contain lots of information and run so many of our body functions involuntarily. Yet we often forget that despite our advances in science and worldly knowledge, our brain is also dumb. We know the risk of dying in a plane crash is virtually zero yet yet our brain puts some of us (including me) into a state of heightened anxiety while we fly 6 miles above the earth. Our brain goes into survival mode and no amount of facts or science will calm it.
Fortunately for most people the primitive part of our brain that clicks into survival mode doesn’t need to protect us from the threat of been eaten by lions or attacked by a fellow caveman. But yet it stills acts as strong as it did back in the cave people’s time. Put people nowadays into a scenario where they have to public speak or perform publicly and many of the general public will either run a mile or fall into survival mode. And while survival mode isn’t picking up a stick to hit the audience or co performer with, it is a mindset that strives to ensure that the individual looks good, comes out on top and we don’t really care how others fare in the process.
Marshall and Nancy, the team behind Zenprov, often say that we are taught things in improv but often we don’t really know what it means or how to do it. Making others look good, is a principle of improv we are taught. Yet I often find that performers interpret that to mean that I can make you look good by being good myself or assume it means that by accepting everything you say and do through the power of Yes And, then we are living up to that principle. However I believe that there is so much more to it than that.
I had the good fortune of embarking on a lot of travel recently that saw me lucky enough to perform in 3 international cities, New York, San Francisco and London. The latter two were planned “Neil+1” shows, the former being an impromptu invite on stage at ‘The PIT’ (People’s Improv Theatre)
The PIT is a fabulous space that offers such wonderful variety in improv as well as a great bar. While attending a night of One Act Improv shows, I was invited up to perform in the finale piece. Now while I am regular performer that doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous. I had the butterflies while waiting for the act to start. Now while I was nervous, I was also ridiculously excited, its improv after all. However I did consider the thought that none of my co-stars knew me, nor had met me before. It made me wonder what they were thinking at that moment. I wondered how they would react when I first spoke in my Irish accent.
Needless to say the performance went really well and I was grateful to have the opportunity to perform alongside some talented players. What I was even further appreciate for, was their total acceptance of me on stage both in performance and presence. In many ways, I was their “+1”, yet at the same time I was treated in the same fashion as any other regular performer there. It was magical. The experience went on to inspire my own “Neil+1” performances later in the month.
Neil+1 as a show provides me as an improviser the huge challenge of improvising alongside a random audience member who has never seen Improv previously. There is no safety net, no scene saving tag outs, no one to fall back on to catch a breath. While that might seem daunting, its also why I love the format. To me, the audience member is the safety net and is there fall back on when I need that support. I view that audience member as an equal. Sure he or she might be a complete amateur, but as long as a I remember that and accept that, then we can start building something together. A mistake would be to assume that I have to do all the work.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to perform Neil+1 in San Francisco in the wonderful Un-Scripted Theatre. I was the final show on a Friday night, and having watched the wonderful Lombard Street Experiment and Wachaa, I knew the standards at the theatre were very high. Again those fish of water nerves and childish excitement crept in. I had no idea how a Californian would react to me or the format. The audience member randomly selected, Matt, was a university professor and it was his first time to see live improv. He was quite engaging and a wonderful +1. He pushed me as performer just as much as I pushed him as a +1! The experience became quite emotional as we examined aspects of life that often we don’t get to publicly express in a way we want to. I was very taken aback by how much Matt embraced the experience and I was privileged to share in his experience.
Next stop was a revisit to Impro Fest UK in the West End of London. The venue once again was a fabulous theatre, the Tristan Bates and both Dave and Martyn made for wonderful hosts. Now while the UK is more familiar stomping ground for me, I did have the added challenge of having Katy Schutte in the audience. Katy is with The Maydays as well as having many other projects and she has influenced me with her teachings and performances. So naturally I didn’t want to want to let her down on the night!
My +1 this time was Mike, a German student studying in London. Mike was at the show with his girlfriend and neither had seen live improv before. Again Mike was a joy to perform with. As the show went on, his confidence grew and he really immersed himself in the show both mentally and physically. (The audience gasp as Mike first rose from his chair on stage was a joy to behold!) Again taking from my experience in New York, I pushed the boundaries even further diving deeper into Mike’s alternate life on stage so we can could see how his character would react and the pay off was marvellous. Afer the show, Mike girlfriend (whose name escapes me) commented on how part of the scenario on stage is something they had discussed in their personal life and she got a kick out of watching it unravel on stage.
I walked away from those shows with a new view of what I can achieve as a performer and the potential of how deep the show can go. The potential of improv as a performing art is limitless. Embrace fear, embrace failure, embrace change, embrace others. And have fun.
Special thanks to The PIT, Un-Scripted Theater Company, Impro Fest UK, Clay Robeson, Dave Bourne, Martyn Hill, Matt and Mike!