In the early days of my improv career, I used to struggle with some of the rules of improv, if such a thing exists. “There is no wrong way to do it”, “Make your partner look good”, “Yes and everything”. These things sound good, seem to make sense, but I struggled with them in principle. Having taking improv classes, courses and workshops with 40+ improv teachers over my career, I on occasion have encountered teachers who talk the talk but didn’t always practice what they preach on stage.
Similarly, if there is no wrong way to do it and we need to make our partner look good, then should it matter who we perform with and how experienced they are? (Spoiler alert: Turns out it doesn’t!)
Between that inner struggle and my desire to have a show that I could take on the road, Neil+1 was born.
Neil+1 turned 5 years old year this year and I’ve been reflecting on what this style of improv has done for both my own approach improv and my life perspectives. I’ve been quite fortunate over the years with the show, having performed it in numerous international venues and festivals, conferences, corporate events and even at a wedding! I also coach others who dabble in similar interactive formats too.
I must give credit to the incredible Matt Holmes for helping me on this path. Matt also performs interactive improv and I stumbled across him while researching my ideas. His advice was to book your first show and then start to develop it. He also told me my first show would make or break me.
Cut to October 2012 and my first Neil+1 show was staged as part of Cause & Effect improv night in the Mill Theatre in Dublin. My +1 was a rather shy but rugby keen young man. And he made me work hard. He denied every reality presented to him. Denied my characters, denied the premise, denied even being part of the show! Until the very last scene when suddenly the planets aligned, and he realised that the path of least resistance was to go with the show. He began to “Yes and” despite never having taken an improv class.
Leaving the stage soaked in perspiration and feeling like I had run a double marathon (the show was only 30 minutes!), it was clear that Matt was right. The show worked, and it felt incredible. My improv world had changed.
Since then the show has evolved into a look at what makes is tick in our day to day lives through deep narative. Our dreams, our fears and the relationships we form across our life all take centre stage. When I look back at my early shows I see how safe I played it on stage. Sure, the concept was the same and I’m still performing with people who have never seen or done improv before. But my perception, reading people and sensing human boundaries and comfort zones has drastically improved. I’ve had many audience guests tell me how profound an effect being my +1 in the show has been. From real life closure on the loss of a family member, to a place to vent over family matters, to having clarity around life and career goals, I am forever humbled by some of the feedback I’ve had. One of my own personal joys was one when one of my improv heroes, Katy Schutte, told me she was moved to tears during one performance. As I regularly tell my students, making an audience laugh is often the least interesting part of improv, the power to move and effect our audience is where the real power of the art lies.
In celebration of 5 years, here’s 5 improv tips that I’ve learned from doing the show.
• Funny is not always interesting
While most shows are striving to be funny, comedy can get in the way of good improv. As improvisers we can get stuck in our head and assume that a scene needs a comedy injection or blinding tag out. While it may work out, sometimes it’s unnecessary or even uninteresting. Comedy is always a by-product of improv, it will come. Instead focus on everything that is interesting in the scene. The character, the theme, the drama.
• Everything is an offer, especially the “mistakes”
Spoiler: There are no mistakes. How many times have you “corpsed” or watched other performers corpse during a scene? Many performers tend to ignore it because the actor has broken character and is probably doing their best to hold it together. However, don’t ignore it. It’s very much another offer, even if it’s intentional. Similarly, we sometimes ignore the body language of our stage partner particularly during scene initiations, if it doesn’t look like our stage partner is “doing anything physical”. When performing with audience members, they have no clue what initiations or offers are, so my attention is fully committed to reading not just the verbal but the non-verbal too – even if that non-verbal is a deer in headlights.
• Worship your stage partner like a deity
We all know we should make our stage partner look good, but I don’t believe that’s a strong enough ethos for improv. Instead, we must worship our stage partner. Even if it feels like they aren’t working with us. They are ammo belt for our rocket launcher and the fuel for our sports car. Listening is hard, supporting people to the max is hard. But that’s what we need to be doing. If we truly pay attention, it creates a climate of trust and our instinctual reactions will be less about trying to work out what to do and instead be more natural. How to tell if you are truly listening and paying attention? You can’t in the moment on stage but if afterwards you realise you weren’t thinking of anything else and not thinking about what move to make then you are heading in the right direction.
• Perform with improvisers with a mix of experience
Being an experienced improviser is just one skill in the improv toolbox. However, experience doesn’t necessarily always mean great improv. Being adaptable can however lead to better improv. Stretch your improv muscle and perform with people who are less experienced than you and more experienced. It’s a great way for you to grow and become even more comfortable on stage. I personally believe we learn more from those less experienced than us than those who are more experienced as we have more to work to do. How’s that for some Jedi mind action for you!
• Learn how to act
So I cheated a little as I came from a theatre background originally but the point still stands. Here’s a test. Sprinkle flour all over your stage before you do your set. Afterward look at your footprints on the stage. Notice anything? For many improvisers who don’t have any theatrical acting experience and start performing on larger stage, spatial awareness can become a challenge. Improvisers can linger at the back of a stage and the front can often be neglected. (My pet peeve is when chairs are at the rear of the stage out of a scene and then performers sit down in the chairs without bringing them forward.) Taking acting classes can go a long way to polishing your act and making your characters and dramatic moments more believable. Learn how to use the full dimensions on the stage – and the room around it.
• Break the rules
There are no rules in improv. We learn principles and concepts, but once we become comfortable with them, we need to shed them like a snake sheds its skin. “Yes and” can be as much a hindrance as it can be a help. For example, a misuse of Yes And will result in a scene filled with ideas of which none stick. Step outside of other improv norms too. Stop sweep editing, stop physically tagging people out of scenes, play scenes in silence, leave the stage, call your stage partner by their real name, play a character in a scene that doesn’t belong there, the list goes on and on. While these things may seem fickle or even unhelpful, you wont know that unless you try it and experiment. In improv, we are only limited by the rules and expectations we, and our teachers, put on ourselves.
BONUS TIP! Seeing as it’s Christmas and the time of giving:
• Stop comparing yourself with others
Improv is a cruel art form. Unlike sport, where our ability and progress can be tracked by the number of goals we score or how quick we run a mile, improv offers no luxuries. Our friends in the community will tell us our show was great and sometimes we don’t feel it. We either doubt the sincerity of others or we progress through our improv careers thinking we are better performers than we actually are. For many though, we risk beating ourselves up thinking we aren’t getting better or worse again, someone else is better than us. This type of mindset is destructive. Improv is not a race nor a ball game. Its an art form and like all art forms, appreciation is subjective. Success is not measured by number of laughs or pats on the back, it is measured by how well we entertain the audience and laughter is only one measure. Support other improvisers in your community’s endeavours. Like their Facebook page, share their events, plug their show. Most of all, enjoy watching their performances as an audience member, not as an improviser. We are all in this improv journey together. Until every theatre in your city is filled with improv shows, the only competition you have is not other improvisers and the endeavors, but the pub, the cinema and whatever reality TV nonsense is showing the night your show is on.
I hope some of these tips are as useful for you as they have been for me. Finally I would like to thank the people who have taking a gamble and supported Neil+1 over the years in their theatres and festivals all over the world. In particular I want to thank Matt Holmes for being a true gent and sharing his wisdom over the years.