This time on Behind The Improv, I had the pleasure of interviewing a passionate improviser that I met in Shanghai in September 2012. Curt Mabry is the brains behind Zmack Comedy. When you meet Curt, you quickly see that spark and ambition he has, its almost contagious. His success speaks for itself, Zmack has continued to grow rapidly in a city where modern improv is relatively new to the population. Curt is also champion of developing community as you will learn from the interview. So lets get on with it!

Curt Mabry

Hi Curt. So tell me, how did you get into Improv?

I got into improv before I knew what improv was. I had a little bit of exposure to theatre in university. My degree is in radio, television and film production. I like the stage but my first job was with an affiliate with the Fox network in America. I was getting involved with what was called The Fox Kids Club. What they do was tie their afternoon programming together with interstitial 30 second or 60 second programs during commercial breaks. We did that every day and we created characters. I was the one that designed the characters and the set. We didn’t have a chance to write the script for what we wanted to do everyday, so it had to be improvised. I really enjoyed and the people I worked with really enjoyed it because we got to be creative. We werent limited by a script or anything like that. And once that happened, by that time in 90’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? had becomes popular in the US and I had heard of Second City. That was all though I had heard about at the time but I associated it all with Saturday Night Live. I didn’t think about what improv was, so when Whose Line Is It Anyway? came about I realised that that was what I was already doing on the Fox affiliate. And so I started to study it a bit more. In South Mississippi, you couldnt’ really find improv courses, so I had to learn a bit the history of Second City, the Improv Olympic [iO], Keith Johnstone and stuff like that.

And then what happened next?

Well my life went kinda weird! My father’s death; changing jobs; America’s wonderful economy; my divorce; alot of things led me through different jobs and ultimately, to China. I came to China just to teach English. I didn’t want to teach English, but I was taking a break from America! I thought I would come over here for a year and I went to this little town in the North East part of China and I dearly loved it. I liked the lifestyle so I decided to stay. But through all of this I was always seeking ways to perform. I have been a radio announcer, a disc jockey, a singer, actor in commercials, community theatre and stuff like that. And when I was in the North East of China, I helped organise things like poetry nights and story telling nights. I knew I wanted to do something entertainment wise and I knew I wanted to go back to the kind of thing I was doing with the Fox network. Improv, even though then I didn’t think of it as improv. I moved to Shanghai because I knew I would have more opportunity here to build a life and a business. I got involved with a British run theatre group here in Shanghai called Zuloo Productions. They are still active in England right now. Zuloo was running a weekly improv workshop as part of their repertoire. I got involved in that and we had alot of fun. I learned more about the actual craft, rules and techniques of improv. Eventually I started taking over teaching some of the classes and at one point the Shanghai Actors Association contacted Zuloo and said we hear you’ve got this improv group, do you guys want to do a little show for us at the Shanghai Actors Association’s monthly meeting. That first show was maybe 20 to 25 different performers, just every different short form [game] we could think of, and looking back on it, it was not something I could say was great improv but boy did we have a good time! And me and another guy that was involved continued doing it. Eventually Zuloo Productions left Shanghai. They returned to England and they are successful there now. And they said “Here you go Curt, here’s our mailing list. We know you want to keep doing it” And we turned it into Zmack. And its been going since then. Our fist performance was over 4 years ago and I’ve been going at it whole hog ever since!

So Shanghai is a city of 23 million people but not everyone can speak English. How have you raised the profile of improv in Shanghai and what challenges have you faced?

The biggest challenge that I face is that I realise we’re in an international city where the native language is not English. But I don’t want to just limit us to the English language for native English speakers. I knew that that would cause us to develop a little more slowly but it has caused us to have the kind of heart I am really proud of. Our current crop of performers hail from everywhere! From Poland, the Philippines, France, Singapore and of course America and Canada. We have had people from the UK and Australia and alot of local Chinese too. I think we have to find a common ground. There are other improv groups in Shanghai now. Zmack was not the first but we have been the longest running. And most of the other improv comedy groups in Shanghai now have some connection with Zmack. Its been a challenge to find a common ground for it. We don’t have the same cultural references, we don’t share even the same generations in some ways. But it means when we do find something, its very universal and our audiences appreciate that. We haven’t really had any difficulty with the government, because the Chinese don’t really understand what we’re doing. Thats the other obstacle, getting the Chinese to understand what it is. They have stand up comedy here and China has its own history of comedy which is ‘prepared comedy’ and usually is what we westerners would consider more slapstick and childish. Its really not though. At first I thought the Chinese would be more resistant, in fact what we found out is that they’re our biggest supporters. They’re hungry for something new in the world of entertainment and comedy. We have been very lucky because of that. I don’t know if I would have been as successful if it wasn’t for Shanghai.

One of the things I noticed when I was last in Shanghai in September 2012, at the multilingual Zmack Comedysportz night with JLT I was impressed with the diversity of the audience. It was clear that community was developing in that very room. You mentioned earlier that every group in Shanghai has a connection with Zmack too. How important do you see community to improv?

The first thing I would say about community is that the audience is our unseen and uncredited team member and we must treat them as such. Treat them with dignity, respect and let them in on the joke. We have a family in Zmack when you are in one of our groups. We hang out together outside of the stage. Shanghai is a city of ex pats and they’re looking for connection and for a family. And we are a wonderful, beautiful dysfunction family! The community sees from our events and workshops that we are not closed off to any idea. But take competition, there are other groups in Shanghai and there always will be. The People’s Republic Of Comedy have been very successful and they’re very talented but they are all English speakers. But thats what they wanted. They’re a joy to watch but there was alot of feeling between the two groups so there was some friction that is gone now because we realised that competition is what makes us thrive. The more people who perform, the more people who learn about improv, the better we all get! My graduating classes from Zmack Comedy School, all graduate with an improv team. The competition will continue but its more friendly and fun. We’re all very well connected with The People’s Republic Of Improv and other improv groups in Shanghai. And now of course, next week Zmack are debuting our very own Chinese speaking group. We’re looking forward to that. Competition will always be a fact of life but to think that there is only a small pie to be divided up, “This is my piece and this is your piece”, I don’t think thats accurate. The more good improv people see, the more good improv people will want to see!

I couldn’t agree more!

The thing you have to remember is that the first principle of improv is to say “yes and” which means to have a positive attitude, agree with something and build on it! So if someone tells you there is another improv group out there with another show advertising to the same people who advertise to, hoping that your audience will come to them, you have to find a way to “yes and” it!

Curt Mabry

Lets talk about your workshops and courses. You have had about 12 groups graduate. How diverse have the classes been and what kind of feedback are you getting?

My improvisers in Zmack Comedy School are about 50% Chinese. I also have alot of French students as the French are the largest Western minority in Shanghai. I guess if you look at our demographics it might a slice of how Shanghai is spread out! Everyone is very receptive to it. I teach from applying improv to life. And in very class when we talk about acceptance, I teach them how to look at life as a gift and how to look at everything that happens as a gift. The feedback I get is overwhelming positive! I have actually tried to send in a ‘spy’ to try get actual negative feedback because the Chinese have a natural tendency to respect teachers so I have thought that maybe I’m not getting accurate feedback! But I think I am, this is something new to the Chinese. One Shanghai male student I have credits me with the fact he has a beautiful fiancee and his work situation improved! He said it in a testimonial, if he had not applied my “yes and” principles, even though they’re not mine, he wouldn’t have these things! That makes me really happy. I have a very high rate of return of students, right now I am teaching 3 levels of improv. In the fall I will be teaching a 4th level which is a final course and after that masterclasses. The only thing that stops people coming back is that Shanghai busy schedule. I’m very blessed to be able to make people happy, make myself happy, do something that is alot of fun and keeps me fed!

You’ve alot going on there, thats fantastic Curt.

Oh yes and now we have Zmack Business Solutions which is a thing I’m very excited about and using it for corporate training. I have recently become a member of the Applied Improvisation Network. I’m working with people from Hong Kong and the US and a bunch of multinational companies to provide team building, corporate training, executive coaching, presentation skills and things like that. All using improvisation. Its a place I have been before. From when I introduced improv to Shanghai audiences, now I am introducing it to Shanghai companies.

So getting back to the main Zmack group and diversity among the troupe. How does that influence the improv and the comedy?

Our references are Shanghai-centric. Thats one thing. There are things that are pop culture that the world appreciates. If we are talking about a movie its probably going to be something like The Hobbit or Avatar, something that had a worldwide audience. A couple of weeks ago there was a news story about mass amounts of dead pigs being found in the river here so in Saturday night’s show, that was a suggestion that we kept coming back to. You can find references in your community. We face some challenges such as cultural barriers. Obviously I am in the People’s Republic Of China so there are certain things we don’t discuss on stage. So I am trying very hard to steer us away from what I consider low humour. Its not that I don’t want a G rated family show, but I think everyone appreciates it, especially the Chinese who are able to be funny without having to resort to that. But its an ongoing challenge and sometimes I am a little bit jealous of groups that share a native language together. But I guess like every one of my perfomers who have longed for an opportunity to perform at a higher level, I and they don’t want to leave what we have got here. We don’t want to leave the magic that we have created something that transcends the cultural barriers, language barriers and our nationalities.

Which improviser, performer or teacher, has influenced you the most?

There’s two. The one that influenced me more than anybody when I first started improv was Phil Hartman. I remember Lorne Michaels saying that Phil Hartman was the glue of Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live spawned alot of characters, movies, pop culture references and careers of alot of famous actors. Most people who remember that era of Saturday Night Live remember who he was but they don’t remember his characters. You think of Mike Myers and you think of Wayne’s World. You think of Dana Carvey and you think of George Bush. But you don’t think about what character Phil Hartman played because Phil was chivalrous. Phil said “yes and”. I was so impressed with that. When I read the interview with Lorne, I did a bit of research to find out why everybody loves performing with him. I think it was Jimmy Carrane who said that if somebody asked you if you are a good improviser, the answer is do people want to perform with you? Everybody wanted to perform with Phil. People spoke so highly of him.
The other one that influenced me was Del Close. Del was an insane man from what I understand! But “Truth In Comedy” opened my eyes to alot of things. I feel he wasn’t the first to say that improv is an art form in itself. That goes back to Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin. But Del was willing to try things like the Harold, and takes things in a different direction. He was not pandering to the audience. He didn’t really care about the audience. He didn’t really care about anything other than what he wanted to accomplish. I had the honour of spending some time at the Hong Kong Improv Festival recently and with Shaun Landry, a respected improviser from the US. I talked about her days with Del, she worked with Charna too. It was so inspiring. I’ve heard Del Close referred to as the most famous comedian that nobody has ever heard of. And you know what, I’d like to be famous but if I could be the most famous comedian that nobody has ever heard of, well I think that is pretty damn cool!

What has been your favourite improv show to watch?

Its a toss up, there are two groups. 3 Dudes Improv from Hong Kong. They spun off from People’s Liberation Improv They do long form and they are three native English speakers. They are insanely funny guys. They do what Jimmy Carrane calls ‘slow improv’. They let the scene develop and the audience starts to identify with them. When you laugh at their show, you are laughing from deep inside you gut! Its not just a superficial ha-ha chuckle. As an audience member you have built a relationship with these characters.
The other team is SPIT. Silly People’s Improv Team from Manila in the Philippines. Gabe Mercado is their leader and I think he is one of the most amazing improvisers working today. I have only seen them twice but each time I am blown away. They only do short form but they do short form you’ve never thought of! [laughs] They can take a simple storytelling game like, “Die“, and turn it into something like “Add on story” and “disembowelment”. I don’t know if they invented it, I think to truely create something you have to first invent the universe! I think thats what Carl Sagan said anyway! But they make it pretty unique. SPIT has such a tight team spirit, there is so much trust on that stage. No matter what any one of them those, they know that any other one of them is going to accept. Incredibly talented group. Very excited to be seeing them in both Beijing and Manila later this year.

What has been your own favourite improv moment?

It happened recently in Honk Kong. I got to watch PlusOne Improv from Beijing. I’m actually a little emotional about this! PlusOne Improv is a relatively new improv group and they’re bilingual. One of their founders, Candy, performed with Zmack not long ago against JLT. She came to Zmack when I was running the workshops on a Wednesday and she had never seen anything like it. To me she was my first real student even though I wasn’t teaching per se. The workshops back then were to build an audience and to have fun. I taught Candy and then Candy went way beyond what I could teach. She went on to found PlusOne Improv who are an incredibly talented group. In Hong Kong, I got to reunite with her on stage and I stood on stage waiting for something and this tiny little girl says “That’s it asshole, you are going to get it now!” And so I rolled up my sleeves and we prepared to fight! She taught me things in that show and when I watched PlusOne I learned things from it because she had gone on to find her own way. She was the first student that I had seen to become so successful. Thats really an inspiring moment for me.

What do you think are the two most important things that an improviser should be aware of?

His pants and his teammates! Because without either one of those you are going to look like a fool!
I would say the two most important things to ask are; Are you supporting your teammates and accepting? Are you being a member of the team or just trying to inject your own ideas and be the ‘funny guy’? The other thing is how happy are you? If you are not enjoying yourself on stage, then the audience is not going to enjoy what you are doing.

What does the future hold for you and for Zmack?

Well, we are going to turn improv into a cult and I am hoping to prop myself up as a false messiah! That or we are going to start a brand of tequila. I can’t remember which is in our business plan! No, I do have a long term plan and I am happy with what we have achieved. Probably the most important thing I can say about what the future holds is that Shanghai is not going to be big enough! I think when the time is right we will go beyond it. I look forward to the day when Zmack is a brand all across Asia and I don’t think thats too far away.

Can you share something about yourself not improv related, that very few people know about you?

You’re asking the wrong guy because I am too open! Everyone knows everything about me! In fact people get annoyed with me sharing everything! [pause] I want to be a superhero. I’m not joking. I’m really not! I want to have superpowers! I have been in a comic book and I want to write my own comic book where I am a superhero! Gosh! Oh! [laughs] I want to be a lounge singer! I want to be a Mel Tormé or Michael Bublé lounge singer but, I don’t think that will surprise people! [laughs]

Curt, its been a very informative and enjoyable interview. Thanks for your time and I hope to see you in Shanghai again soon.


For more info on Zmack, check out their website,
Chinese Weibo Users will find Zmack at zmackshanghai

Behind The Improv: Curt Mabry
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