I have had quite a fortunate year in improv in 2014. Despite all the challenges life has thrown my way, all the ups and downs, improv is the reliable beacon of fun, community and self development.
Don’t worry, its perfectly acceptable to refer to this powerhouse of a troupe as P-Graph. P-Graph are a foursome from Texas that perform some of the best narrative improv and genre improv you’ll ever see. They’re intense, incredibly clever and wildy entertaining. Being a fan of narrative improv, I jumped at the chance to attend their intensive. All four of them teach (Kaci, Roy, Valerie and Kareem) the intensive together rather than splitting up which really added to the sessions. It allowed for multiple angle feedback and commentary. It also gave you a chance to experience what its like to have four different people almost finish each other’s sentences! I learnt a lot from P-Graph, and it has already added volumes to my own Neil+1 and Boy Seeks Girl formats. If you are ever in Austin Texas, make sure they are on your list of things to see. They perform weekly. Whose knows, maybe I can convince all four of them to come to Dublin in the near future.
Hollywood: Second City & IO West
While road tripping some of the US during the summer, I eventually found myself in Hollywood. First stops IO West and Second City. Pivotal theatres in the improv world, their set up in L.A. is no different than Chicago. Numerous shows and classes. I was lucky enough to catch Dasariski in IO and chat improv over a beer to Craig Cackowsaki and Nick Armstrong (King Ten) afterward. While visiting Second City, I was lucky enough to get on stage during the storytelling show Funny Cuz Its True hosted by Kevin McGeehan. I hadn’t applied in advance, but Kevin was kind enough to give me some stage time.
Boston & On To Camp Improv Utopia
At the end of the summer I took a trip to Boston for a few days to catch the ImprovBoston guys on their home turf. I also wanted to see ImprovAsylum. It was quite the intensive whirlwind few days. The standard of improv in Boston is really high. And so the the standard in socialising! Hanging out in a bar next door to ImprovBoston, The Field, surrounded by MainStage players, students and producers makes for quite the atmosphere! Even in the toilets, you can talk improv! Theres too many names to mention that made Boston quite a memorable visit for the short few days that I was there but I will definitely go back.
I departed Boston to make my way to Pennsylvania’s ‘Camp Netimus’. If you’re European and reading this, the concept of camp might sound a little confusing, but to Americans its part of growing up. Improv Utopia was having their first East Coast camp, and 120 improvisers were making their way to Milford for what was one of the best improv related weekends I have been part of. The surroundings were fantastic. Forests, lakes and, er, bears. Yes the wildlife roamed free here but fortunately we were safe in our cabins. Teaching over the long weekend this year was Will Luera (ImprovBoston, Florida Studio Theatre), Craig Cackowski (IO West/Dasariski), Jill Bernard (HUGE Theatre), Paul Vaillencourt (IO West/Beer Shark Mice) and Rick Andrews (Magnet Theatre). The organisers of the Improv Utopia (both West and East camps) are Nick Armstrong (IO West/King Ten) and John Abbott (IO West/Trophy Wife). Nick is quite the inspiring improviser and along with Bill Binder, he runs the National Improv Network.
Unfortunately you can only work with 4 of the 5 teachers. So I worked with Will, Jill, Craig and Paul.
Will’s class taught us how to fall in love again on stage. The power of relationships and how not every improv scene needs conflict. It was quite powerful with a wonderful blend of touching and of course hilarious moments.
Jill’s class was titled “Fireball Theory”. It was certainly that. Jill has incredible energy. Her classes are very organic and even though each of her classes were the same title, each class was completely different. I took away a lot about energy on stage from Jill’s teaching.
Paul’s class was about the triangle of the scene. It was about taking a different look at how you approach your scene work and had a great mix of technicality and blend that aided a strong scene development. We watched some really polished scenes emerged in the class and I took away a new approach to doing things. Very enjoyable.
Craig’s class was simply titled “Sell It!”. It was all about commitment and ownership. Using a mix of tried and trusted exercies as well as some new ones, Craig never let us off the hook for a moment. It was a constant flow of energy and scenes. You didn’t have to worry about your brain taking over, you just didn’t have time. Really great stuff.
The event didn’t just revolve around the classes. It also had cabin shows, jams, teacher show and a host of other activities. The National Improv Network held a symposium which was a real eye opener around festivals in the US. As there are so many groups in the US and limited festival spots, demand is high. This has pushed troupes into upping their game in terms of marketing and promo. It seemed to me to have had had a positive effect on the improv standard.
Rather than talk more about Improv Utopia (which would take a number of blog posts to do it justice), the video I put together below shows some of the highlights over the event. I highly recommend attending one of the Camps. But be warned, it sells out fast. The 2015 West Camp sold out in less than 24 hours.
Spectacles Improv Engine
Its impossible to not make friends at Improv Utopia but being the only attendee from Ireland, makes meeting up regularly a bit of a challenge. That being said, some of the gents I shared a cabin with hail from Spectacles Improv Engine in Orange County and we had such a good time, I wanted to visit them on their own turf. Josh, Mike and Joey made me feel very welcome and the opportunity to perform with Josh was jumped at! I was thrilled to guest with The Society and the bonus was Nick Armstrong also took a trip to town to take part. The only thing going through my head for the hour before the show was ‘Don’t mess this up Neil!’ The show however was great fun and the chance to share the stage with Nick and Josh was greatly appreciated. Big shout out to Josh and the team for the welcome!
ComedySportz San Jose
As a regular visitor to the Bay Are on the West Coast of the US and being based in San Jose, it usually means you will usually catch me in the audience of the Comedysportz San Jose show on a Friday night. However in October, I had the chance to perform in their line up and also guest in their improvised Shakespeare show Much Ado About Improv. Comedysportz is a competitive short form show that is licensed around the the US and parts of Europe. Its a family friendly show with high production values. Its also a lot of fun to take part in. You can see why the show has been running for nearly 30 years in San Jose. The players are strong and the houses full. They perform a week long form show too and change the format each month. The format this month was Shakespeare. This was so much fun to take part in. We could have gone on for hours! One of my highlights was Jeff Kramer turning to those of us at side stage and whispering “We should wrap it up” before going on stage as a slow moving, slow speaking character! Big shout out to Jeff for his invite and hospitality!
I have had numerous teachers in Dublin in 2014 as part of Improv Fest Ireland and also as guest of Love! Improv. All of the teachers in 2014 but I do want to mention two in particular because I was fortunate to be able to perform two-prov with them.
Vinny Francois – Montreal Improv
Vinny hails from Montreal Improv and we performed a wonderful two-prov montage together that had us both talking about it for some time afterward. Vinny has a wonderful Keith Johnstone influenced style to his improv. Performing with him was a pleasure and felt effortless. We’re hoping to reunite in 2015 for another show.
Lydia Hensler – UCB New York
Hailing from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Lydia brought what I think gave Dublin our first UCB style workshop. Admittedly, I have always found the UCB style to be a challenge to my own improv preferences. UCB’s emphasis on Game of the Scene, is not something that I always want to follow on stage. That being said, Lydia’s workshop was fantastic with plenty of tools on offer. So performing with Lydia was going to be an interesting experience. To offer Lydia a similar challenge, I invited her to take part in a spin off ‘Neil+1’ format. She was interviewed in front of the audience and that became our ‘suggestion’. I had a blast performing with Lydia and I know Dublin will welcome her back again anytime!
Improv Fest Ireland
And finally to be my own baby. Improv Fest Ireland had her second ever festival this year. Applications were almost double the available slots which made the decision making process very difficult. We also had teachers from all over. The festival was a great success with fantastic shows and workshops. The bar has been set high for 2015. For more about Improv Fest Ireland, please click here.
Of course, there was plenty more workshops, shows and events throughout the year. These are just some of my highlights.