Here we are again, you and I, half way between the awkwardness of not being sure if we still give Christmas greetings or do we jump straight into New Year greetings. So much can change in year. When I wrote this round up last year, scientists had knocked the idea of the Oumuamua asteroid being anything to do with aliens on the head. However, as I write this, scientists have since admitted that Oumuamua could be an alien probe studying our galaxy. Like a bad tag out in an improv scene, aliens will soon invade and that will be the end of our improv dreams.
But until we succumb to our alien overlords, its business as usual and as I look back on the year it was, it is very much a time of reflection and reinvention for me. Here are just some of my highlights of the year.
California Dreamin’ Barcelona Breakthrough
Ditching my usual Q1 trip to the sun in California, February saw me in Barcelona for the Regional Applied Improv Network conference. I was one of the guest speakers for this worthwhile event. I facilitate a great deal of improv training in the corporate world and the key advantage I offer, certainly in Ireland, is my extensive background in the corporate and multinational world. Couple that with my improv background and my Masters, and its something that makes for an attractive offering to companies – particular those on the fence about this whole ‘new-age-hippie-improv-training-stuff’. I spoke at the event about what I have learned about not just applying improv in the workplace, but also positioning it with companies. The presentation was well received and having watched the other speakers over the weekend, it really gave me a chance to reflect on what I have achieved in the corporate space, especially given I had been shooting in the dark for so long.
Of course you can’t go to Barcelona and not hang out with the fine people behind BIG (Barcelona Improv Group). Noah and the team were kind enough to have me perform Neil+1 on both the Friday and Saturday night alongside their show in the beautiful Tinto Roja venue. Both shows were completely different with the Saturday show bringing the challenge of ‘hecklers’ (coupled with language barriers) which was a good reminder of the delicacy and humility required with shows where we improvise with members from the audience. I also got to teach possibly one of my largest improv workshops, Emotional Reality, for a class of 28 people which was a total buzz and high energy!
I’m a great fan of the Barcelona improv scene, the people there are very hospitable and of course their festival is a must do for every improviser!
Improv in the 14th Century
Not many people can say they taught improv to royalty. Then again, not many people have travelled to the 14th century to teach improv. In March, by invite from the amazing Anna Wilson, I took the DeLorean on a trip back in time to attend as a guest one of the events for the SCA. What is the SCA you might ask? It’s a community of people who in their spare time, indulge in a 14th century lifestyle in such intricate detail. So I bowed to the Prince and Princess, drank ale in a goblet with my breakfast and watched as the royal couple gave awards to their loyal subjects for various contributions to the community. I ran an intro to improv workshop, which was a total riot given the Prince was in attendance and we were all still dressed in our 14th century attire. Quite the experience!
Improv Utopia Ireland
Milestone alert. May brought the first Improv Utopia Ireland to our shores. I have spoke extensively about Improv Utopia in the past and how much I adore it so I won’t go into detail here. However, I will say it is always one of the highlights of my improv calendar and the team behind it operate in such an open and egoless capacity. To be brought onboard the team for Improv Utopia Ireland was such a privilege and our first event got off with a bang. ‘Camp’ was located right next to the neolithic monument of Newgrange, a landmark in Ireland over 5,000 years old. It’s the first time Improv Utopia has been held outside of the US and it’s the 4th Improv Utopia location. Over 100 improvisers from Ireland, the US and elsewhere descended on Newgrange to embrace the culture of camp. Much work went into pulling it off but the hard work paid off in the end.
It was a surreal thing to behold though. I’m the only Irish improviser who had previously attended Camp abroad and many connections have been formed over the years. Camp in the US is also my getaway from the Irish improv scene. A place where I can just go to participate. Watching many of my Camp friends walk around on Irish soil and mingling with the Irish community was dreamlike. I made new friendships and connections this year too, some quite dear to me. That’s the beauty of Camp! Some of my closest friendships have formed there over the years. I hope that as Improv Utopia continues in Ireland in future years that the spirit of Camp has an influence on the improv scene in Ireland, encouraging community and collaboration. I’m forever grateful for the friendship I have with Improv Utopia founder, Nick Armstrong, and the opportunities both he and Camp have offered me.
Sadly this year though, we lost one of our beloved Campers, Amy Louise Sebelius. A bundle of energy, passion and positivity, she will always be remembered for the inspiration she was.
Festivals, Festivals, Festivals
My adventures on the festival circuit this year was limited mostly due to the demands of prepping the 1st Improv Utopia Ireland and work commitments. However, I did dip the toe in a few festivals which is an essential part of any improviser’s journey. My first festival took me teaching and performing in Belfast for their inaugural festival. Paul Mone and the team and very passionate for developing the improv scene in Belfast and its great to see them taking the leap. It was also a great opportunity for the Irish community ‘down south’ to sample a festival outside of Dublin.
I also had the pleasure of teaching and performing at the Birmingham Improv Festival. Run by Jon Trevor and his team, this festival brought together quite a number of great acts from around the UK and beyond. The “Brum’ festival had 2 particular highlights for me. The first being the winner of the charity Maestro event. While less focusing on competition and more on fun, the fun getting down to the last 3 alongside Rachel Rosenthal and Juwel Haque, before going head to head with Rachel in the final! (Totally mortifying of course being part of anything that has winners in improv!)
The second highlight, more importantly, I got to fall in love with New York improvised hip hop group, North Coast. As with all things improv related, we occasionally participate in a workshop or see an act that blows our creative minds. North Coast were without doubt my favourite show to see in 2018. Highly recommended if and when you get the chance. You can catch a highlights real of some of their Birmingham performance on the clips.
Of course the big festival news of the year was the return of Improv Fest Ireland after a year’s hiatus. What a delight it was to it back too, I was reminded of how much I had missed it. The improv scene has grown so much both locally and internationally since the last Fest which made our task of no wishing to clash with other festivals very challenging. We were later than normal getting our dates tied down which limited suitable weeks. However, despite that challenge, it didn’t deter from the festival. It was a largest one yet and we moved into a larger space for the full duration. Overall a great success. I was particularly pleased to have Improv Utopia friend, Josh Nicols from Orange County, teach at the festival. Ever since meeting Josh, I knew his philosophy on improv is something that would benefit the Irish and wider community.
While there were many great shows in the festival, one particular highlight for me was ‘Crocodile Paws‘ featuring real life couple, Kaisa Kokko and Sara Palmer. A show that truly captured a perfect blend of comedy, emotion and drama on stage.
David Razowsky was also one of our teachers at the festival and I had the opportunity of inviting him to critique my Neil+1 show and offer candid feedback. It was an important thing for me to do as part of the show’s evolution and David is known for not mincing his words. It was such a worthwhile opportunity particularly with David’s background. David invited me on his podcast, A.D.D. Comedy, which was a geek out moment, but more about that when it’s released next year.
Shows and Teachers and Guests, oh my!
I realise these posts become more and more self indulgent as the years go on but they do serve as a great way of reminding one’s self of achievements, goals and outlooks on the improv scene. There is just too much going in one year to talk about everything but a round up of other highlights include:
* U.K. improvisers Liam Weber and “Lloydie” guest teaching and performing in Dublin.
* Performing some duo improv live on Irish radio with the wonderful Maura Mannle. (I was in the studio and Maura was dialled in from the U.S.)
* Guest act from New York, Future Wives, performed a fantastic show for us in Dublin and taught a workshop for female identifying improvisers.
* Filming an improvised mockumentary in one of America’s most haunted houses.
* Guest on ‘Down to Business‘ with Bobby Kerr on Newstalk, talking to him about Corporate Improv.
* Performing an impromptu show with Craig Cackowski, Carla Cackowski, Maura Mannle and Mark Cantan at Tightrope during the summer
Improv & Refugees in Direct Provision
Earlier this year, in collaboration with Rick Doody and The Tightrope, we piloted a scheme with a number of refugees based in Ireland and took them into my improv courses. One of the big challenges facing refugees who gain status in Ireland is integration in society. Improv provides a unique opportunity for this, as the shared camaraderie amongst all participants offers greater engagement and support amongst peers while enriching the workshop through variety in cultures. The pilot was a great success and we have launched a wider programme which kicks off in January 2019. More about the programme in a future post.
Ireland, Improv and some Reflections
The improv scene has grown dramatically in the past year, no doubt. There are now even more shows and regular spots for people to get their fix. Tightrope continues to grow and MOB Theatre has recently come on the scene with their weekly nights. As someone who constantly preaches about the importance of community in improv, its really great to see the scene develop further. There is still much to be done, and while the Improv Fest Ireland and Improv Utopia Ireland firmly highlight Ireland as one of the go to locations for international improvisers, the importance of support and personal/troupe growth in the local scene is paramount if Dublin is to grow to a scene similar to London or even one of the main cities in the U.S. I would love to see more Irish groups and improvisers perform and train abroad, be it festivals or events outside of the local turf. Festivals are an ideal way to see what the rest of the world has to offer and network with other improvisers. Festivals also inspire with the variety of talent and shows on display. While Tightrope is a cornerstone of the improv community, it removes the need for troupes to have to run the business side of an improv group which can risk troupes pushing their development and setting higher goals. That being said, Dublin based group, Auto-Correbt, have being leading the way with some of their achievements this year which is thrilling to see. They’ve performed at non improv festivals to great acclaim as well as push themselves to see what they can achieve. I look forward to seeing other groups following suit.
In time-honoured tradition through I do like to give a shout out for my favourite Irish act of the year. No different than last year, Jess’s’s’s continue to keep me entertained me every time I catch them.
What’s in store for 2019?
With 2019 just around the corner, I’ve already got much in the calendar for next year. I have a number of corporate speaking events lined up which will hopefully further expand the reach of improv in the business world. I also have the Edinburgh Improv Festival early in the new year.
I’ve being cheating on my improv love by secretly writing a play which I hope to have completed in the first half of 2019. It’s not improv, but takes inspiration from some of my experiences from this year as well as past life events. Of course, that assumes the alien invasion hasn’t happened by then…
And that’s a wrap! Grateful for all the adventures 2018 has brought, the support from friends and family and the joy improv has brought me. I hope improv has taken care of you this year, and you have taken care of improv. Wishing you all the best for 2019.