It was 2012, and I was about to walk out on stage in the Mill Theatre in Dundrum for perform Neil+1 for the very first time. Nerves, anxiety, regret, excitement were colliding in my mind like a child trying to keep within the lines in a colouring book. It was a full house and a reviewer was plonked somewhere in the audience. My first +1 was a young guy, passionate about rugby and had never seen an improv show before. While consenting to the process, he was in complete denial that a show was taking place. Referring me to my real name throughout and regularly stating in scenes that “No, we are in a theatre in Dundrum”. Eek, this was improv with a stranger at its most challenging!
Despite the challenge, it was a fun show, both the audience and my +1 had a ball (thankfully the reviewer too) and the wheels were set in motion for a show I have performing internationally. I had fun too, learned a lot and was eager to do more.
Matt Holmes (of the Matt & show) was a crucial mentor back then offering encouragement and solid advice. A staple performer in the world of improvising with a stranger, he was an anchor in my early journey despite the fact he lives in Philadelphia and to this day we still haven’t met in person!
Why Improvise With A Stranger?
Neil+1 came about for a variety of reasons, with two of the key reasons being to really test my boundaries as an improvisers and test the concepts and principles of improv that we often preach. Most notably, just “yes, and” everything and treat your stage partner like a god being two. These concepts got me thinking; if they’re true then it shouldn’t matter if we are improvising with TJ & Dave or the guy who works down the butcher shop, it should work right?
Spoiler alert – yes it does, but with the caveat that not every show is going to light the show on fire. But I realised over the years that not every show has to. Improv is a journey, every show an experience and every outcome different. I also learned that the goal of any improv show is not to necessary entertain an audience but instead just have fun as performers. The audience’s entertainment is important for business obviously but first and foremost ask yourself – why am I improvising? It’s always about the fun. (Until you reach a point where you can make a lavish income from performing improv. If you have figured out how to do this, please email me so I can do the same!) Everything else is a subset of the performers having fun. There’s nothing selfish about wanting to enjoy stage time above anything else. In fact, its a critical part of the experience. Substitute nerves for fun. Substitute the urge to vomit with the urge to have more fun than last time.
From Fun To EvolutFUN
Sounds straightforward? Maybe, maybe not. But then Neil+1 hit an evolutionary milestone in 2014 when I was performing in the Unscripted Theater in the heart of San Francisco. My +1 was a university lecturer, very academic, and again had never seen improv before. Like a true academic, he was questioning the process throughout so that he could process the experience. Nearly every line was a question (the questions remained relevant to the scene rather than 4th wall breaking). It was challenging but there was a part of me that was hoping that beneath it all he was enjoying the experience and felt safe throughout. He was hard to read, until the last scene.
The story ended up being rooted in family and I played a family member of his. The final scene saw him stop asking questions and hug me which was a lovely moment that ended the show. As always, I took him back stage to check in and see that he was after the show.
Except, for the time, he was emotional. The experience was so positive, the story so enriching, that it allowed him to emotionally connect to the family member that I had played, who unbeknownst to me, had passed away in prior years. For my +1, his experience represented so much more than being part of a comedy show, it was an experience that allowed him to really feel connected, and have insight in to the aspects of his life.
Now I’d love to take credit and say that it was my plan all long, but it genuinely was out of left field. It also taught me to be aware that what we do in improv can go so much further than just laughs or drama. We have the ability to truly connect with people.
I’d like to tell you that every show was like that, with +1s having deeply profound experiences every time, but that would be a lie. While some guests have spoken with me after about the profound effects, or deeper learnings they have had from the show, the important thing from my perspective is that I have created a safe, fertile space for my +1s to truly let go and embrace whatever comes up. So from the +1 who realised from doing the show that she had been following her husband’s dreams all her life, to the +1 who found clarity in a career crossroads she found herself in, the space is open and the art-form is a tool as well as a method of entertainment. And even if all that the +1 gets is an adrenaline rush and kudos from the audience afterward, then we all had fun and that’s enough. More than enough.
Sunshines and Rainbows?
Definitely not. There have been shows that were really challenging. For example the show where the +1 engaged in inappropriate behaviour with characters or the show where my +1’s real father in the audience hurled unhappy comments at the stage during the show because he didn’t understand what improv was or what Neil+1 was. Challenging nights, but they didnt stop me. (The former incident was dealt with on stage in character and the latter was dealt with with positive energy and flagging the show is best enjoyed in the English language!)
But What About Those Boundaries and Those Concepts Mentioned Earlier?
Performing Neil+1 taught me many things but 3 things stand out.
- There are no rules – you can’t improvise ‘wrong’
As Susan Messing says, you can’t break improv and she’s dead right. The improv concepts and principles we learn are like stabilisers/training wheels on a bike. Take them off and the bike will still work and suddenly you are freed up to do wheelies, flips and bunny hops. You can’t do those things with the training wheels on! This applies to everything in improv though – from “yes, and” to support in scenes.
- Laughter is sometimes the least interesting thing about Improv
Don’t get me wrong, comedy and laughter is great! But sometimes there is richness and depth on stage that shouldn’t be tagged out or edited. Many performers get nervous when the laughs stop and don’t realise that sometimes that’s when our best work is happening.
- You’ll never be ‘good enough’, so stop trying to be
The inner critic, the comparison with others, the trying to leave a dent in the universe – its all fruitless and frankly nobody cares. Don’t let your improv journey be marred by regret, jealously, frustration or ego (be it yours or that of people around you). Instead just focus on having fun.
Audiences don’t care if you are doing the fancy new format you saw someone do in some fancy theatre in some fancy other country. Why should you?
Frustrated another improviser, troupe or theatre in town is getting more attention than you? Leave them off, exorcise that negative energy and let it inspire you to continue your journey. (As someone once told me as the popularity of an indie theatre group I set up years ago grew, “One day your group will the big, bad guy not pleasing everyone and another indie theatre will move in pulling focus. Be humble when it does”
You are already enough, focus on what you enjoy and celebrate the success of others who’s heart is in the right place. Which is probably most people if we are honest.
I just want to thank….
Its rare that I do something in life that I stick with for so long and Neil+1 is that thing. But I couldn’t have kept it going this long without encouragement, insights and support from a number of people (both directly and indirectly over the years). A big thanks and shout out to Matt Holmes who put me on the straight and narrow, Unscripted Theater SF for taking a punt on a random Irish improviser, Barcelona Improv Festival for helping me reach wider audiences by giving me a chance to perform and teach there, The Maydays for being such supporters, incredible teachers and friends over the years, and unbeknownst to them; David Razowsky for showing me how to respect my own credibility with what I do, and Katie Nahnsen for inspiring me with a workshop I took with her some years ago.
You can catch the 10 year anniversary show on Friday 21st October in the Teachers Club in Dublin. For tickets click here!