We asked some of our teachers to answer a few questions about their life in improv comedy. You can read them here.
What’s your improv “origin story?” (How did you first discover improv?)
My mother was an actor and I was a shy child so I grew up immersed in theatre. I loved Whose Line and used to play and replicate it with friends as a teenager without having the first notion of what I was doing. Being shy, improv to me was far more liberating and expressive than scripted theatre. However it wasn’t until later in life when I started to focus on developing and training in improv. I credit John Cremer and The Maydays for making me the improviser that I am today!
Where have you studied improv?
Living on an island where there were very limited opportunities of taking improv classes, especially long form, I had to look further afield. I read every book I could find, studied every video I could online trying to decipher form and techniques, and took as many classes as I could abroad. Because of the day job I couldn’t take months off so I spent a lot of money on airfares for weekend or weeks away! I still do to this day. Aside from The Maydays, I have been fortunate to take classes with heroes of mine including the late Jason Chin, David Razowsky, Brian James O’Connell, Susan Messing and Rachael Mason to name but a few.
Tell us about the class that you’re running.
My class focus is on breaking improv. We hear a lot of things we should do on stage, such as “Yes And”; “support your partner” and “there is no wrong way to do it”. But what does it actually mean to truly support our partner? And is there really no wrong way to do it? What if my partner has never taken an improv class, are they already doing it wrong? What if my partner isn’t supporting me? In this class we will deep diving into all the worst case scenarios, the improv nightmares and the “Upside Down” of Yes And, and proving to ourselves we’ve got this. I developed the class from years of playing duo shows with random audience non-improvisers in my show Neil+1.
Do as much as you can. Train with every teacher you can find and support every one you play with.
What do you hope students will be able to take into their scenes after finishing your class?
A new sense of comfort with things that normally fill us with terror. And hopefully a new found love of playfulness with being scary themselves.
What do you do outside of improv?
Oh Jesus, I hate this question. I recently attended a Do Not Adjust Your Stage show and they picked me as the guy who talks about his life. They did want to hear my improv stories. I ran out of things to say very quickly! Joking aside, I do enjoy movies and talking movies and riding my motorbike. I also find comfort on lonely nights in my PS4.
What’s a memorable move/scene/walk on/whatever you’ve seen someone else make in an improv show or workshop?
I was attending Camp Improv Utopia East in Pennsylvania a few years ago and the teacher show featured Jill Bernard, Craig Cackowski, Paul Vaillencourt, Will Luera, Nick Armstrong and Rick Andrews. During the show Craig went on a rollercoaster showcasing the misery he would go through in life. His understanding of performance coupled with his use of silence was so profound and powerful it made the scene. Not many performers would have been that comfortable playing in such an understated way. I have it on video somewhere.
What’s a move you’ve made where you’ve instantly regretted it and thought it was dumb as shit?
I was in show where we got into a run of tag outs but I didn’t get the game that was happening. I had to move in the scene though as the whole line up moved in order. I started to creep into my head. Fortunately, I survived but I hated myself for getting up in my head.
What’s an improv move you’ve made where you’ve been secretly proud of it?
I guessed in an improvised musical devised by Will Luera in Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota. The cast featured a lot of great talent and I ended up being in the opening scene. I did a wonderful duet with my co-star and it was one my improv career highlights. Aside from that, any scene I don’t screw up is always a something to be proud of.
Most unexpected laugh you’ve gotten?
Stealing an improvised wheelchair from a performer only to have another improviser who was also sitting in an improvised wheelchair accidentally trip me up resulting in me going head first into the wall. An inch from my death!
Favourite style of improv to do?
Narrative. Love it. It’s a chance to explore so much on stage. Neil+1 is narrative in structure and has allowed me explore people’s lives through improv. I also love the Decon. It’s a form that has a bit of everything and when done correctly is like poetry unfolding.
Get a coach. (…)take a break.
What bit of improv advice that you’d give to someone starting out in improv today?
Do as much as you can. Train with every teacher you can find and support every one you play with. And always remain humble. There is no competition in improv, just a community to be loved. Don’t forget to tell your co-performers the things they do that you like.
What bit of improv advice would you give to someone that has been improvising for a while but is stuck in a rut?
Two things. Get a coach. They use coaches a lot in the US but troupes and performers don’t do it as much in Europe. A good coach will make a world of difference. Also if you have been improvising a lot, take a break. I took my first true break from improv recently when I went on holiday and it was one of the greatest things I ever did for making me feel fresh again when I got back.
What is it that you love about improvisation?
I love the community. It really is like a cult to outsiders! I’m fortunate enough that I travel a lot for and with improv. When I travel I can get to play with friends without having rehearsed. Very few art forms allow us such privilege. Improv brings us together as human beings through shared vulnerability.
What comedy do you like outside of improv? Movies? TV Shows? Stand Ups?
I dislike a lot of stand up and modern comedy movies rarely hit the spot for me. I still laugh at Spinal Tap and get a kick out of the original Lampoon Vacation movies.
What have you learned through doing improv that was an unexpected lesson?
We can only laugh as hard as we can cry. Something Jill Bernard taught me. Through one of her classes on Truth and Beauty, she taught us to express sincere vulnerability. It was disarming and so powerful.
What’s the coolest shit that being an improviser brings you?
I’ve made some great friends through improv. People that I can be myself around and play on stage with.
What’s your favourite warm up exercise?
Thunderdome. The bigger the group the more fun it is. It’s essentially a twist on Mallet’s Mallet but with the improv twist.
What’s your favourite improv exercise?
Anything that involves emotional point of view.
Got any pre-show rituals?
Vomit profusely and drink tea.
What is one of the most fun or useful improv workshops that you’ve taken?
So many. Anything John Cremer does. I once took a Craig Cackowski workshop and I ended up taking no notes because it was so much fun and intensive!
We can only laugh as hard as we can cry.
What (if anything) do you hate about improv?
When cliques form or when there is a lack of community. Most audience members have a connection with improv and until the day arrives when every venue in your town is filled with improv audience, there is no competition. Ourreal competition is TV, cinema, bars and every other art form that isn’t improv.
How do you describe what we do to someone who has never seen improv before?
Come to our show, we will get naked and do illegal things on stage. They quickly forget about this once the show starts because improv is that awesome!
What public figures do you think would make good improvisers and why?
Cliched but I reckon with a bit of work Obama would be great. And that lad who does the Channel 4 news? Don’t know his name, grey hair? I’d say he’d be a right funny bastard.
Neil is performing Friday 21st October with someone from the audience. It can be you.
He is also doing a great workshop.