Mick Napier is to improv as Keith Richards is to rock’n’roll. In Part Two, we discuss acting skills, Chicago versus New York and LA, how to start an improv theatre, and erector sets.
P&C: You’ve probably seen more improv than most people on the planet. Do you ever want to scream when you see a clichéd scene that you’ve seen a million times? How do you stay fresh and motivated [in] your attitude towards seeing improv?
MN: Well, that’s a great question; it’s very hard to do. There are an infinite number of things you can do in improvisation, but there seem to be the same patterns of behaviour that show up often. So it’s difficult.
I think I do mention this in my book. If the suggestion is “bowling alley,” then someone’s gonna put their hand in the air in order to hold a ball, or they’re gonna hold a hand dryer if they’re clever. Or if someone says “graveyard,” they’re gonna grab a shovel to dig, and it’s just these associations that we make.
So those become trying after a while, and difficult to pay attention to because it’s the same constructs.
And then behaviourally, people do reference time a lot, or people will say they love things a lot, or there’s all these different words that become [unintelligible]. So it becomes crazy, and it becomes very hard to stay focused often.
Sometimes I don’t really even listen to the words of a scene so much; I just kind of can hear the cadence of a scene to know what’s up, or to know the kind of behaviour that’s behind the cadence in a strange way. I don’t even know how to say that… But oftentimes I am not really listening to the content all the time.
If I have a feeling that it’s going to go in a particular way, I can assess from the very beginning of a scene pretty much what’s going to happen and I’ll kind of check in to the scene. And I feel horrible because I’m essentially admitting that I check out of a scene, but sometimes I do.
And then over time I feel like, that, I’ve just become really good at also just looking past the content and looking at human behaviour. So when I look at improvisation, especially when I’m teaching, I really am thinking about the person, and what can I bring to that person, and what are they doing?
So that’s the part that becomes stimulating to me; not whether the scene’s funny to me or whether the scene’s working, but y’know… “Sally just did that twice. Is she gonna do that again? She didn’t or she did. That becomes a pattern. Is that pattern an asset for improvisation, a deficit, or is it merely something she needs to find balance with? And how can I say that and asses that, and remember that.
And that’s the part that becomes stimulating when I’m teaching.
P&C: I was blown away when you came to Toronto and just nailed everybody’s style and their go-tos, and you did it so quickly. I understand that you have a lot of experience, but I also think you have a gift for that, because it seems like you enjoy that kind of analysis.
MN: I do, I really do. That is stimulating. And I really do like to see if I can empathise with the feeling and thinking of the person while they’re improvising.
I think if I have a gift, one of them is that I don’t forget ever what it’s like to improvise. Because I still improvise, and I still remember the same feeling I have when I improvise. I remember the same feeling I had the first time I saw the Mainstage at Second City. The first time I saw a Harold. The first I auditioned for the Generals or Tourco at Second City.
I’ve been running those auditions for twenty years, and I always, on the way to those auditions, stop and remember what it’s like to audition. Because it’s scary.
So I feel like that, if I do have any abilities, that’s one of them, is just to remember what it’s like and to always feel like I’m improvising and to see if I can get inside a person’s head. Because improvisation is scary as fuckin’ hell. It’s scary…so I get it.
P&C: You wrote a list of twelve tips for people auditioning for Second City in an Annoyance newsletter. One of the tips was “Study acting. You won’t, but you ought to.”
When David Razowsky was here recently he said that the last generation of improvisers was taught by actors, and this generation – to a large degree – is being taught by improvisers. Do you agree, and if so, how do you think that affects the quality of improv we’re seeing?
MN: Wow. I almost wish Jennifer would answer that question. She just said she agreed. I never thought of that, but boy, as I think about it I can agree. It becomes increasingly surprising to us that people don’t know stage left from stage right, or don’t, you know, know how to be on stage… I think that’s probably true.
I think of Dave Razowsky and me, I had theatre training, and it does come from an acting point of view. I don’t watch other people teach, but I do know who is teaching, and as I Rolodex who that is in the city right now, many of them just come from the improv community, and I can’t think of a lot of them like, 30s and under, that have had a lot of acting experience.
P&C: There’s some amazing talent [in Toronto] and obviously in the States, and I feel like actors bring more subtlety to their performance.
MN: I think that’s probably true; a little more substantive, a more grounded approach to their improvisation.
I say that, but I also think that right now, the younger talent pool at least in Chicago is… there’s some really good people. So I certainly don’t want to throw that away either, because I really do believe that the younger talent pool here is really impressive, and their ability to be good on stage and get laughs is really great.
P&C: Do you think people don’t take acting lessons because they’re afraid to?
MN: I think that that’s part of it. I’ve always seen a fear on both sides: from the theatre community, they’re afraid of improvisation, and I feel like improvisers are afraid of acting.
But I also think that a lot of young improvisers just feel like they don’t need…that it’s a given that they can act, or that it’s something they don’t really have to deal with. That they’re…“Of course I can act.” And I see that being a huge issue all the time.
Especially if you’re paid to do it. You’re not paid to do improvisation, you’re paid to probably do sketch comedy, or probably act in archival scenes at Second City, etcetera. So it is an acting job first.
I’ll see really good improvisers improvise at the Second City Generals, and they get called back. And in the callbacks, they’ll have to read from a script, and it’s pretty much the thing that will either get you hired or not get you hired. It’s the edge that you need to make that final step to get hired professionally.
P&C: In that same list, you stress the importance of doing things other than improv, and that you have a lot of hobbies. I know quibit, or rapping, is one of them. What are some others?
MN: Oh my lord. Goodness… well, all my hobbies are… (laughs) Like, I do cards, I like to do a lot of card stuff. I played pool every night for like, fifteen years. I love pool, I studied pool a lot. I was into lock picking for a while. Weight lifting. Guitars…
P&C: Is it because you like learning new things?
MN: I do, yeah. I think the internet was a hobby of mine before you could click on anything. I was on the internet in 1988. That was all Unix. I knew Unix, and used to be on IRC and Gopher and all that.
The fun thing about me and the internet is that an old Annoyance actor is… I’d heard about the internet and heard he was on it, and I asked him how to get on it and he told me…his name was Dick Costolo, and he’s the CEO of Twitter now.
P&C: Oh wow. (laughs)
MN: Yeah. (laughs) I’m also into erector sets. Do you know what those are?
MN: I’ve have probably five thousand dollars’ worth of erector sets. And what’s funny for me is – I think this is telling for me in the world of process versus product thinking – is that I will spend four or five hours making something with an erector set, and just seconds after I finish it I will tear it apart.
MN: Yeah, I never care about the outcome of it. I think I’m like that a lot; I hate to go backwards and look at stuff. I’ve never read my book after it came out.
P&C: Go back and read it, it’s great!
MN: (laughs) I just kinda like do things and kinda move on. It’s probably called A.D.D.
P&C: It’s funny, because I listened to Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast interview with you, and he said you’re very good at being present. It sounds like you really enjoy this moment, and not so much the past or the future.
MN: Yeah, I try. I try. You know, I worry about stuff and all that, but yeah…
P&C: A lot of great improvisers move to New York or LA, while others stay in Chicago. Do you think there’s a certain type of person who flourishes more in one city, or is the type of career you choose?
MN: That’s a real good question. I feel like that, to move to New York… Well first of all if I had to advise anyone where to move, it would be New York. I think New York’s a better chance of actually getting paid to do it. And I actually think that New York’s a more exciting and more fun place and vibrant place to be, so I always tend to advise people that way.
I think that it takes a certain mentality to live in Los Angeles, and a certain amount of patience, a certain constitution… To be able to feel like that you’re always waiting, and that you always have something that’s a possibility for future success. I feel like that’s a huge part of the psyche of someone living in Los Angeles, so I think that you have to have the make-up for that.
I think that in Los Angeles you have a better chance you can get there quicker, so if they want to go to LA I’m always like, “Well you should go right now.” The more you wait in Chicago, the less marketable you’ll be in a weird way.
With New York I think they have more tolerance for that. So I think that if you’re someone who keeps the quality of life and their desire for that kind of adventure as high on their list as their career, then I think that’s a fuller person in a way.
Someone who stays in Chicago could be someone who is so immersed in the culture here and has such a love for it that they forgo other opportunities, like TJ Jagodowski. Or it could be someone who is probably in fear of making that leap, like Jimmy Carrane, self-admittedly. Or it could be someone who has tried it and then comes back to Chicago. And it could be a mixture of all those things, which I think is me.
I was in New York for three years and loved it, and wanted to get back to the Annoyance in Chicago. So for me there’s times where I’ve regretted not fully moving to New York. Because Jennifer was there for seven years and worked there as an actor and did well, and there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh fuck, I wish I would’ve done New York and, you know, had that life there.”
I’ve never wanted to go to Los Angeles. I worked in television for a bit and I feel like that I’m…I guess almost like, too angry to work in television.
I can’t have that conversation with twenty producers that I don’t respect, who are constantly providing input that I have to negotiate and compromise and through attrition agree to or subscribe to, and acquiesce power and all that. I’ve done it and it’s just enraging.
I admire people who can do it, I really do, and come out with a good product on the other side. But then I think about that, and usually that’s in New York.
I respect Tina for being to get through all I know she had to do to in order to get 30 Rock the way it was. And I respect Stephen Colbert, and people I’ve known through the years who’ve made that leap. It just takes so much energy, and I respect it so much.
And the people, the mediocrity you have to meet along the way, and the product-oriented people coming at you all the time. It takes a lot of energy.
I worked on Exit 57 and I learned a lot about the quality of life one must endure to be in television, and I was so angry all the time at having to deal with everything you have to deal with, that I think that became a decision for me to never, ever immerse myself in the culture of Los Angeles where that would be pretty much the constant. And add to that the waiting, and the feeling like my next phone call was gonna be something… and it was just, oh my God…
So to answer your question, I think it takes that kind of constitution, or that kind of demeanour in order to live there without absolutely going out of your fucking mind.
P&C: Whenever I see the part in Annie Hall where Woody visits LA and he watches the guy put the laugh track on, that’s pretty much my concept of what it must be like to work in TV. I work in advertising, which is not even art, and the compromises are often nauseating. Doing a TV show, I can only imagine how many fingers are in that pie.
MN: I’m sure. And I’m sure you’ve seen in advertising some very funny, original concepts just be homogenized to lukewarm mediocrity.
I’ve read The Art of Chicago Improv, and it became really clear that it’s a very tough thing to do, to open a theatre. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start an improv theatre today.
MN: It’s boring advice, but to go to the trouble of finding out all the logistical things you need to do in order to run a theatre legally and safely. I know that is such a 50-year-old person’s answer, but what I learned is that I’ve done it many different ways, and I’ve found that it takes a lot less energy to do it legally and right than it does to skate around. And it’s also less expensive to do it correctly than to not.
The reason I say that, first, is that when you’re starting out you feel like you want to skate around this. You don’t want to really have to get a fucking permit and do all this other shit. And what I’ve learned over time is that it takes so much more energy and so much more secrecy and so much more money to do it that way.
So I guess my first piece of advice would be – as boring as it is – go to the trouble of and have the courage to just do it the way you want to do it, and that will give you more creative freedom later, because you don’t have to be hiding behind shit.
Now that is the first thing that comes to me while I’m in the process, just this morning, of looking at a space to try to move the Annoyance. So I’m in that mindset for sure.
We’re really close to moving, and so I’m kind of in that mind space right now, and just reflecting on the way that I’ve created theatres in Chicago, and really wish I would’ve taken the energy to do it a little differently when I was younger. But that’s on the business stuff and boring side.
On the artistic side of things, I think that having a real clear idea of the voice you want to create with your theatre, and completely being relentless about the fervor that you want to bring to that voice, and not letting the way you think it should be, or the way you think it should be perceived, be the thing that guides you.
You’ll lose artistic ground and respect if you’re attempting to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and thoughts, etcetera.
That’s one thing I’m hugely proud of with Annoyance. If you’re really going to go to the trouble to get a theatre together, you might as well at least own what your point of view is and what your vision is.
P&C: And that’s going to dovetail me nicely into my final question, which is: you are a legendary figure in the improv community. What are you most proud of in your career?
MN: As far as improv goes, I’m most proud of creating the Annoyance Training Centre. That’s the thing that if when people ask me right now “What are you most proud of at the Annoyance?” it’s the Training Centre.
I’m proud of creating an alternative way, a different way of looking at improvisation, a different way of learning it, and I’m proud of creating the Annoyance’s training that reflects that.
I really am proud of a lot of shows I’ve directed and stuff, but when it comes down to it, when people ask me that, that’s my first answer and I think it’s the most honest answer.
The shows have happened at the Annoyance, some of them have been great, some of them have just sucked. And I’m proud of the fact that allowing them to create whatever they want on stage, I really am, and above and beyond that, I’m just really proud of the training.
We have the courage to give people individual notes, and individual assessments, and keep it playful, keep it uncensored and all that.
P&C: Wonderful. Well thank you so, so much for your time. Please thank Jennifer for letting me take you away from her for an hour. Truly a pleasure to talk with you Mick.
MN: Thank you so much. Tell everyone hello.
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