Matt Holmes (below, left) performs improvised shows with a stranger in Philadelphia. Neil Curran (right) does the same thing across Ireland. They connected recently to talk about their experiences, and the improv scene on both sides of the pond.
P&C: How is performing with a non-improviser different from performing with someone who understands “Yes, and”?
NC: I find that eventually the audience member naturally realises that they should “yes, and”, even though they don’t know what they’re doing.
MH: I think everybody has a child-like sense of playing and creating, somewhere inside.
NC: Yes, the less experience the better. They’re pure of heart then!
Neil: What attracted you to the format, and what inspired you to do it?
Matt: It sort of came about organically for me. There wasn’t one particular impetus for it. It was kind of an experiment. I liked the idea of coming up with the idea myself.
Neil: How does it feel to be at the forefront with the format?
Matt: I really like advising other people about this kind of show and seeing what variations people make.
I’ve found that people can take the basic notion and tailor it to themselves with little adjustments. I’m very loose with it, but I like seeing similar shows that frame it uniquely for the performer doing it.
Neil: I’d love to try to do it with yourself and two audience members, as a foursome.
Matt: Oh, I never would’ve thought of that. We should pitch that for some festival.
Matt: What’s your history with improv in general?
Neil: I grew up immersed in theatre. My mother is an actor and a drama teacher/examiner, so from an early age I was involved in theatre in some form.
I always had a love for improv though, and while improv in the drama world is often different to what we do, it was the liberation and freedom that came with it that I loved. No restrictions.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? was also running when I was a teenager, and I was addicted to it. Imitating games with friends, it was my favourite show on TV, and Ryan Stiles became a hero.
Later in life, I set up a theatre group in Dublin that held weekly drop-in workshops. Improv was used a lot in those classes, so I started to take improv more seriously, short-form first, but the lightbulb moment wasn’t until I was introduced to a UK improv troupe, The Maydays, and in particular, John Cremer.
That’s when everything changed for me. John is one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met, and their skill at long form made me want to work hard at being the best long-form performer that I could be. Through The Maydays, I was introduced to other great teachers, such as Jason Chin, and Marshall and Nancy behind Zenprov.
Matt: I don’t know what improv is like in the UK or in Ireland.
Neil: The improv scene in Ireland was very small. There was a very long-running, successful short-form group in Dublin (Dublin Comedy Improv), but no one was really doing long form.
So I started to teach long form and performing it with the troupe I was playing with at the time, Laughalot Improv. I think we performed Dublin’s first Harold, but I could be mistaken.
Over time, my workshop numbers grew and grew. I now have four levels that I teach. More and more long form groups have been sprouting up. It’s fantastic.
Matt: Your story is surprisingly similar to mine. I was semi-aware of improv as something that actors do and that comedians learn before getting on Saturday Night Live or MADTV, but then Whose Line really crystallized it into a specific idea.
I was shy and never would’ve gotten on stage, even though I was really interested in performance. Then I tried short-form in college and shifted into long-form after college, starting up Philly’s small comedy scene with shows and classes and workshops.
And now I have that same situation as you, with lots of groups sprouting up around me.
Neil: It was challenging trying to continuously train at long form, as I had to go to the UK to learn. Fortunately, The Maydays run intensives, which proved hugely beneficial.
I then met a lady who used to live in the U.S. but lives in Galway, Ireland, now and has since become a very good friend: Órla Mc Govern. Órla is an actor and a veteran long form improviser. She performed with a number of groups in Seattle and beyond before moving back to Ireland.
Matt: For me, the improv festival circuit was a great way to learn more about improv via experts from Chicago, New York, Toronto, etc.
That was where I really leveled up and incorporated those different approaches, along with learning by teaching others and having to get my head around it all.
Neil: How do you find being independent of the Chicago/New York/LA scene influences your improv?
Matt: I think it has allowed me to pick and choose what works for me personally.
Neil: Yes! I find that’s the same in Europe.
Matt: I feel like being separated from the “official way” to do it has kept me open to all kinds of styles, interpretations, and influences.
I think improvisers in those saturated places go through one specific idea of what improv means. Some do multiple tracks or branch out with an intensive at another institution, but they’re still these firm routes.
Neil: I agree, and we’re witnessing almost a hybrid style emerge in Europe, which is truly wonderful.
Matt: How is improv different in Ireland/UK/Europe from other places you’ve been?
Neil: The UK scene is very evolved, although players there may disagree. However, things are really flourishing, and there are some tour de force acts there. The scene in Europe is growing rapidly, with more and more festivals emerging. The sense of community is huge.
Matt: What do you mean by “evolved”?
Neil: I mean that there are some high-calibre groups doing cutting-edge things. The standard is very high.
Matt: I see. How is the material itself different (if it is)? I’ve read about cultural differences that led to improv in Latin America being different in style from American/Canadian/European improv.
Neil: You see less improv events here being marketed as Armando nights or Harold nights, etc. because frankly audiences don’t know what it means, nor do they care.
Troupes are developing their own formats and styles, putting their own slant on things. Slapping ‘Chicago long-form improv’ on a poster in Europe won’t sell seats to non-improvisers, as people don’t know what that means.
Matt: Are people doing Harold/Armando/etc. or just “long-form” and their own new stuff?
Neil: It’s a mix, to be honest.
One of my goals (and Órla’s) in Ireland is to establish long form improv as an art form in the eyes of the arts community and media, beyond the improv community.
Matt: Philadelphia is such a theatre town. It would be great to have more-artistic improv connected to that realm.
Neil: I agree. I try to stage as much of the Neil+1 shows in theatres as I can.
Órla’s troupe, The Sky Babies, have been accepted into the Galway Theatre Festival, a first for any theatre festival in Ireland. Their show The Suitcase is very much a great example of improvised theatre.
As awesome as Whose Line is, to the people not familiar with improv, they assume that Whose Line is all there is to improv.
When I first announced Improv Fest Ireland, one journalist asked me “How do you expect to entertain audiences for a week of just Whose Line Is It Anyway?-type shows?”
Matt: I’ve had that same kind of experience. Nine times out of 10, I can tell what people are thinking when I say “improv.”
Matt: What sparked the original idea for you to try performing with an audience member?
Neil: It’s somewhat unorthodox. I travel a lot with work and otherwise, but when I was in my first improv troupe, not everyone could afford to travel or want to, and I always wanted to take a show on the road.
So I asked myself, “Can I perform improv solo, so that I only have to worry about myself when I travel when arranging a show?”
There was the whole taboo of using the audience as guest performers. That’s when I met you. I believe your words were “Just book the gig and see how it goes”!
Matt: I didn’t think about how well the set-up works for the road until I had been doing it a while.
Neil: Yes, for me Neil+1 evolved quite rapidly as my confidence grew. The first show was very successful, so that set the stage.
Matt: You do an hour-long show. Did you start off doing it that way?
Neil: Now it’s an hour long. When I was finding my footing with the show, I moved into turning it into a narrative piece, and the extended time came naturally.
Matt: I’ve done shows to fit any timeframe: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45-ish minutes, but a full hour seems daunting.
Neil: To me, I make the show completely about the audience member. They play themselves. The show tends to be an alternate universe view of what their life could be like, or could have been like.
I play with the formats too. So I have the general “anything goes” Neil+1 format, but since November I also have the Boy Seeks Girl format, where the interview is actually a first date.
Matt: I was going to ask about that new take on it.
Neil: The new take is interesting, it’s a study into our dating lives, I guess. I had a “Eureka!” moment when I performed Neil+1 in San Francisco a while ago. The audience member became teary after the show.
I had played his father in a few of the scenes. There was a fallout and a reconciliation in the show. He told me afterward that his father had died over a year previous, but the show had been the first time he had emotionally connected to his father’s passing since the funeral. He was very grateful for the experience.
I realised that the show can become an avenue to explore aspects of our lives. Boy Seeks Girl became the next obvious step for me.
I’m debuting a new format this year called You’re Dead! which goes a step further, and the opening interview is set at the gates to the afterlife, and we talk about the audience member’s review of their life, regrets, etc.
Matt: Do you see these formats presenting the show as theatre that just happens to be improvised, as opposed to being an improv show?
Neil: It’s hard to say. I see the show as improvised theatre. One reviewer called it interactive theatre. I often say spontaneous theatre.
The labels though are really for connecting with the non-improvising public and media. At the end of the day, it’s long-form improv, and proudly so.
What I love about the format is you can’t bullshit your way throughout. You have to work hard to make the show work, and you have to make your co-star look awesome.
If we learn in improv there is no wrong way to do it and to make your partner look good, then it shouldn’t matter what experience your co-star has.
P&C: Do you ever worry about the people you bring onstage with you clamming up, or not giving you enough to work with?
Matt: For me, it can occasionally be a challenge. I’ve learned to accept and welcome that hesitancy. It makes it all the more wondrous when they do open up and play along.
Neil: Never. The only thing I worry about is alcohol.
If I ‘yes, and’ the whole way and respect the way the audience member feels, then there is nothing to fear. It’s important to be conscious of how the audience member is really feeling.
Matt: You worry about your partner being drunk?
Neil: Yes, I would worry if I selected someone who had been drinking.
Matt: Some of my best shows have been with tipsier partners.
Neil: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t be comfortable with it. We don’t perform with improvisers who are drunk, so the thought of performing with a drunk audience member is not something I’m keen on!
Matt: I think it’s different, because that person is not an improviser. They exist in a limbo between performer and audience.
P&C: Do you find that this kind of show is more “real” than a lot of the regular improv you do?
Matt: I think it’s remarkable how similar it is to a regular improv duo. There’s an added element from bringing somebody from the audience onstage, but the material itself is usually like any other improv of equal caliber.
I don’t consider it a solo show or just some gimmick. My audience partner is my partner, who just happens to be from the audience.
It does have a kind of coalesced quality to it, though, like it’s pure and cooked down: freebase improv.
Neil: I think it can be more real. And that’s why I make the narrative about the audience member. Their feelings on stage are real. Their emotion tends to be more raw and real.
I agree it’s not a gimmick. The audience member is your co-star. They get laughs, and they cause the audience to emote.
Matt: I’m struck by how such similar shows can be so different. Your show seems like it’s a bit more dramatic and theatrical than mine, especially with your partners playing themselves.
Neil: It felt like where I excel better; let the audience member be himself or herself, and I will play all the other characters.
Matt: I’ve had some partners who revert to being themselves and also try to get me to be myself, which is not comfortable for me.
I like to get into a scene with different characters and situations and have it feel like somebody from the audience has been pulled in, like Alice going through the looking glass, or Pleasantville.
P&C: How do audiences respond to this kind of show, versus other improv sets? Is there a difference?
Matt: I’ve still gotten audiences who don’t understand how improv works, that there are no planned parts, or how we use the suggestion, but still loved the show.
And I’ve also gotten audiences that get a clearer picture of the fact that we’re making it up as we go, because the audience member on stage is kind of a stand-in.
Neil: Interesting question. I asked Will Luera his opinion when he saw my show. I was interested to find out if the audience liked the show because I and my guest survived, or because it was an entertaining show. He said it’s both.
So I guess it gives an additional edge for the audience. The element of risk is perceived to be higher.
Matt: There are more layers to our shows. Every improv show has the performance and then an underlying game of being improvised. It’s more transparent in this case.
I think it’s the kind of thing that really grabs a new viewer, but also an experienced performer who can see what’s being done.
Neil: True. Audience reactions vary from being entertained and impressed, to claiming the show was rehearsed and a stooge was used.
After one show, I overheard one audience member in the bar ridicule the show because he believed my guest was clearly trained and scripted. As funny and complimentary as that is, it’s unlikely I’ll see that guy in the audience again. He probably now thinks all improv is scripted!
Matt: I love hearing audiences question whether a show is improvised.
Matt: What has surprised you most about doing this?
Neil: It never ceases to amaze me how, eventually, every audience member will naturally realise it’s better to ‘yes, and’ than to block.
Obviously, he or she will have no idea what they are doing or even know what ‘yes, and’ is, but every show, at a certain point, the “Eureka!” moment kicks in.
To me, that’s when the magic really happens.
P&C: Have you ever had a show that just bombed? What happened?
Neil: Not bombed, but I have had very challenging shows.
I had one show where my guest went through a random pattern of accepting reality and then denying it a moment or two later. It kept me on my toes and really re-emphasised the need to listen hard and justify more.
I had another show where the guest just asked questions for most of the show. That was also challenging.
Matt: I had a bunch of shows that just didn’t click into place. It was really more about me as a performer than about this unique set-up.
I think all improvisers hit slumps like that and need to get back on track.
Neil: What has doing this format taught you about yourself?
Matt: I think I’ve found that it’s possible to make the best of your strengths and your weaknesses.
This show builds on my natural talents, but it also takes my bad habits (for a standard improv show) and makes them into necessary elements.
I think this kind of pet project can allow for more exploration about what’s important for an individual artist.
P&C: Have you ever stayed in touch with anyone you’ve performed with in this way?
Matt: I’ll chat with them after the show, and sometimes I’ll get an email or something.
More than once, I’ve had a partner return to the show with friends or family members, hoping to see them go through the same experience.
Neil: Occasionally. Two of my guests took up improv classes after taking part in the show. With others, we connected after on Facebook, and more often than not we have a beer in the bar after.
I’m planning on doing t-shirts for future shows that say something like “I was Neil’s +1” so I can leave a physical memento for the guest.
I haven’t had any tell me after that they had a negative experience, and that’s the most important thing.
Matt: Yeah, I just think that the person gets as much of a kick out of playing with us as we do from playing with them.
Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “Best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show.
Neil Curran has been performing and teaching improv for many years and has a passion for formats involving audience members. He also performs with the Poets of Penance, and is the founder and Artistic Director of Improv Fest Ireland.