Welcome to a new fortnightly article where we speak to different improvisers about their five top improvisers and why. Of course, there are many people that do improv that are fantastic that it may actually be a bit mean to just limit it to only five people but I wanted to create this article so that you can be introduced to players you may not of heard or maybe find out how some of the best known improvisers are inspiring others. Today, I sit down with the founder of the Improv Boost, Mischief Managed Improv and Social Media Influencer of all things improv – David Escobedo.
When I was asked to write about my Top Five Improv Performers – a few things crossed my mind. First of all, I’m a bad at spelling and thirdly, I’m bad at counting.
But some people immediately popped into my noggin and I want to get that out. Sort of “first impressions” when asked, and I love to stir up the positivity in the improv community (Woot!).
MAGGIE NOLAN – I have to put her first. Maggie Nolan is in Murder Inc and Comedysportz in Manchester and she is also a part of Mischief Managed. Technically, she has the short form chops of labeling the characters, location and game. Maggie makes big bold choices in character and in concepts. She also has amazing long form instincts by tying scenes together and making one larger story by relating the smaller stories to each other. I both enjoy performing with her, and watching her perform. Offstage (which we don’t talk enough about) Maggie is more passionate about creating community more than her own individual career in improv. Which is rare. Most people are pursuing their own path of getting better and getting cast in certain shows – in a field about cooperation, everyone pursues improv as individual. I’ve had several conversations with Maggie about how to bring people together and use campaigns to highlight teams instead of capitalizing on an opportunity to promote oneself. I love that sort of selfless ideology.
JAY SUKOW – hands down, one of the most influential improv teachers and personalities I have ever come across. With the absolute OUTSTANDING level of improv he’s done, and the OUTSTANDING teachers he’s trained with (Del Close, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Keith Johnstone, Jon Favreau… just to name a few) he is absolutely grounded and does not shy away from performing with a beginner. My first experience with Jay was taking an improv class with my wife. It was my wife’s first ever improv class, and my 100th. In the same class Jay found a way to inspire and teach both of us. The guy is hilarious. I am thinking of the time at the Copenhagen Improv Festival when he played a fish and his teammate, Alastair Forbes, had to “carry” him as a fish … Jay is 6’ 4”. And then in the scene, the two of them switched three characters: the father, the son and the fish. And they were trying to strategically put each other in the position to carry the fish at the same time supporting one another’s moves. IT was …. So funny. But then Jay also goes out of his way to provide improv teaching to new people, at an affordable price … JUST BECAUSE HE BELIEVES IN IMPROV SO MUCH. He has no ego. He will talk to anyone, work with anyone. And for someone with that level of success to be so grounded is amazing. I gush. And I could gush for 17 more pages about him.
LIAM WEBBER – I met Liam at the Birmingham Improv Festival in 2019. We were doing a workshop, that was oversold so all the exercises had 6-8 people in them and it was a packed workshop. We were doing an 8 person exercise like “black sheep” where one person is different from the rest of the group. In my experience with situations like this, I’ve learned not to fight for “voice time.” 8 people who have never worked together (of varying degrees) will most likely just yell over each other. And instead of being part of the chaos, I like to fill in the background – focusing on emotion or object work and really hyper listen to what’s going on and give weight to it. In this scene we were in a teddy bear factory and people were frantically trying to fill the silence. I leaned into the feeling of being frantic and I started getting more and more anxious and almost started crying (as a character choice) and in the scene Liam walked over to me and said, “hey hey, guys. Danny’s having a hard time with this.” And I immediately was impressed. He was also not trying to fight for the verbal dominance the whole scene, had been observing, named me (“Danny”) and tried to make the scene about relationship instead of the “teddy bear factory breaking down”/anger. That first move made me really impressed. Then after the workshop he invited several people out to lunch – which was about networking and meeting people. Then when you hang out with the guy … WHEN YOU HANG OUT WITH THE GUY … he is so kind, and listens, and smart, and curious about life. Just an amazing person. I have not had the pleasure of being taught by him, but you best believe if the opportunity arises I will sign up for his class or workshop.
COREY TAFT – dude. I LOVE both performing with and watching Corey Taft perform. I am such a HUGE fan of his. His style is very quiet and overly accepts his scene partner’s offers. If you say something, he believes in your words more than you do. Which takes scenes in really funny directions. I love when he plays “bad guys” because he works with kids so much he plays these “over the top” bad guys that remind me of Steve Carell or Alan Rickman. Where the bad guy is not only bad, but is also self-effacing. Whenever I get on stage with Corey I know that scene will be good – AND we will have fun. There is one specific Wretched Hive rehearsal where he and Trent Fremont were so funny I couldn’t edit the scene! Like I said he is someone I love to perform with, but love watching perform.
KATY SCHUTTE – Katy is an improv tactician who has a plethora of characters at her disposal. Every time she walks on stage, before that first foot has hit the ground she is in the character’s head. Her scene moves pull relationships together and pull scenes together so that it glues the entire story into an enjoyable narrative. I have had the honor of performing with her on stage. I love silence and leaning into intense moments. She was in the scene with me, and didn’t try to frantically label things or get uncomfortable. We made eye contact and had the confidence to know something was going to happen. We went from this intense silence of two people happily getting divorced which melted into the entire team playing a band while we sang in the style of Star Wars. It happened organically, neither one of us directed that, and it went this weird creative direction that none of us individually could have invented.
In doing this, I notice several different aspects shared by all five of these people:
– NO EGO: they aren’t tied up in being “better than” anybody and they don’t view other teams or people as “competition. No matter how tremendously experienced or highly skilled they are, you could talk to them about the latest Netflix series at lunch. They have no pompous airs about them. None of them are trying to create an “elite level” of improv and welcome new performers to the craft but stand toe-to-toe with the best.
– CALM ACCEPTING ENERGY: although they can all get excited about things, they all are open to new people. They will listen. When you talk to them, they aren’t waiting to twist your last statement into a bit. They aren’t trying throw out one liners to make you laugh. They genuinely listen and are curious about people. I think a lot of improv performers who may be in their intermediate stages, have a hard time “taking it off” and feel like they need to find the game in every conversation. These people will listen, and get excited with you about your projects.
– COOPERATIVE: every single one of them works as a team. One of the reasons they shine as a leader is because they become extremely valuable as a team member. There is that quote that strikes me right now, “those that demand to be in charge, rarely are.” And these five people are leaders in the community because people gravitate towards them. Not because they place themselves in a judgmental position above others, trying to keep them down.
– THEY’VE DONE CRAPPY JOBS: all of them have done/or are doing a hard job. They don’t come from places of privilege. They hustle. They work hard, they do the hard work and they get my absolute respect.
I truly love what they have added to my experience as an improv performer and what they add to the community. There definitely more that I absolutely love – Paul Vaillancourt, Craig Cackwoski, Lyndsay Evans, Catherine Hodges, Julian Cook, Joe Thompson, Stuart Moses, David Elliot, Liz Peters, Vanessa Anton, etc … but I wanted to make a Top Five of the first five that popped into my mind.
Thank you to everybody who contribute every day to the improv community to make it better.
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