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'Improv can tell us a lot about ourselves, it's very liberating'

There’s a greater vulnerability associated with improv than other forms of performance, Neil Curran explains why that doesn’t have to be scary.

Neil+1 on stage in Krakow, Poland, earlier this month
Neil+1 on stage in Krakow, Poland, earlier this month
Image: Facebook

MANY PEOPLE HAVE a fear of public speaking. One of the few ways to make this more daunting is to take away the script.

This wasn’t the case for Neil Curran, who fell in love with improvisational theatre when he was younger.

Curran’s mother was an actor and drama teacher so he “grew up immersed in theatre”. As a shy child and fan of TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, he says “not being restricted by a script or director telling me what to do” was “very liberating”.

As an adult, he used improv as a teaching technique in a theatre group he was running.

Curran travelled to the UK and US to train as an improviser and says his love of the art form took on a new dimension when he met The Maydays, a British group.

“Their work had a profound effect on me as human being and as an improviser … the improv world came into focus.”

Vulnerability 

Curran went on to develop Neil+1 – a format where he performs with a member of the audience who has never been to an improv show before.

“We’re told there are no rules in improv, but when we’re trained in it it’s through certain rules like ‘Yes and’ (the idea of accepting what your stage partner says and building on it to create a scene).

We’re told there’s no wrong way to do it, so it shouldn’t matter who we’re doing it with – whether it’s Susan Messing or Bill Murray or Joe Soap off the street.

There’s a greater vulnerability associated with improv than other forms of performance. There’s no safety net in terms of a script, but an upside of that is scenes can go pretty much anywhere.

Curran talks to the member of the audience before the performance aspect of Neil+1 begins, he then uses this conversation to create an alternative look at their life.

15138532_674547362719459_51882677857268183_o Neil with his plus one in Krakow earlier this month, Prezmo Source: Facebook

“They’re very vulnerable. The member of audience has no idea about improv, I have to establish trust.”

Curran has performed the show in several countries and says the onus is always on him to make it work.

“I have to make whatever my partner does work, everything they do is a gift. As long as I work with them it will work out. I have to work harder if they’re being resistant.”

The show has at times had a profound effect on the audience member participating in it.

One person said it made her realise she was following her husband’s dreams all her life, while another told me the show was the first time he had connected to his father’s passing.

“Not every show is like that obviously, but it can tell us a lot about ourselves and our humanity,” Curran says.

Through his improv school Lower The Tone, Curran is regularly hired by corporations to teach their staff improv skills, in a bid to boost their confidence, ability to think of the spot and speak publicly – “soft skills we’re not taught in school”.

A number of schools and colleges in the US teach improv techniques to their students, and Curran thinks it should be on the curriculum here.

Improv Fest Ireland

Curran performs and teachers in improv festivals around the world and set up Improv Fest Ireland ”on a wing and a prayer” in 2013. Now in its fourth year, the festival has grown year-on-year and attracts both Irish and international performers – 13 countries were represented this year, up from three in 2013.

12248201_929187830452548_195530576480611186_o Last year's charity show Source: Facebook

While the main part of the festival has wrapped for 2016, the annual charity show is due to take place at the Workman’s Club in Dublin tomorrow.

It will see a number of people from Irish media, music and other fields take to the stage, including Fair City’s Jenny Dixon, 2FM’s Conor Behan, and singer/songwriter Nella.

Speaking about the charity show, Curran says “not a lot of people are comfortable going onto a stage without a script, but it’s a collaborative affair, all about support and trust. No one is at risk of looking like a fool, it really doesn’t matter what level you’re at”.

This year the show is raising funds for suicide and self-harm awareness charity Pieta House.

11243797_929187840452547_347604031744823135_o Last year's charity show Source: Facebook

Pieta House CEO Brian Higgins said the improv show is “one of the many initiatives and fundraisers that our supporters dream up to highlight the work that we’re doing at Pieta House, to get the message out to anyone in need that our services are here”.

“Thanks to everyone who supports us, we are able to keep our services free and are so happy to say that 28,000 people have accessed them for free since the day we opened in 2006. We wish all the budding comedians the best of the success on Sunday evening.”

The show will take place at the Workman’s Club in Dublin city at 7.30pm tomorrow. More information can be read here.

Note: Órla Ryan will be performing in the show, having started improv earlier this year.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: Be silly, have fun and don’t worry what you look like

Read: You’re having a baby, then learning interpretive dance – that’s the joy of improv

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Órla Ryan

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