improv comedy with an audience member

The Interactive Apple | September 3, 2011

Interactive Apple
Listen to audio: Interactive Apple - Podcast Interview about Interactive Theatre

Jeff Wirth, Interactive Apple:
"This is an Interactive Apple podcast. I'm Jeff Wirth, and today I'm speaking with Matt Holmes, a prolific improviser who lives in Philadelphia and performs all across the country. On August 13, 2011, Matt performed his show entitled Matt& at the 13th annual Del Close Marathon in New York City. Welcome to Interactive Apple, Matt."

Matt Holmes, Matt&:
"Thanks for having me."

JW: "Yeah, so let's start with your background. You perform, you coach, you've created some innovative projects. Tell us a little about you."

MH: "Well, I started improvising in 1998 in college. We had a short-form group, and until then I hadn't really done any performing. I hadn't done any theatre, I hadn't tried stand-up comedy, anything like that. I just sort of gave it a try and got into the group and learned more and more, and eventually sort of ran it.

"And then, when I graduated, it was like, well, I'm not performing anymore, I'm not doing improv, gave it a little while and then, after maybe nine months or a year, was thinking I'd like to get back into that somehow. And Philly didn't have a whole lot going on, a lot of choices. I'll say now they have a ton of choices, a ton of things that is going on in Philly right now. But, at the time, there wasn't too much, so I auditioned for a few things that didn't really happen, and there was a couple groups that had been around for a while that were all kind of stopping at that time.

"And I connected with a few other people who were in the same boat as me, and we made an improv group together called Rare Bird Show. We've performed together for like eight years now, and along the way I've taught workshops and classes and gone to festivals, done a couple sort of side projects. Philly had a couple improv competitions."

JW: "You've done really well with the competitions. Didn't you win like three times running something?"

MH: "Uh, let's see, so we have a Cagematch, just like they have in New York and probably other places. So I had Matt& in that and was, three times in a row, winner, which I think is pretty good."

JW: "Yeah."

MH: "I didn't lose right away. And we also had a couple 3-on-3 competitions called Troika, and I won the first round of one, and then the next time around I won the whole shebang, along with the other two people in my group.

JW: "Nice, congratulations."

MH: "Thank you."

JW: "So you got a show called Matt&, and how long have you been doing that show?"

MH: "I guess maybe two years now. I haven't performed it a whole lot; it's sort of like a month or two between shows. Last year, I did the Fringe Festival, so it was like eight shows all sort of back-to-back, and I've taken it around to a bunch of different festivals. I counted it up; I kept a list, and it was like 32. The show that you saw was my 32nd time doing it."

JW: "Wow, and for those who haven't seen your show, how would you describe what it is and how it works?"

MH: "Well, it's a long-form improv show without any real structure or format, and it's just me; I come out and I get somebody from the audience. I usually ask if anybody has never seen improv before. I hate to say an "improv virgin" but somebody who's been dragged along to see something that they don't know what they're seeing, and I ask them to come up on stage with me.

"And I do the whole show with them, just as though they were another improviser, and uh, it works out pretty well. I tell them that they can do anything they want, they can say anything they want, they can try to mess me up, and it's all on me to make it work. So I think that frees them up a bit to just go along with whatever happens."

JW: "Right, and if you're incorporating audience members who aren't improvisers as fellow players, then you must have some pretty interesting stories from your shows."

MH: "Well, I've had a few instances where people thought that they were done and could just go back to their seat, so I had to work with that. One time, I had to get the guy back, twice I think. One time I ended up serenading somebody in their seat and then just ending the show at that point.

"I've had all different kinds of people: people who are real shy and hesitant, people who are really into it, trying to be funny. I had a drunk guy that was real fun. So it's a big range."

JW: "What would you say is the most surprising thing that's ever happened on stage with an audience member?"

MH: "The most suprising thing, um, I think is probably when the, not this year's Del Close Marathon but the year before, Rare Bird Show was scheduled to perform, and the other two members of the three-person group couldn't make it at sort of the last minute, so I said, Well is it okay if I just do Matt&?

"So I pulled up an audience member, and she ended up being really, really funny. She ended the set with a joke about... if you rape a hooker, is it rape or is it theft?"

JW: "Wow!"

MH: "And it killed. I thought maybe she had seen it on a bumper sticker or something, but she said she was a writer along with a bunch of other things. It's the most fun when someone who's not an improviser, never taken a class or anything, can be really successful. People are impressed when just I can make it work, and I look good, but when I'm able to have this person who is willing to come up and play with me, have them look good, I think that's not just suprising but pretty cool."

JW: "Now, the show has a lot of comedy. Have there been any particularly touching or moving moments that have happened with an audience member?"

MH: "Uh, yeah, I've had a couple that were a little bit more serious. Just recently, I think it was the show before this year's Del Close Marathon, I did a show at Philly Improv Theater. I think the guy that I picked was one of these audience members who ends up really playing along and really having fun, so it's less of a challenge for me, and I can just play and experiment and do different things.

"And I ended up being a bully that was picking on another kid for being short, but ended up like hanging out with him and being picked on himself for hanging out with him, and thinking that the kid being picked on had a really cool train set in his basement and playing with it. I got pretty close to crying on stage at some point, which felt different from just saying something funny: really creating characters in a world and discovering something about them."

JW: "Very nice."
MH: "It hasn't happened a whole lot."
JW: "No?"

MH: "A lot of times, I'm just trying to keep it, you know, entertaining. A few times, I've been able to break through and have something really be more interesting."

JW: "So, after the show, what kind of feedback do you get from audience members who were watching the show?"

MH: "Normally in improv, you get a lot of 'Well, how much was planned ahead?' or 'What did you know you were going to do?' and I don't get as much of that with this, because it's almost more obvious that it must be improvised, unless I hired somebody to pretend to be a complete newbie and join me on stage and pretend to be an audience member.

"But I get a lot of people impressed with how I was able to do that, you know, impressed with how well the audience member did. Depending on the show, I get a lot of comments like, 'Well, they really challenged you' or 'You did a good job when they weren't really playing along' or 'They weren't giving you much to go on.'

"But all in all pretty positive. The project started off as kind of a challenge to myself or like an experiment, and I've been surprised at how well it works. I've certainly had shows that were okay but not great, but I haven't really had any complete disasters, in my opinion."

JW: "Great."
MH: "And I've had a lot that I think, 'That was pretty damn good.'"

JW: "Yeah, so are there any techniques that you have found that make it easier for the audience participants to play with you?

MH: "Well, I think explaining to them, proactively beforehand, that they can do whatever they want really frees them up to, if they just want to sit there the whole time... I think I had a show recently where the stage-picture the whole time was me all over the place and the audience member sitting in a chair. You know, but if that's what they're comfortable with, I'll make that work.

"I find myself trying to really use anything that they bring to the table, so that it becomes more collaborative, and it's not just me doing stuff and them sitting there.

"I find myself playing a lot of characters, really starting a lot of stuff, trying to create a universe so that they know what's going on, at least somewhat, without it being an exposition overload."

JW: "Right."

MH: "And then freeing them up to make any choice, and then going down that path. So if they decide they're going to push me back a little bit, then I'll tease them or let them tease me or bring that back later.

"And if they just want to go along with it or play themselves the whole time, then I'll make that work."

JW: "Yeah, good, so what do your participants say to you after having played up on stage with you?"

MH: "I get a lot of, 'That was fun but scary.' I had a few people, as I was bringing them on stage, who were sort of like, 'Oh, I'm gonna kill you,' cursing at me or, 'Don't make me look stupid.

"And then, again, I sort of give them the framework where they can't make any mistakes, and afterwards in talking with them, they're very free: 'That was so fun' or 'I can't believe I did the whole thing' or 'You were so great to let me play with you and have fun.'

"I get a big response of trust and like I took care of them."

JW: "Nice, very good. So why is it for this particular show that you play with audience members? Is there a philosophy that's underlying the work for you?"

MH: "Well, I wouldn't say that it's got this big mission statement, but in my personal development in improv, I learned it getting a lot of rules and 'This is how it's supposed to work.'

"A lot of structure and format and 'no's while at the same time being told anything can happen and, you know, do something really real and challenge yourself.

"So a lot of mixed messages along the way of learning it, where I kind of had to tell myself, 'Here's what I think is important, and throw all of these other things out of the window.'

"When I read Mick Napier's book Improvise, it really spoke to me as a lot of what you hear in doing this art form is going to mess you up really, so don't take it to heart. Find what works for you.

"So when I, for myself and when I teach other people improv, I boiled it down to the basics of do something and keep doing it. Play a character. Know that, whatever happens, that you stepping out on stage that you are a character, that you are in a setting. All you have to do is say it, and it's there, even retroactively.

"So the projects that I've been involved with, Rare Bird Show and other side projects, have been really trying to break conventions, or not trying to but end up breaking conventions, and just doing whatever works to create something and then have fun with it, for the performers and for the audience.

"And at a certain point, as Philly was getting more people in it and becoming a much bigger scene, I saw 'Oh, that person is really great. I'd like to perform with them.' or connecting with people in other cities, going to festivals, and thinking 'If you're ever in town, I'd love to do a one-off show with you.'

"And then I thought that would be a great project, what would I call it and what else could I do? And then I though, 'What if somebody didn't show up one time? Maybe I could just pull somebody up from the audience. That would be really interesting and fun.

"And I talked about it with some people, and then at a certain point, we were putting together an event and a fundraiser, thinking 'What could we do?' I think it was Alexis Simpson, who's in Rare Bird Show with me, said 'Why don't you do that Matt And project with an audience member?' and I said 'Okay, I'll give it a try' you know, very much an experiment.

"I was blown away by how well it worked. It made me perform in sort of a different way. It took things that could sort of be a negative about me if I'm performing with other improvisers (sort of controlling too much of the show and being in every scene) and made it sort of a necessity in performing with an audience member.

"It went so well that it snowballed into 'This is what this project is. It's gonna be me performing with somebody who's not a performer and seeing what happens.'

So I personally think it's sort of like, again talking about boiling things down to their most basic elements, I think it's kind of pure improv. It showcases more of what improv can be, and like the most basic elements of improvising."

JW: "Very nice."

MH: "You really get to see me doing it, and the audience member doing it. You see them like 'Okay, I'm going along with you.' I'm making a choice and seeing what happens."

JW: "Exactly, well, are there any other thoughts that you'd like to share to wrap this up?"

MH: "Um, I didn't really think of anything in advance to try to bring up, but if you have any other questions I'm happy to answer."

JW: "No, I think you've given us a great perspective, both on what the show looks like but also on what is behind it for you as well. That's really great."

MH: "For you, seeing the show from an audience point of view, was there anything about that show in particular that brought up any questions?"

JW: "No, I think it's... one of the great things about the show is that it's very straightforward. What it presents itself as is what it is.

"And there's just the joy of watching it unfold itself in a very real way."

MH: "That's good to hear. I think that touches on the structure of it as well, that there isn't really a format. I've done shows where it's the same as any other Harold or longform. You know, things come back and things merge together.

"And I've done shows where it's just, 'Here's a scene. Here's another scene. And they don't really connect. They might be off the suggestion, but again that's sort of out of necessity. I have to go with whatever happens.

"I'm sure at one point I'm going to find myself in some big monoscene or doing cartwheels or something."

JW: "Alright, well I've been talking with improviser Matt Holmes, who continues to perform his interactive show Matt&, as well as doing a wide variety of other equally interesting projects.

"And if you'd like to learn more about Matt's work, you can visit his website at Matt, thank you so much for being on the Interactive Apple."

MH: "Thank you for having me.."

Jeff Wirth's Interactive Apple no longer exists, but you can still learn about interactive performances at Jeff's website,