Written by Murie Gillett, Rochester Brainery Intern
Three weeks ago, I took my first class at Rochester Brainery. It was called “Improv for Beginners: Follow the Fear,” and was taught by Megan Mack. In addition to teaching improv at the Brainery, Megan produces Connections with Evan Dawson on WXXI and works with a sketch comedy group called Thank You Kiss. She first studied improv with Second City, a comedy club that runs improv, writing, and acting workshops and programs. Graduates of Second City include: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mike Meyers, and Bill Murray, among many, many others. As a lifelong fan of Saturday Night Live, I was really excited to talk with her more about her experience there, and how she fits improv into her daily life. Last week, we sat down to chat.
Tell me a little bit about yourself:
Sure! I went to Syracuse University for Television, Radio, Film. After I left school,I had a job lined up, but I decided it wasn’t the right fit for me. I knew I wanted something a little more challenging, and I really wanted to explore improv. It had always been my dream since second grade to go to Second City because I was a Gilda Radner fan and Gilda Radner trained at Second City, so I thought that was the place to be.
And so, I came back to Rochester and I started commuting up to Toronto between one and three times a week. It was a two year program, and I did three different programs while I was there. I did their regular improv program, which is levels A-E; and then I did the Conservatory program, which is a professional program you have to audition into twice, and it trains you for professional improv performances and sketch writing; and I also did the writing program. It was funny, because I started with the writing program, and they told us that in order to take one writing class at all, you had to take one level of improv. I said, “No, I don’t want to do that, I’m not ready for that, it’s not my thing, I’m not a performer,” but I really wanted to do the writing program... so I said, “Okay, fine.” I enrolled in one class, I showed up the first day, I was terrified, I was so nervous, and I fell in love with it right away. So, I stuck with that, and I stuck with the writing, and I was there for two years.
Megan with her conservatory class at Second City.
Where did you first get interested in improv?
I started watching SNL when I was very young. I always loved SNL. Then, I did sketch comedy in high school, and in college. I never really did improv until I went to Second City. I only did it because I needed it for the writing program. But I was always really interested in sketch and comedy in general.
I think sometimes if you’ve only seen bad improv, you think all improv is bad, and I think I fell into that category for a while because I had seen improv in college, and it just wasn’t anything that I was really impressed with: Oh, it looks hard, it doesn’t look fun, they seem really uncomfortable, it’s not for me. But, then I learned how wrong I was! Improv, it can be bad, it can be very difficult and tough, but it can also be really, really funny.
What would you say the most important thing you learned at Second City was?
I think just the advice of saying “Yes, and…”, because it’s just a fundamental rule of improv, but also, it’s such a great rule for life. Because if I had not said, “yes, and…” to the improv class, I couldn’t have done the writing class, I wouldn’t have done the conservatory program, I wouldn’t be doing some of the things I’m doing now, like teaching and my sketch comedy troupe. A lot of great things have happened because I just opened that one door to that improv class. So I try to think about “yes, and…” every day of my life, because it comes in handy.
That would be the one thing: say “Yes, and…”, especially when you’re scared. And that’s what I mentioned during your class: when you’re nervous or anxious, or you have a lot of fear, that’s the best time to do something, because you’re putting yourself in that moment, and the greatest things happen when you’re not stuck in your head.
What is your favorite improv game or exercise?
Ooo, good question. I think my favorite - I have two favorites, can I give you two?
Yes! One is called Goon River. It’s also called Spoon River, or Voices from Heaven. It has a bunch of different names. The players line up in a horizontal line, they all sit next to each other, and all of their characters are from a very small town, and they all happened to die on the same day. We go through three rounds: the first round, everybody says what their character’s name is, what they do in the town, any hobbies they have, anything interesting about them, we meet all the characters; and then, we go through a second time, and people talk about what they were doing the day that they died, all the stories start to intermingle, and the characters interact with each other; then the third time we go through, and the characters talk about how they actually did die. You find that everyone in the team, regardless of how much experience they have, they all understand that everyone works together, everyone feeds off each other's’ ideas, they build these really colorful characters and colorful stories. They’re so detail oriented, and people fall into these characters. People who say they’re not character actors or performers, they embrace one thing about their character and it just changes the entire scene. I love that one, because everyone seems to love it when I teach it. It’s a fun game.
My other favorite is the car game, which I think we did do in your class, and I love that one because, well, for personal reasons. I did that exercise in a class I was taking locally, with some people I didn’t really work with a lot at the time, and the four of us did the car scene, and we did what we all thought was a great scene, and then we ended up, about a year later, working together as a sketch comedy team. We wrote what we did in that improv scene as a sketch, which is one of the funniest sketches we’ve ever written. I love it because it created this great group, and now we’ve done the Fringe Festival last year, we’ll do it again this year, and we just have a lot of fun! So that one means the most to me.
Members in one of Megan’s improv classes playing the car game.
So you’re in sketch comedy troupes, multiple, right now?
One sketch comedy troupe, it’s called Thank You Kiss, and we’re performing at the Fringe Festival this year, at Blackfriars Theatre. We do mostly sketch, but we do do improv shows, we make videos, we do songs, we do a lot of fun stuff.
Megan in action in one of her improv groups!
How do sketch comedy groups work? Do you all have different roles?
It depends! We work with other groups in town sometimes, and their process is very different from ours. There are four of us, and we all work very closely together, we met up, we’ll shoot some ideas out, we’ll go home, we’ll write some individual sketches, we’ll come back in, we’ll read them, everyone will be assigned a part, we’ll read them out loud, and we kind of edit things together, and either the person who wrote it will go home and do some major edits, or we’ll try to rewrite it together in our meeting. The best sketches we write, we think, are the ones that we write line by line together. And that usually happens because we’re in improv mode, and we’re just shooting things off and not really thinking, developing characters on our feet. It’s a lot of fun.
To answer your question, it’s true, we do all have our roles. We all write, but some of us are better organizers than others, some of us are better at maintaining the emotional stability of the group… We all have our little pegs, which is helpful.
What would you say is the big difference between writing comedy and improving?
The biggest difference, I think, is expectation. When you’re watching an improv show, you know they’re making everything up on the spot. So, I think the audience may be more forgiving at times. But with sketch, they know you’ve written something, it’s been edited, you’ve rehearsed it, and I think they’re a little more critical. That pressure, at least for my group, is really good, because we have to put together the best show possible.
I prefer writing a sketch show versus doing an improv show because I love developing characters and developing story arcs. That happens in improv too, but you never know what you’re going to get. I love having the time to really explore a character, explore the story, develop it and have fun with it. That being said, when you apply improv rules to sketch, you write better sketches, because you’re spending time to experiment with your characters, which is a lot of fun.
How do you think your improv work fits in with your WXXI job?
I need improv everyday in this job because the pace here is very quick. We do two live shows a day, and we’ve had shows where people drop out at the last minute. We had a show earlier this week that got cancelled at 10:00 AM, and we had two hours to find a brand new show. I use “yes, and…” everyday. The “and…” is really important!
When I host the show, when Evan’s not here, I fill in for him and I’m very nervous. I don’t like playing myself in scenes, I never do, I always like being characters. Sometimes, having that improv training helps me, because I know I can rely on skills like not overthinking anything, saying “yes, and…”, bringing as many people as you can into a conversation, creating collaboration, and being a good team player. I use it every single day. It helps me think on my feet a lot, it’s good for basic human interaction. I’m actually very reserved and anxious, I hate talking about myself but if I put myself in improv mode then I’m a little more comfortable, so it helps me just function as a human being. I need it more than it needs me.
A post-class group shot from one of Megan's classes
What would you say to someone who wanted to take one of your class or try improv in general but felt really nervous or wasn’t sure if they would be into it?
I would say, “Say ‘yes, and…’” and I would also say, “Follow the fear,” which is another really common improv term. You never really know if you’re going to like something or not unless you try it. I have some people who come and they’re nervous, and they don’t come back, and that’s okay, but they always walk out the door and say, “I’m really glad I came because I had fun and met new people.” If that’s the take away, having fun, you’re not losing anything, you’re just had two hours of fun that you didn’t have before. And if you end up loving it, then you just found something that’s going to help you in your everyday life, that you can rely on if you’re looking for a hobby. I would say don’t be scared, everybody’s usually nervous. The vast majority of people who show up are nervous, but the nerves are good, because you make good decisions when you’re a little fearful.
Megan regularly teaches classes at Rochester Brainery. Join us Saturday, June 25th, from 3:00 PM-5:00 PM for Megan’s next class: Comedy Improvisation: Honestly Funny.