Interview with Bill McLaughlinPosted: 16 January 2014
Bill McLaughlin studied and worked with Del Close in Chicago and has performed and taught in New York and Philadelphia over the past 25 years. I had a chat with him to see what makes him tick and find out about the teaching he’s bringing over in March.
So, how long have you been doing improv?
Since 1977, so about 37 years, I moved down to Chicago then. I’m from the Philadelphia area originally and I went out there to study theatre. Professors I had were from the Midwest and they had told me about Northwestern University and the Goodman Theatre out in Chicago, and I thought this sounds great and my sister lives out there so I thought I’d go and investigate.
I had never seen an improv performance, and she took me to a show and that was it, I was like a kid in a candy shop, that was that.
It was in a small little club and they were doing short-form, and what really caught my eye is that you could be or do anything. They did a series of different structures and games, typical short-form stuff. I noticed that, people got to be so many different things and deal with so many different situations, as opposed to a play where you audition and if you don’t look like the plumber from next door you won’t be that person. I saw the opportunity to be whatever you wanted to be, so if I wanted to be a gangster or a cowboy I could do it, just a range of opportunity there and the fact it was playing. Just playing and using your imagination. I had been doing that naturally for years, I just thought ‘Wow look people actually do that on stage!”
That’s interesting, I never thought about how casting in acting can limit what you get to do. Whereas in improv you get to choose all the time.
Exactly. It’s your world and you are the creators creating your world and anything you want to be in it. That immediately attracted my attention, the challenge of being in the moment was so amazing too. Plays are wonderful I love doing plays and doing theatre, but it was a completely different level I saw and I thought I’ve got to push myself to do that.
And did it feed back into your acting?
I tell people, one of the things it did for me as an actor, it made me totally aware of what was going on at any minute. As an actor you have your lines, your character, whatever else is happening in the play you have to be aware of, but you are not focussed on it, its already written- its already taken care of. With improv you are never away from what’s going on, even if you aren’t in the scene that’s going on with your partners, you might be needed at any moment.
It made me so aware in acting, whether it was working or not, I felt this spontaneous connection to what was happening, I was in the moment even if it was a scripted play.
They use improv as an acting exercise, but to take it up to the level where you are absolutely responsible for it, you are not doing an improv exercise to be emotional or to stretch some character stuff, then you absolutely are completely responsible for what’s going on. So you have to be aware of everything: what are we connecting to, is there a storyline here, is there a game between us? There are so many levels. It absolutely pushes your intellect, you have to bring your A-game, you have to play at the top of your intelligence as they would say at Second City.
What was your journey with improv?
I was in Chicago till the end of 79-80, we moved to New York and established a theatre, I was with this group but the director died and the group fell apart. I moved onto a group called the First Amendment, which was a much more freewheeling and extremely talented group of people, it was extraordinary. That was the group I preformed with at the Edinburgh festival, and we managed to hang together till 1990, the director lost the space we were in, and by that time people were branching off doing separate thing’s and I had a partner, a brilliant improviser by the name of Joe Perce, and we started doing corporate entertainment.
You’re doing a trade show, or product launch, all very corporate, but they were looking for people who could write a show and change it on the fly, who could deal with executives and have that flexibility to throw ideas that the client would like, and we had to involve. Again it’s your improvisational skills, you’re not just doing a show, you have to be informative and entertaining as well. It forced you to push your skills to another level, because I had the improv background, what ever the challenge is I will find a way to do it. I still do it.
I like to be a complete professional at that, I can go in and go to a corporate meeting and I know exactly what they are looking for but at the same time I am relaxed in the moment. Whatever comes up I say “Yeah!”
Sounds like improv really influenced you and is fundamental to how you approach life.
Exactly. Your brain has to adjust to the idea that you cannot predetermine what’s going on, you have to throw your expectations out the window sometimes, because things will change.
Yeah in improv, things don’t always work, there are those moment that aren’t the most brilliant, but you don’t worry about them. You learn from your success. That was one of the things Del Close used to teach, the only thing you can learn from your mistakes is not to repeat them, learn from your success and add to it. That builds your success and your strength.
You learn from the positive, and you have to recognise what stops you, what blocks you, what stands in your way- that’s great try not to do it again. But when I’m teaching that’s what I jump on, when I see the light go on for a student and they’ve done something that worked really well I’ll make sure they take a picture of it in their mind. Don’t lose that. That wasn’t an accident, what you did was actually just a really good move.
I like that kind of teaching, it’s about giving them the power. You didn’t give them anything, you just pointed it out for the student. They have the goods.
Yes! You mastered the technique!
A moment like that for me was when I was studying in Chicago at Second City. Whoever was playing with me was my boss and kept accusing me of making mistakes and I would ‘yes and’ it, I would say “Yeah when I turned on the photocopier that’s when the fire started.” I was almost ahead of my boss in showing how incompetent I was.
Del stopped the scene and said, “That’s what I was talking about when I said Yes anding.” And the feeling it gives you is that “Yeah I have this tool and I figured out how to use it!”
Those moments in improv you feel like you’re floating 3 feet off the floor.
Do you teach because you want to pass on that experience to others?
Exactly! Well first of all when I teach I’m entertained all the time. And I always have to learn, what can I do to take my teaching to the next level? It forces me to stay a student of what I do, I have to go out and see shows, see what’s changing, what’s evolving in improv. I go see shows up in New York and Philadelphia and see what people are doing because creative people are coming in and finding new ways to express improvisation and theatre. But yes, also teaching is giving people what I’ve had.
Last summer 3 of my students went to perform at the Slapdash Festival, Safe Weird (check our interviews with Safe Weird members Kaitlin and Rob & Andrew). I was talking to Andrew last night and he says he thinks about England every day, and he has to get back there some time, just the adventure of it. For me the places I went performing improv, I performed at the Edinburgh festival. With theatre I toured in Europe doing different things like Russian constructivist theatre. I love the adventure of taking a challenge and seeing where it takes you.
For me it’s always been where I am, who I’m with and what I’m doing. You’re meeting people who are like you. They raise your game, they raise your level of awareness and talent, and your enjoyment of it. So I love giving the adventure of it to people.
Even if they are just going to take a class and enjoy it, fine. If it makes you more confident getting up and speaking in your job, that’s great, because before that you didn’t think you could do that. So many students tell me “Before taking your class I had a hard time in conversation or a hard time with this.” I had a woman who could barely look or talk to anyone. When she finally let loose, because I set up the right environment where it doesn’t matter if you fail, by the end of it she revealed there was an incredibly intelligent person inside who could make some amazing choices. When somebody like that comes to you and tells you how much they appreciate what you did, what a reward that is.
I have a group of college students here I put together, they have only performed together a few times. I want them to perform more and get more experience, and hopefully they will go down into Philadelphia and take classes and get involved in the scene down there, or maybe go up to New York. I would love to see them push on with it and see them take that adventure.
Yes! It’s all about that adventure. That’s why it’s so good to have this international connection of people coming over. Do you have any words for people coming to take your workshop over here in London?
Be prepared to enjoy yourselves. I will stress generosity, bring that attitude with you. Bring that to my workshop.
There you have it! A lot of enthusiasm and adventurousness is headed our way in March. Bill is teaching his weekend workshop on devising formats in improv on the 22nd and 23rd of March. Find all the details and book here at the Nursery site.