IMAGINATION BOOTCAMP: An interview with Mischief Theatre's Katie-Ann McDonagh

If you are applying to drama schools, an actor/director feeling (we’ve all felt it) the dreaded “stuck in your head” and limited in your scope of choices we have available at the tip of our fingers or feeling a little stagnant in performances and wanting to find that aliveness and bravery. Then Katie-Ann’s room of embracing failure as a break through, a Barry’s Bootcamp workout for the imagination and developing an openness and bravery through an ensemble-is-the-most-important-thing-everrrrr 5-week course of “Improvisation in the Rehearsal Room” is the room to get yourself into.

I met up with Katie-Ann (Resident Director ‪@bankrobberyplayWest End and Associate Director on UK Tour ‪@mischiefcomedyfor the Comedy About A Bank Robbery) to find out more about her journey into theatre/improvisation, the improvisation technique, how we can use it in different areas of rehearsal, script development and character, and how to embrace failure and find freedom within that.

Q. When did you first discover improvisation and make it an integral part of how you work?

In Irish theatre, there is so much about the writer and how painstaking it is to write. How much they have to pour their soul in to it – creating something seemed a long and arduous process. There is a lot of merit in that but when I went to university, I ended up attending improvisation classes where I saw people were making amazing things in a split second. I was just marveling at how much these people were working together and coming up with things at the top of their head. But also, how completely uninhibited they were as performers.

Also, as humans we love watching mistakes, when things don’t go according to plan. It’s more human because we make mistakes all the time. It’s satisfying and gratifying for us when we see other people make mistakes. But also that moment when a mistake happens is completely unpredictable and unexpected. What I love about improvisation as a form of entertainment is that you’re always a second away from disaster. It’s that aliveness that’s amazing. Learning and practicing improvisation can give you that aliveness every night. That excites me.

Q. What are the ways you use improvisation as a tool in the rehearsal room?

For new work, I use it as a dramaturgical tool, so we will talk about the objective of a scene – what is this scene supposed to be doing within the context of the play and is it doing that? Are these characters well rounded, what if we didn’t put them in this situation and put them in another situation. Exploring these through improvisations - it’s just a lot more connected to the human body and emotions – you’re not thinking should I do this or should I do that – you’re on your feet – just going off gut feeling; “stop thinking”.

Every single actor has a different process and that’s great – but I’ve found after a lot of the time – actors want to use their bodies – they want to get up and move and feel.

You can answer questions in a cerebral way around the table – or you can get up on your feet and find the answers.

Using improvisation to answer the questions and the “what if’s” surrounding the text, immediately gets you up on your feet and connected to your partner to find the answers.

You can just try out loads of things. Just try it. Improvisation in the rehearsal room is just about trying it. And once you try it, you’ll know if it’s right or wrong because it feels right or wrong. Improvisation is great in helping you discover all of the infinite possibilities of playing something.

It’s also a great way to start testing out character. Getting up and finding out how would the character react if they were in a particular situation. One of my favorite exercises is to find out what the characters are like with their friends and getting them to cast their friends. Say - if this character was having a Friday night in – where would they be? They’d be at the pub - no, they’d be cooking a meal for themselves and their girlfriend, or it’s a massive house party so I need to cast ten people. It encourages ensemble. You’re not just working on your character by yourself. You’re all working on each other’s characters.

Sometimes preparing by yourself, you can end up over thinking and improvisation is about not thinking – finding the right answer through finding all the wrong ones.

Q. I love how you talk about not fearing failure, why do you embrace and encourage failure so much?

A mistake in the rehearsal room – is so exciting – because it means something’s gone off plan. And when something’s gone off plan, it means its alive, it’s spontaneous and its real. For me, there’s never a mistake. There’s never something going wrong. There’s just an opportunity to find something else. And it’s those moments where things don’t go to plan in a rehearsal room, we find something new and something we didn’t expect.

Ultimately we are going in to a rehearsal room to find things we didn’t already know. If we went in, knowing as much on day one that we did on the final day then we haven’t rehearsed.

I’ve heard actors say “Oh I got that completely wrong, that was so wrong” and I say “no you just checked that off the list”. Now you know something doesn’t work for you, you can just check that off and now we can explore something else. It’s a lot less terrifying and far more exciting. You’re not trying to get it “right” on the first time – because - nothing is ever “right”. And also nothing is ever going to be the same. Every night should be different and alive and new.

Q. I loved how your exercises encouraged such active listening. Why do you think actors often forget the simple act of listening?

We forget to listen because we are so focused on doing our job “well”. It’s that counter-intuitive thing where we are trying our absolute best to get every single thing right and to do every single note and every single thought – and we just start shutting down, because we are trying our best. I love Keith Johnstone’s mantra, “Be Average”

When an actor is not listening, it’s very rare that they are doing it out of any sort of selfishness. They’re probably really trying their best and they’ve just forgotten that they’re not by themselves.

In terms of the work I make and the work I’m involved with, ensemble really is the most important thing. Actors can feel by themselves a lot of the time. You’re prepping for an audition or self-tape by yourself, getting the job is an individual sport. But once you’re in the room – it should be a team sport, and sometimes we forget about our team. I think that’s where forgetting to listen comes from, is forgetting that you have a team.

Improvisation has been really helpful for this because you’re ALWAYS on a team.

How can learning improvisation make you a better cast member or help a director create and nurture the ensemble?

Learning and playing the countless “Yes and” exercises/games and regularly practicing fully embracing someone else’s ideas and offers is a great ethos to build an ensemble. “Yes and” - it’s cyclical - if you make sure you treat everyone’s offer on stage as an incredible offer that it is, someone will do that favour for you in return. And if everyone is going off the same hymn sheet and accepting offers, that’s when a company sings.

Q. What would be the piece of advice you would give to your super-keen-theatre-hungry eighteen-year-old self?

Don’t apply for nursing. You don’t want to be a nurse.

Actually, calm down and remember to E N J O Y it. Remembering to approach things with a sense of play and curiosity. Remembering the joy in letting your imagination run away with itself and being in the moment. It’s just a fecking play.

Q. A biggie question, why do you do theatre?

So many reasons! Seeing a part of yourself on stage has always been a motivating factor. A large part of me, as fickle as it might seem to some, I believe we should enjoy theatre. For me, it should be a joyous experience.

Theatre is an open space where we are given permission to feel. In life we can be disconnected from our emotions. In theatre we are all entering a room with the expectation to feel something. That’s so unique.

Q. A Monobox fave - favourite Play?

I’d have to say a playwright. Definitely the playwright that has affected me the most is Enda Walsh. I feel whenever I’ve lost my way with theatre, I read one of his plays. I re-read the New Electric Ballroom the other day and I’m still in love with it.

Inspired? Intrigued? Motivated? Come play and say YES AND to this generous, FUN and incredible director/human and add Improvisation to your toolbox.

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