Impro: Improv Mario style (Interview)

This interview was conducted by Gudrun Christine Fritz from who organized Mario’s improv workshop in London on july 30th and 31st, 2016.

Okay, let’s go! How did you get into Improv?

People love to laugh. I always wanted to make people happy. But I had no clue that something like Improv existed until I saw ads for shows reading „Improvisationstheater“ – that sounded really abstract to me and I assumed this must be for people who have seen their Hamlet so often they know it inside out, and where actors improvise over the piece in order to have an elaborate exchange about the meaning of every detail afterwards – nothing for me. A fellow student told me that it’s absolutely hilarious and definitely my thing. Saw three shows, took a workshop, stood out with my cheeky mouth and now, 12 years later, I’m still there and the artistic director of this very company.

What do you like most about Improv?

 Hm. As an audience member, I become totally childlike again. I am laughing about every silly joke and every time the actors get into trouble. I enjoy it almost always, even when my professional opinion afterwards tells me that it was total crap.

As a player, I love the inspiration that comes along with it, the flow and energy. The beautiful moments and being as close to those moments as possible – inside of it. Being able to let go with my fellow players and creating this dreamlike explosion of imagination by multiplying each other. Getting on a vibe with the audience and pushing back and forth with them to make the walls shake. Being a lava lamp. Everything.

What don’t you like in Improv?

Well, you know, Improv and the attitude that comes along with it when people get really into it are good for almost everything. Like all art forms or philosophies, it finally leads to greater awareness, kindness, and wisdom. Still, what we do on stage is but a way of entertainment. Things that ‘hurt’ me in Improv are when people on stage put their principles or personal interest above the audience’s. For me, the audience is always first priority. The other point is when people demand their rules of Improv being followed while not taking care of their fellow players. Some improvisers combine recklessness with a sensitive ego – I’m allergic to that. You can be reckless and robust, or you can be sensitive and careful with others, but not take from a value you don’t serve yourself.

Please tell me more about the work with people with dementia.

It teaches you that moments count. That every moment counts. It is extremely rewarding to see how this brings people back to life, like an 81-year old trying to lose weight for the show or a 98-year old walking up and down the floor exercising so she can get on stage without help. To see how cheerful they become, how aware, how much they get better at focusing and at keeping things in their mind. We had one player whose attention span improved from clearly less than 60 seconds to a week. It also teaches you to be patient, to make real contact with your partner, to go for the emotional contact. This is what counts, because words are washed away a moment after being said. It also teaches you that being in the moment all the time – as a handicap – still is a life worth living and that joy still is real.

Thank you – very nice. Now let’s talk more about you as a facilitator. What are the main ingredients in ‘Mario-style’ Improv?

Mario: “Mainly two things – First: Physicality. Theatre-legend Peter Brook said that actors need to make a connection between their imagination and their body. While we naturally understand that an actor has to transform a message in their head into a signal of their body, the other direction is essential for excellent improvisers. Your body always knows the truth. If you can read it, like the audience does, you always play naturally and the characters you embody are true and credible – and funny. So the most work goes into creating different physical foundations for characters. They serve as perception filter, so you always feel how this character would naturally respond.

Secondly: perception. Our schools taught us to solve problems a) in our heads and b) on our own. On stage, we want interesting, unforeseeable development of scenes without anybody making things up and controlling them. This works once you see that a good response comes from your character reacting to your partner’s character rather than making abstract assumptions about what would be a funny response.”

That sounds like a lot of theory. What do you actually do in your Improv classes? 

Mario: “We try out different bodies. (Laughs) The thing is: Even in real life, our character consists mainly of the way we perceive and react to what we perceive. And in both sides of this process our physicality blends in and shapes the way we see things and in the way we act. We are so good at reading people. We know if we can trust them, if they are nice or mean, smart, sensual, we know if they are happy, sad, thoughtful, mad, open, or ambitious. Once we learn to notice the tiny differences in our own physicality, we have a whole new world of characters to embody. We then can order characters from our body menu between mild and extra spicy, depending on how flashy the scene needs to be.“

Brilliant! I am now really curios and excited to do a class with you. Thank you for the insides. Now a couple of more questions please. Who is your inspiration?

Who? That is an interesting question. I’d understand the question if you asked what inspires me, but who is difficult. I am inspired by ideas, thoughts and things people do. Asking who inspires me sounds as if someone could be inspiring by being something. I think actions can be inspiring. I like to decide for every single action and not by person. I am also a fan of songs and single sports games rather than bands or teams.

What styles do you like the most, i.e: UCB, Chicago IOS…?

I haven’t seen UCB yet, so I can’t speak about their shows. During the opening of the new iO theatre however I saw a great variety of shows and they all are justified in their way. Improvised Shakespeare was the first show I ever gave standing ovations for; they are a league of their own. I like TJ and Dave, because they take time to establish and to create tension, Crumbs also do. Both would benefit from more physicality and energy from my perspective. Most of the American shows I saw were what I’d call group stand-up – a series of gags. I enjoy when ensembles are great in various fields: great characters, suspense, emotion, story, promise, energy, knowing what the scene is about, variety, physicality, quick-wit and gags. Groups that are good at one or two of these things and rely on them exclusively can be found like grains of sand at the beach. Rocket Sugar Factory are pretty amazing in their variety.

Would you consider yourself being a front runner of the European Improv scene?

This question can be interpreted in so many different ways. I am pretty sure that I know more about the brain and what it does or does not during Improv and being creative than the other improvisers, but what qualifies you as a front runner? We are in the business quite a while (1993), we have fans and groupies, our shows have been sold out 95% of the time in the last decade, we keep changing and improving, the best teams and players from the entire globe like to play with us, companies rely on our work, but, you know. There are many directions to go. Who is the front runner? The one who is followed by many? The one who is watched and celebrated by many?

The one who climbs highest or dives deepest, no matter whether anyone follows?

Improv is about exploring, inspiring, entertaining, growing, learning, teaching, and about “which of these is most important“. There are as many front runners as there are answers to what Improv is about.