Matt Donnelly has been an improviser and teacher at theaters all over New York for years and has since taken his talents to Las Vegas. He was recently voted ‘Best Male Comedian’ by BroadwayWorld.com and started working on ‘Penn & Teller Tell A Lie’. He tells us about what Vegas is like, his writing gig and teaching a unique version of the Harold.
Being based out of Las Vegas, how is that city as an improv town?
Las Vegas is a strange town to do improv in. There is no official improv theater so groups are a little ignorant to each other. Both Long Form and Short Form thrive there. It’s a small city with a lot of entertainment, so maintaining any kind of weekly show is hard. The locals are asked to see a ton of shows and given great deals to do so. So when folks come out to our shows, we feel supported. It’s a real choice to see us. I like that. I like Vegas audiences a lot.
There aren’t just improv people in the audience, a lot of regular folks come out. In NYC where I performed for over a decade, you pride yourself on the variety of people that come through. Vegas has as totally different, yet very diverse Americana audience. Performing for them, I have grown a ton as a performer. As a teacher it’s always hard in a small market city that doesn’t dangle the carrot of professional work to keep a large amount of people motivated and focused on improv.
The scene swells and recedes often just year to year. I have been challenged greatly here. Second City was a huge influence here before they packed up and left town. With my background (Chicago City Limits, IO, UCB, People’s Improv Theater) I very much feel like I bring something different and new to this city.
What was the decision like to move there?
My decision to move there was one of support for my wife. Sarah has a huge musical theater background and Jersey Boys offered her a job, moving expenses and 6 month’s rent. I didn’t want to do the long distance thing, so we moved. Thank goodness there was improv there otherwise I may have slit my wrists. I am much better at improv than I am at blackjack.
How did your writing gig on Penn & Teller Tell a Lie come about?
Emily Jillette, Penn’s wife, was a huge fan of improv and saw me in Wayne Brady’s show at the Venetian and also saw me in some local improv stuff. She produced my idea for an improv show called Executive Monkeys at the Palms Resort Casino and through that I met Penn. We just got along okay and when I heard they had a new TV show deal for Discovery I begged to intern. After about a month, Penn & Teller let me take passes at the script and I started peppering in some jokes here and there. They liked them and hired me as a writer (actually ‘creative consultant’, but I just did the job of being a fourth writer on the show as well as my intern duties). They are amazing people to work for and should have some fun surprises TV-wise in the new year.
How do you find time out of your busy schedule to do that, perform and do workshops across the country?
Writing is an intense but small part of my calendar year. When we are writing, I don’t teach or perform that much. But when we are down, I am an improv teacher/performer. I feel very rewarded teaching improv. I have really spent my life pursuing a better understanding of it and I pride myself and trying to understand it from the perspective of each scene.
I don’t think I have all the answers, I enjoy soaking in each scene and love that improv is this international secret hand shake that says “we should be able to do a show, have a drink and enjoy each other’s company”. Plus, as a comedian, it’s so important to go to as many diverse places as possible and see what makes you likable and funny. Local scenes and get pretty comfy and inside jokey fast. Festivals and travel are vital to keeping your personal art fresh and challenged.
Is the speed version of the Harold something you have uniquely developed?
I did uniquely develop it with my first improv group Possible Side Effects, which later became Threat at the PIT. We kept drifting toward it when we were doing “Free Forms”. There are many forms called “Speed Harold”. I wanted to call it something else, but the Harold elements are so strong it that it didn’t feel right. People sometimes refer to it as “the Donnelly Harold”, but having my name on it feels gross and egotistical.
The 2 major distinctions on it are 1) no opening and 2) the last third of the form is rapid fire scenes instead of one scene trying to attract connections. Having no opening proved more controversial in the NYC scene than I thought when I started teaching it.
Performing long form in Jersey and later NYC, openings are pretty fruity and weird to an audience of regulars Joes. So we dropped it. We dropped the concept of “finding Harold” and decided as a group not to put one form on a pedestal above all others, and just “yes and ” the performance of it like any other form.
Fast forward years later where I left the UCB over my own artistic differences at the time, to come to the PIT where I was hired as a level 1 teacher. I watched house teams who were performing just “not Harold” forms. They were talented people just doing very organic and drawn-out forms. They lacked certain elements that I thought were vital to engaging regular audience. So out of necessity I started teaching the Speed Harold to every house team. I was only a level 1 teacher so I offered my coaching for free and they could keep me on after if they wanted to. Almost all of them did. It really opened up the groups and I was moved to level 3 class teaching where I taught the form to every student. I am not sure if its still taught at the PIT but for the five years I taught, it was the first form anyone learned. I take a lot of pride in how positive an impact it had on that theater’s art and the growth of the theater that happened at the same time.
Do they do it at any other place the exact same way?
Teams at the PIT still perform some version of it. Two groups in Minneapolis from what I hear do a wonderful version of it and a team called Miss Baker is Las Vegas does an amazing job performing it.
Do you believe the original Harold holds up?
I do. I think in places that have the right teachers it holds up quite well. Its not an academic form. It doesn’t translate off the pages of Truth in Comedy as well as one might prefer. I think it needs to be directed. But so does my version of it. I teach a streamlined version of it with a very different focus on second beats especially. Only improvisers would recognize it as versions of the same form. Forms don’t make good improv, improvisers do. Any form holding up depends on the coach and its players.
A big part of your teaching is in body language. Why do you think that is such an important part of improv?
90 percent of what we communicate is body language and tone. Yet so much of improv is focused on that 10 percent- the words alone. (There is no hard science behind those percentages, I am just making a point). Improv is the only form of theater where the audience thinks they are smarter than you and have come to watch you fail.
So many times people are acting their butts off and their scene partner is so focused on the words and not saying yes to what they are seeing or how they are hearing and leaving so much information from those factors out of the scene entirely. I think this is where “playing at the top of your intelligence” really finds meaning. Interpreting body language and tone lets you “yes and” what the spectator is feeling rather than thinking, and puts you 2 steps ahead of an audience that is daring you to fail.
Where can people find you performance or teaching-wise in the near future?
I’ll be performing on Monday nights at the Onyx theatre in the show SET in Las Vegas. I will be doing other monthly shows as well. I teach drop ins once a month and I travel to cities to teach and perform, usually 6 cities a year. To keep up to date follow me on twitter @SweetMattyD
Thanks to Matt for his time answering these questions!