Mike Abdelsayed: Teaching Improvisation with Compassion
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
I was first introduced to improvisational theater about six years ago. I decided to take classes at The Second City, and found much love for the art form. It lifted my spirit, introduced me to amazing people and allowed me to be more comfortable speaking in front of large audiences. It also taught me many important lessons about life. I say it all the time, and I will say it again. Everyone should take an improv class. The opportunity gets you to laugh, shine your light, and understand what collaboration means when you focus in on the human connection involved in making other people laugh, including yourself. What a beautiful experience. I hope to chat with a lot more instructors and students in performing arts, I knew improv was where I wanted to start because I thought about what purpose it could serve others.
My conversation with Mike started with him telling me his Myers-Briggs personality type, INFJ. For those that don't know, Myers-Briggs is an introspective questionnaire indicating psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. I have my students do this test, and it is refreshing to hear someone mention that they use it in their professional life. He tests as an Advocate, which are creative and caring, with a strong focus. Mike is so passionate about the improv world, he decided to buy a building and create his own group. In an industry dominated by male performers, this guy is trying to diversify and bring more women into the mix so that what happens on stage can appeal to the diversity of the audience. Chicago is home to an array of performing arts, where diverse stories come to life on stage, and Mike seems to be interested in making this more prevalent in improv. When you put people from different cultures together on an improv stage, they must learn to interact with each other to the benefit of their audience.
How did you get started in this business?
I went to Northwestern University for undergraduate school and after an audition with an improv group that I didn’t get called back for, a member of the group at the time really encouraged me to keep improvising. I didn’t want to wait for another chance to audition for a group there, so I started my own called The Titanic Players. We grew to perform on 8 different campuses with students that went on to successful television careers on many shows including SNL. I took classes at iO in Chicago and had the opportunity to play with people who were on shows like 30 Rock, as well as prominent roles directing and performing with the Second City Main Stage. I understudied for Keegan Michael-Key for the Second City, a role I received when I memorized the script and blocking from a video having never actually been a part of Second City up until that time. When Keegan needed a sub for a last minute emergency, they reached me through back channels and I went up that night. One of the most exhilarating moments I've ever had.
It didn't make sense to me that there wasn't a job for an improviser, or like a 4-year degree. I saw how hard it was for students to pay to learn improv from places like Second City or iO. Here we teach comedians and improvisers, and One Group Mind is the first membership-based organization that collects monthly dues from its members in exchange for providing a growing list of benefits and safety nets. It is our mission to reduce the financial barriers to studying improvisation and to provide incentives to studying it for a long time. The Comedy Clubhouse is a building we bought in 2015 so we can do our work with a sense of permanency.
What do you look for in good improv teams?
I look for diverse backgrounds, beliefs, viewpoints, in addition to playing style. The more diverse the background on stage, the more likely that we will appeal to everyone in the audience. I believe too much of any one type of style or viewpoint, and you have narrowed the potential audience who can relate or enjoy the performance.
How was your learning experience, and what is your view of entering a world of acting?
I had a hard time learning theater at Northwestern—I couldn't stand memorizing plays because it didn't connect with me, so my junior year I started at iO which led me to never attending my acting class at Northwestern. When my teacher sat me down to tell me she had to fail me, she wanted to know why I didn’t attend class. I told her that the class didn't speak to me, and that improv made me feel more in tune to learning from using my own words vs. someone else's, and didn’t understand how that was used to learn acting. I think you need to identify with your own feelings before you fit into someone else's interpretations. Not to say that I don’t I love Shakespeare. After awhile of reading his plays, it almost becomes lyrical to you, like those magic eye posters, where after staring at it for so long, it starts to feel natural when you begin to see it.
I was lucky and she gave me an incomplete so that I was allowed to complete the class as an independent study. I worked very close with this teacher and she asked that I come back to the classroom to help her teach a technique called Meisner, and when I came in, the students were shocked that I was there as they though I had dropped out over a year prior. In this demonstration to her class, I was able to make her feel something and even made her cry and call the class, but to me it was just following instructions. To this day I don’t know what that class thought of me except that I had disappeared for a year and came back to make the teacher cry. In high school I got straight A’s, and could have gone into any other line of work, but this is something that didn't have a formula, and it feels like I can explore for as long as I want to explore. I do this for me, I get a little high, it challenges me.
What are your thoughts on mental health as it relates to comedy?
There has to be a survival reason why laughter exists because it's why we do it. If we cant laugh we will never survive. We have a lot of mental health issues, they straddle that line, and if comedy is the opposite of feeling bad, then do comedy. I remember when a video circulated regarding mental health and comedians. It talked about their struggles and it's probably the reason why they are successful.
What is your teaching and learning strategy?
I start out a little professorial, almost chalkboard like, then after integrating myself with the content, I switch to coach mode. Coaches have to manage people and personalities, where teaching cares more about the content, and understanding it while practicing. In this industry experience helps. I want people to learn that the opportunity is always around us, and preparation meets opportunity. Too often people lament that they weren’t taken from an audition, but the idea that they are prepared is key. John Lutz who worked for SNL was a student, and he was given the opportunity to be flown to New York to meet with Lorne Michaels from SNL and was ready to go within a day. A similar opportunity happened to me, its really how I made my way into Second City and was able to understudy for Keegan Michael-Key. I actually picked up his lines by watching and listening.
The audience will enjoy it the most if we are enjoying it. We are needed by many, you just never know who. We once did a hospital show in the terminal ward where the patients were on life support and we didn't know until we got there. We had developed a short form set that we were too young to change last minute and by the end of it, one woman with no arms or legs was laughing so hard. We walked away feeling horrible, yet this woman who hadn’t responded to anything since the day her limbs were amputated, was responding to some of our very horribly offensive content. I think it worked because we enjoyed ourselves and so I believe she enjoyed it, thus turning the situation into something good because the hospital staff was so grateful to us that she was able to laugh and show signs of life.
How do you stay positive in the world of theater and acting?
As always, money is the root of many challenges. Coming from a lower income, immigrant family, there was never really a strong safety net to fall back on. There are other choices that could have been a lot easier on me for sure, but comedy is a defensive mechanism and always will be. Whenever there is bad news we turn it into comedy because what else are you going to do with it? I mean who wants to feel bad?
What does the future in improv look like for you?
I'm starting to love what's happening in Chicago within the industry and it is becoming wise that there is a lot of talent here, so looking forward to seeing what happens. I wrote a theatrical piece called “WISHIN' CONTROL.” It was inspired by the idea that when problems grow weary in a person’s mind, sometimes the last string of hope is to just wish. "WISHIN’ CONTROL" is a 90-minute performance presented in the style of improv but showcased in the form of a play. It shows how storytelling can carry the weight of a play without the bells & whistles of a major theater production. I am trying to make it into a movie, and am working with a writer out in LA.