How to be great

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Mico and Jules

This is Mico Pugliares. He looks just as much like Super Mario in real life as he does in this photo. In the show I saw him in on Friday, he played a Flamingo who had sex with a wildlife photographer. So, for the moment, Flamico. He lives in Milan, but is Sicilian and therefore describes himself as an immigrant. He performs at Teatribu, a lovely little theatre in a ‘peripherico’ area of Milan with (of course) a great restaurant round the corner where two old men (of course) play trombone and accordion and the mozzarella is (of course) as big as my head. Mico has a degree in political science and loves classic rock. His English is enthusiastically inaccurate and he has apparently infinite reserves of energy, despite having two children and teaching four nights a week. He describes himself as a ‘plant’ in the morning. He is (of course) precise about his pasta and loves eating Baba (a Sicilian cake steeped in Limncello) and making sound effects for anything at all. He is fifty and one of the funniest people I have ever met.

I first saw Teatribu in Dublin a few years ago. Their festival show ‘Stereotypes’ plays in three different languages and was conceived as a modern form of Commedia Dell’Arte. The stereotypes are the masks. It was one of the funniest and most memorable shows I had seen in a long while, as only something similar enough to understand, but different enough to surprise and expand your view of your artform can be. Heather and I still do a bit from that show, where an angry old man asks someone to ‘tienimi il braccio’ (hold my arm) in order that he can hit them round the head with his stick SPAM (one of those sound effects I mentioned).

And this is Swipe Right. Formed from a Spontaneity Shop course a few years back, though a few cast members have left and joined, they have been a fairly consistent set of people for a few years. Now Swipe Right are not yet at the stage where they are headlining international festivals, but they gig consistently, rehearse regularly and they’ll get there. I have a lot of respect for them. They get a wide variety of guests coaches and when they are alone, work diligently on the latest thing that they have learnt. I coach them about once a month or a bit less and have a lot of fun doing so. They always have a thing they want to improve on, and whatever you throw at them, they are enthusiastic, generous and delighted by each other, individually and as a group. They do the most important thing in improv, any other art or probably any human endeavour, they turn up and they get on with it.

What connects Teatribu and Swipe Right is that neither of them seem in the slightest bit bothered by originality. And I think that’s a really good a really good thing. Most new things in any artform (and especially in improv) are just not very good. Originality for its own sake is not very interesting. That’s why a child’s drawings, while delightful to a parent are just a little, well, dull to the rest of us if we are honest. Seeking originality is as selfish and arrogant as it is futile. Look at how clever I am to have thought of something new! Most things are not original and most things that are original aren’t good. You want to try and hit the tiny centre of that Venn diagram?

I am not against originality in and of itself. Part of the reason I travel to festivals is a desire to see something I have never seen before. But I just think that it comes accidentally and unbidden when you are good. When you do the basics well and then better than well, and then simply and instinctively, originality just somehow arrives without you noticing. In fact, let’s not call them the basics, let’s call them core skills. They are the core of what we do. What is both hard and valuable is to go back to the same damned thing that frustrated you yesterday and say ‘ok, let’s do it again’. The reason the all blacks are the best Rugby team in the world is because their basics are impeccable. They are good enough that you can throw phase after phase at their defence and it’ll never break. You can have possession all game if you like, they will still beat you. Eventually you’ll make a mistake and they’ll take advantage of it. They are great because they never suck.

Be like Teatribu, Swipe Right and the All Blacks. Don’t be original. Be good. By which I mean, just don’t suck.


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