THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Whose Line is it? It's Mike McShanes!
A legend of improv, Mike McShane tells us about his Transatlantic career.
Whose Line is it Anyway? is on stage at the Royal Albert Hall Saturday 15 December and Sunday 16 December.
Buy Tickets for Whose Line is it Anyway? at the Royal Albert Hall
Thank you for talking with us Mike! Our traditional starter question to begin - where in the States are you from?
I was adopted in north of Michigan and raised in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas.
You're going to be at the Royal Albert Hall this December as part of celebrations for the 30th anniversary of Whose Line is it Anyway? - how did you first get involved in Improv comedy?
Greg Proops and I went to college together, and were in the Theater Department at San Francisco State. I’m sorry, I meant the Getting Stoned and Looking for Sexual Identity Facility in San Francisco. I non-graduated with dishonors. But there was an improvisation group there, called Faultline that Greg belonged to. I did one show; had a great time but didn’t really get hooked until a few years later when I was in Shakespeare Festival with Annette Benning and Andre Braugher. I finished that, and was knocking around looking for something looser than killing kings and holding spears. So Greg invited me to join Faultline when they moved into a basement club venue in 1985-1986. We went looking for venues, and we found one. We decided to pick it because an ambulance was removing someone who had OD’d in the club. It had something risky to it. At the same time, Keith Johnstone and his book “Impro” dropped in the United States; it became our textbook to give us a common language. Improvisation was loved and recognized in that city because of Robin Williams, and San Francisco then was a amazing unplanned locus of what would become a lot of America’s theater glory. Oskar Eustis and Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard and Anna Devere Smith. It was a lucky time, and improv was part of it.
How did you become involved with the UK version of the series?
The producers of the show, Dan Patterson and Mark Levenson, were cruising the US looking in all the big improv cities, so then, you’ve got to come to San Francisco!
The UK series of Whose Line was notable for the number of North American performers who became mainstays of the show, including yourself, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and so forth. Why do you think American comedians were such a good fit with the show?
I was told that in 1988 they wanted Americans because we were freer physically & it worked better for the camera. I think maybe that’s a little bit general but possibly true; by now that consideration doesn’t hold up.
Do you have a favorite memory from the series?
Working with Richard Vranch & Josie Lawrence. Any real success I had in that show, came in compliment with them.
What is your favorite segment of the show, and why?
Super Heroes. Simply because Colin [Mochrie] would come up with the most absurd heroes.
After Whose Line you worked on both sides of the pond for a variety of films and sitcoms - when it comes to comedy, improv and scripted comedy are quite different - do you prefer one form to the other?
The improv in televised series is like a frame that you fill in with behavior. You’ve been given a relationship that starts at A then moves to B and you negotiate with each other through that. Depending on who you’re doing that with, it can be a focused listening and responding game, and quite stimulating. So improv always wins with me.
One of the films I just have to ask about is your role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! As an American, what was it like playing a role in one of England's most iconic legendary stories?
It was really an amazing experience, and Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman took me under their wing; so I had two really cool big brothers to guide me. The characters in the legend occupy an essential sentiment in your country about taking care of each other, and bucking the system to do it.
Your Twitter account (@thismikemcshane) lists your location as "US & UK" - do you live quite a Transatlantic life?
I am in the UK every year, and travel to Europe as well so yes I guess I am. My father was a military man and traveled around a bit; I inherited a bit of his wanderlust.
When you're in the UK, what one thing do you always like to do?
It’s Christmas, and I go high and low. Fortnum and Masons for lunch; The John Harvard Library on Borough High Street, and walking around the London Bridge Area. I am sad that Gaby’s Deli is gone; I would always get a vegetable salad box when I would do a show on the West End. It was for good luck. That’s London. If I have a couple of days to knock around the island, then I’ll take a train to Durham. It’s my favorite, with the cathedral, and the winding small streets.
How does it feel to be returning to the Whose Line format on the stage of the iconic Royal Albert Hall?
Amazing and daunting and hopefully delightful.
What's on the horizon for you?
I just finished writing a fantasy story called "The Time Sock" and am converting it to a podcast adventure. And in April through June, I am on tour through the UK with Paul Mertons’ Impro Chums. And something in LA that I can’t talk about.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Mike McShane?
It changes from day to day and hour to hour. But a lot of the pleasure comes from the people I meet and the gifts I get from them. Some are tangible like a sandwich, and some are surprises of time.
You can see Mike on stage as part of Whose Line is it Anyway , which celebrates its 30th anniversary with three special shows at the Royal Albert Hall this December. Stagings will be on Saturday December 15 at 9:30pm, and on Sunday December 16 at 6pm, with a Sunday Matinee at 2pm. You can buy tickets by going to the Royal Albert Hall website