I’d heard tale of Erika McNichol for almost a year before I met her, when she cast me in her BBQ-themed improv show “Braised in Texas,” last summer. The tales were true. Erika is smart, efficient, and easy-going as a director. As a performer, mostly with her troupe The Frank Mills, she’s second to none.
I remember once watching her onstage and someone referenced her character’s car, which she instantly (and in impeccable character) endowed as a “”62 Grand Marquis.”
These sorts of insta-details are gigantic gifts to her scene partners, and she hands them out willingly. Erika McNichol might just be Santa Claus.
Years doing improv:
Let’s start with the current project: Bridgeport Correctional Facility. You’re directing and starring. Tell us about it.
Sure. After moving to Austin and being in the community for a year or so, I was really eager to play with some of the ladies that I didn’t otherwise have the opportunity to play with. I asked them all to play in a Cagematch team with me and called it “Period for Brains.”
We met a few days before the match in the coffeehouse at the Hideout and discussed what to do. I had seen Switchblade Sisters (a 1975 Jack Hill exploitation film about a teenage girl gang), as well as Pimprov a few years earlier. A few of us met up to talk about what to do, and I floated the idea of pretending we were all prison inmates that had been taught improv as an artistic outreach program. We decided to do short form since many of us in the group had strong backgrounds in short form, but less opportunity to perform it.
So, I went online to the Austin Improv forums and announced Period for Brains was out and would be replaced by Bridgeport Women’s Correctional Facility. We won that Cagematch and ended up winning a slot in the 2006 or 2007 Out of Bounds (Comedy Festival).
It was incredibly fun, very blue and chaotic. The audience for the first show was largely improvisors and we received a lot of positive feedback. I’ve always looked back on the show as one of my favorite experiences and kept a flame for it. After ColdTowne started seeking submissions for programming, I had submitted the idea of a remount as a mainstage run, and here we are.
For this show, we have returning players from the original team (Kaci, Rachel and myself), as well as new players that are excellent at character and short form (Courtney, Cortnie, Katie, Lisa and Chrissy).
Given the performer strengths and aims for the show, I facilitate more than direct. I brought in vision (largely intact from the original run), source material, ideas about the shape of the show and music. Everyone has contributed on bringing the show to life.
I’ve directed shows in the past that required a more traditional approach, but it wasn’t needed here.
Now let’s jump back in time. Do you remember your first encounter with improv? How did you end up doing it in the first place?
My mom lived in Lincoln Park while I was in college, and I got to see a couple of Second City reviews (including Pinata Full of Bees, which featured Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit and Adam McKay).
Fast forward about five years and I decided to move to Chicago. My first encounter with improv was taking classes at Second City in the “Improv for Actors” program a few days after I moved.
In my Second City class, I met people that were also taking classes at IO who had lots of good things to say about it. I called and got on the waiting list there (never having seen a show there) and ended up loving the teachers, my classmates and the whole community.
And why, all these years later, do you continue to improvise?
I love the people. They’re my tribe.
The Frank Mills put on one of my all-time favorite shows at the Out of Bounds festival last year. Why are y’all so good? And what do you think, generally, makes for a successful, long-lasting improv troupe?
Thank you. We like each other and enjoy playing together. I think honesty, vulnerability and a willingness to put the collective good ahead of your own agenda is what is required for a team to stick with each other.
Do you prefer performing or directing improv? Why?
That is hard for me to answer. There are things I enjoy a great deal about both. I don’t dig the stress of directing and producing, but there is nothing so gratifying as throwing a good party, you know?
What are three things you think can make someone a better improviser right now?
You’re married to Bob McNichol, the single best listener I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Can you compare and contrast your “styles” or improv philosophies? Or are they just too identical? HAS THE MIND MELD COMPLETED?
As the president of his fan club, I’m absolutely comfortable agreeing with your statement. I don’t think our styles are identical, but we talk a LOT of shop at home and we do come from a similar place, philosophically. I’ll defer to him to talk about how he approaches it, but can say that I enjoy character work.
What’s a song you think best epitomizes your feelings about the “art of improv”?
Shake Your Moneymaker. Find out what makes you unique and what you offer the craft, then build your strengths there while you work on your overall game.
I think one of your discernible strengths is how much detail you provide in scenes. I’m a big fan of details. Discuss your thoughts on detailed offers.
My favorite comedians are detail hounds, whether it’s spoken details or object work specificity. I like connecting with my fellow players through creating a shared world rich in details. I think details can also ground an otherwise two-dimensional character and give you a little more tether with an audience.
What’s the funniest thing you’re into lately?
My guilty pleasure us reading those Damn You Autocorrect things. One time, I laughed so hard my face spasmed and froze for a few seconds.
I also love love love Key and Peele. I think they are producing some if the best comedy and social commentary on the screen today. I can’t wait to for their writing staff to hit Out of Bounds thus year!
Will your kids become improvisers? Are you gonna become an Improv Stage Parent?!?
I dunno. My oldest definitely has the gotta sing, gotta dance gene and wants to perform. Just this week I said the words, “you gotta know when to drop the bit!”.
I really try to not be a pusher on things, but more of an encourager on the interests she expresses. It’s not about me.
Anything you want to plug?
Yeah! People should read up on the affects of mandatory minimum sentencing and the amount of prisoners we are incarcerating for nonviolent, first time offenses. It’s a serious problem that needs public attention.
Go to famm.org and petition your Senator to let judges decide what sentences are just. Right now, we’re locking women up for decades or life for really minor offenses. It’s inhumane, not to mention expensive for no societal benefit.
What’s one thing most people don’t know?
I was really into show choir and music before Improv.
Bridgeport Correctional Facility plays only two more nights in June, Saturdays at 8:00 pm at ColdTowne Theater. This one is special, folks. Go see it.