10 questions: Ryan McMahon

1) What the fuck is going on?
Not too fucking much, you?

2) How have you developed as an Artisitic Director since starting MooseGuts Theatre in 2003?
I think my vision is very different than it was. I started the company five years ago, with the dream of producing ‘ground breaking spectacle theatre’ that featured Native performers, directors, technicians, etc. That vision changed to wanting to do guerrilla theatre/performance art so that I could show ‘the man’ exactly what I thought of him. Right now the vision sits somewhere in between. Right now MooseGuts Theatre Company is more of a production company than anything. MGT is just me right now. I have chosen to not register as a non-profit, and I am going to go with more of a traditional business model for the company.

When I open my doors to the MGT Company’s home, it will be a black box space with workshop/rehearsal space, an office, and working bathrooms. I want MGT to more about the work than the space. I don’t want to be a landlord to my own company, I want to be an artist. So, for now, MGT is all about the youth training I do, the small, local comedy shows I put on, and the writing/performance I do. The vision is very fluid and will always change – I think.

3) What is Improv Boot Camp?
The IBC is a model for Oshki-Biimaataziwin (the Good Life). The Improv Boot Camp is a training program that I have worked on for a number of years to empower, challenge, and engage youth in their communities. When I graduated from theatre school I started teaching youth theatre workshops around the Toronto area and more often than not they would be an afternoon long, or at best, a day long and that was simply not enough time to work with the kids. Couple that with my utter distain of our “Indian Celebrities” that charge communities huge cash for “empowerment and leadership” workshops and I knew that I had to develop something that could and would make a difference in young peoples lives.

The workshop itself is a mixture of Augusto Boal, Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, and generic theatre school exercises mixed with Anishinaabe cultural teachings and world views, Anishinaabe singing and dancing teachings, and a deeper look at how young people impact their communities. The IBC is all about re-connecting youth with their communities in a real, tangible way by using theatre as empowerment.

4) How would you characterize Winnipeg’s theatre scene?
Safe. Grossly safe – if grossly safe is even a real term used by humans.

5) How does your background in standup comedy inform your approach to making theatre?
I think it’s the other way around for me – my background in theatre informs the way I approach doing comedy. I’ve only been doing standup comedy for two years and in that two years I’ve achieved some amazing things. People in Winnipeg see me as a ‘guy just starting out doing standup’ and not a lot of people here in Winnipeg realize that I’ve been working as an actor/director/writer/improviser/sketch performer for 10 years now. People see me as a ‘comedian’ now because I get so much work doing comedy, whether performing or writing, but I’ve trained in theatre for a long time and that truly is where my heart is.

I still write plays, read plays for people, dramaturge, etc. but I’m not out there chasing theatre work. When I was in Toronto auditioning for stuff, chasing whatever my agent sent me, I was never brown enough for casting people, and never white enough for casting people. I vowed early not be ‘the Indian’ and so I stopped caring about ‘being an actor’. I was always writing, so, it was a natural thing to start producing my own shows, speaking with my own voice on stage, and essentially begin my path of being more of an ‘alternative theatre/comedy/performance artist guy’ rather than try to fit into a mold I simply couldn’t fit in.

My performance goal is to examine and deconstruct everything that pisses me off, write some funny shit about it that doesn’t come off as vitriol, and somehow add some multimedia elements to it (puppets, video, masks, sound, movement, etc.). People see me as an alternative comic because I treat my act as theatre in terms of how I present the shit I write/perform, and to me, it’s all part of the same thing – letting the shit out of my head.

6) From your experience working with First Nations Elders, have you noticed anything particular about they way they approach comedy?
Honestly that changes in every community. Some people believe you shouldn’t tell stories in the summer (traditionally a time for work), so they refuse to hire a comedian (storyteller) for their events. It is different everywhere. A lot of the people I run into on my travels tell me how refreshing it is to hear from “my generation” in a funny way.

In general, there are 10 working Native Comedians in North America. Native Comedy is not even in its infancy yet, and that is very clear to me based on reactions/responses I get after I do my act. One young guy in Alberta told me I was like the “Indian Chris Rock” and I guess I was flattered. My elders have always told me to be myself, to not lie. It’s my personal belief that that is where comedy comes from – truth. There are still a lot of taboo things that we, as Native Peoples, don’t talk about. Those are things I take aim at right away. NOT JUST to talk about them, but, to show our old people that we’re going to be okay. I want them to believe that, to know that, and to trust that.

In general, Native people love to laugh – laughter is medicine is an old cliche thrown around the teepee a lot, so, more often than not, the places I play too have already been sharing food, company, and laughter before I even step on stage. It is hard for me though, obviously looking at me – I look more cowboy than Indian. The first 10 minutes of my act is getting them to believe I’m an Indian. When I do mainstream shows, I have to do an entirely different act – I’m too white to be their Indian, and too brown to be their funny white man. I’ve learned that I need to be funny no matter who I’m playing for.

7) What’s funny?
The truth.

8) How much of your work is informed by a sense of anger?
All of it. Every last consonant and mother-fucking vowel bleeds anger. Every shitty fucking sound cue and half-assed piece of shit lighting change in my shows are chosen while very angry. All the fucking posters and handbills and shitty little websites I make on my stupid fucking MacBook are all pieces of shit but apparently necessary to promote the dumb fucking shows I have chosen to . . .

9) What is your fondest memory of being on stage?
My favourite memory of being onstage would have to be bombing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City during the Del Close Marathon in 2003. The marathon itself is the ‘big show’ of improv and I was there with my troupe, Tonto’s Nephews.

Leading up to the festival we had been getting some interest from CBC and the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, as well as some other television development stuff. The fact that we were an all-Aboriginal Comedy Troupe was appealing apparently and there had been talk that some NBC Diversity people were going to be watching us at the festival to see what the hype was about.

To make a very long, boring story short, we went and we sucked. We had an amazing time slot, the theatre was full,

“. . . in the first row of the audience sat
half of the cast of
Saturday Night Live.”

and in the first row of the audience sat half of the cast of Saturday Night Live. We went out there and made ourselves look like fools. No one was listening onstage, two of our ‘stars’ bullied and trudged their way through their storylines, and the whole show crumbled – it was 30 minutes of shitty improv. I don’t even remember if we got any laughs.

When I got off the stage, I went straight to the back of the room, and by chance I ran into Horatio Sanz. He knew I was steaming mad about being bullied off stage during the improv set and he pulled me aside and for about an hour he told my what he liked about my style, we talked improv and where it’s going, and we teased a bunch of drunk UCB ‘chicks’, or, ‘groupies’, and it was an incredible time.

Sucking that badly onstage at such a huge comedy festival was a humbling performance moment for me. Everything I had worked for to get to that day exploded in my face. After I left the theatre I went for a walk to Central Park, sat under a tree, and started to think about what would become MooseGuts Theatre.

10) Any tips for non-comedians on how to be funnier, generally?
My general advice is to not be funny. Some of my best comedy coaches/directors have told me time and time again when you try to be funny, you’re probably going for a gag (cheap joke/laugh) and when going for the gag you take yourself out of the scene, or the moment. A lot of players/actors that don’t know what improv/sketch/standup is about – their instincts immediately take them to the gag. However, an attentive audience is usually in the moment as well, so when a player goes for the gag – the audience should either groan loudly at you or throw shit at you. It’s cheap.

The best way to get laughs (if that is your goal) is to be yourself. Stay open physically (body and voice), spiritually, and emotionally and your truth will always come out on stage. Truth in comedy, follow the fear because that is where the laughs are.