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Colin Mochrie and Asad Mecci on their humorous mash-up of hypnosis and improv
Master mesmerist Asad Mecci didn't need to use his abilities to convince Whose Line Is It Anyway? star Colin Mochrie to collaborate on the comedy HYPROV: Improv Under Hypnosis, running Off Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre through October 30. He just emailed the pitch through Mochrie's website: What if Mecci hypnotized audience volunteers and Mochrie did improv with them?
"I thought it sounded terrifying," says Mochrie. "I enjoy terrifying. I like being outside of my comfort zone." That makes sense for a performer who's spent the bulk of his 40-plus-year career being funny on the fly, though typically he improvises with his fellow pros, not enchanted amateurs.
Mecci came up with the concept while taking an improv class at The Second City Toronto, hoping it would help him be more spontaneous during his hypnosis routines. "Oftentimes, the instructors would say, 'Get out of your head!'" Mecci recalls. "They were trying to get unconscious functioning from the students so that they would no longer think about performing, they would just do it. When you hypnotize someone, you're working directly with the unconscious mind. So, I thought to myself, would it be possible to hypnotize somebody who has no experience in improv and turn that person into a great improviser?"
After getting Mochrie on board, they decided to find out. In 2016, they began doing performances after The Second City Toronto's mainstage show, and soon moved on to the Just for Laughs festivals in Montreal and in London as well as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With some fine-tuning courtesy of sitcom vet Stan Zimmerman, who directs, and Tony-winning Drowsy Chaperone writer Bob Martin, who serves as creative consultant, HYPROV embarked on a 50-city tour. Their New York City engagement is the first time they're doing the show for 12 weeks in one spot, and they've upped their game with spiffy design and a new score by Grammy nominee Rufus Wainwright. Every night, Mecci will hypnotize 20 audience volunteers, and the top five (based less on their comedy skills, more on their susceptibility to suggestion) will do improv with Mochrie. It's literally a different show each time and no one knows what's going to happen, not even the stars.
Considering New Yorkers are known for being cynical and jaded, do they worry the show won't go over well in the Big Apple? "Luckily, we're cynical and jaded, too!" Mochrie says cheerily. "I think people everywhere walk into the show with a little bit of skepticism. They're either skeptical about hypnosis, or improv, or both. Putting the two together, we're doubling that skepticism. But I think the beauty of this show is that, by the end, we have lots of converts, especially people who see their family members or friends being hypnotized and improvising. Not only improvising, but improvising well and getting laughs keeping a scene going. I think we do win people over."
For any unbelievers reading, Mecci insists that "there's no funny business going on" (beyond the improv). "For the record, we don't use plants. We've never met any of these people before. I call for volunteers and whoever wants to can come up on stage." There are a few parameters: no experienced improvisers, no actors, no one under 18 and, while you can see the show as many times as you'd like, you can only volunteer once. Mecci acknowledges that sometimes, scene-stealers try to sneak in, but he always weeds them out. "They usually play to the audience in a highly demonstrative way," he says. "They're way over the top and trying to fake the hypnosis, but they always give themselves away."
Mecci adds that he's amazed some doubters accuse them of scripting the entire evening. "Do they really think that's the best we could do?" he says, chuckling. "If we were gonna script the show, we would make it way better. I guess it's a compliment, but a backhanded one. Improv is an art form where you have to be in the room to find it funny."
Perhaps that's why Mochrie hesitates when asked about his most memorable HYPROV moments. "The beauty and the curse of improv is, once a scene's over, it's gone forever," he says. But he shares one memorable interaction. "We do a 1940s murder mystery radio play and, at the end, I told the femme fatale that she was gonna go to the chair," Mochrie explains. "And then she said, 'What do you mean? This hasn't happened. It's all in your mind. I'm not real. You're insane.' What?! It took me by surprise because a professional improviser would never have come up with that. When you're improvising, you're trying to keep some sort of narrative going, and she just totally destroyed it, which was great, because it forced me to figure out a way to make sense of it all. I think doing HYPROV has made me a better improviser. When you've worked with people for a long time, like I have on Whose Line, you get a little comfortable. I'm always pretty sure I know where they're going to go. I can't relax like that with HYPROV. Thankfully, I'm really good at saving my own ass."
Top image: Asad Mecci and Colin Mochrie, who costar in HYPROV: Improv Under Hypnosis. Photo by Aaron Cobb.