You Can’t Make This Up, With Pat Niday

Pat Niday’s effortless and confident stage presence makes longform look easy, but don’t think that it happened overnight. Pat has put in the work over the last 9 years, honing his craft as he’s made his way from middle school drama classes to the Level 4 instructor at The Improv Shop. The work, it seems, has paid off in spades.

As one of my favorite St. Louis improvisers, I will be the first to tell you that Pat is a joy to watch on stage; he brings high energy, commitment to character, and a keen eye for detail to every show (of which, there are many). He plays with Storyteller and Meowsers each week in two of The Improv Shop’s feature showcases. He also serves as a board member of the non-profit Compass Improv.

If you see Pat (DJ Rowdy Rex to some) during open court, after a show, or around the shop, go over and say hi. He’s humble, kind, and makes everyone feel welcome.

Meet Pat Niday:

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

I first got exposed to improv when I was about 11 or 12 through a mixture of middle school drama classes, theatre games at my church, and watching “Whose Line is it Anyway?” excessively. I, of course, was young, but part of me was all, “How did I live so many years without knowing about this??? That’s unfair. I’m gonna do this a lot forever”. I fell for it hard. I remember making my mom take me and my friends out to CITY Improv at Union Station to see a show for my 12th birthday (maybe Andy Sloey or Katie Nunn played that night! I don’t remember).

Anyway, I really started practicing and earnestly trying to work on this stuff with an improv club at my high school (Lafayette! GO LANCERS!). We would play games we found online or had seen on Whose Line and just goof around as much as we could. From there, I went to Truman State University (TRUMAN! GO BULLDOGS!!!!!! ARF! ARF! ARF!) and joined Tag Improv. We did a lot of short form and worked up to performing Harolds after a longform workshop up in Chicago. After graduation from Truman in 2011, I came to STL, found The Improv Shop on Google, and jumped into classes.

In total it’s probably been about 9 years of practicing and doing improv regularly.

How would you describe your style of play? In other words, what sort of scenes/shows do you have the most fun doing? 

Tough to say, as I feel like I’m still defining my voice and do try to adapt my style to the needs of the ensemble, but my friend Habeeb did once tell me that I play with a lot of joy. It was such a nice thing for him to say and something that has really stuck with me. If there is one thing that would be my “style” I hope that it’s at least consistent, no matter what show I’m doing.

Scenically, I’m happiest when we’re spinning all our plates evenly (relationship, wants, game) so we have a nice meaty, balanced scene. If we can find a game where we can heighten emotionally (rather that just intellectually, ad absurdum) I’m really happy.

I have the most fun doing shows with relatable characters, accelerating stakes/energy, honest discoveries and connections, and ideally some sort of resolution thematically or for the characters to tie it all together. Obviously these things don’t always happen all together, but that’s the dream show.

Can you regale us with a tale about the best or worst scene/show you have ever done?

Worst show: A couple years back, Meowsers did a road show up at Quincy University. We had a good show that Saturday night and then proceeded to party like college kids. We drove home exhausted that Sunday and spent all day in improv class and rehearsal and THEN we had a gig at Cicero’s. It was abysmal. We had no energy, no one could hear us, and there were only, like, 6 people in the crowd (including my mom and sister). It was worse than bad – it was boring. It taught us a lot about preparing physically and mentally for each show. Sleep, exercise, and eating well are some of the best warm ups you can do for a show.

As for a best show, you’ll always have a few that stand out in your mind, but I try not to dwell too much on them. Part of my motivation is to constantly chase that high of a great show. I hope I never have my best show. I’ve heard this thought attributed to Tara DeFrancisco at iO that if we ever do the perfect improv show, then we would just quit. Pack up, go home. We’ve done it. I never want to feel that content with any performance of mine.

What do you do to find inspiration for improv? In other words, do you have a life? If so, how do you spend it (besides pretending you are someone else on stage in front of large groups of people)?

9-5, I’m a project manager at a web design and software company. It’s great inspiration and practice for improv because I pretty much spend all day dealing with different people and personalities. A lot of my job is listening to people and figuring out what they are really saying and what they actually want. It’s a big part of keeping your clients and developers happy. It’s a great revolving door of new personalities, and I get a ton of improv inspiration from it.

Other than work and improv, I like to watch tv and movies (real big on Fargo and The Americans right now), hang out with improv friends, hang out with non-improv friends, run in Forest Park, hang out with family, like stuff on Facebook, and eat pizza.

Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to invest in what’s already there. Scenically, let yourself be affected by every line, right at the top of the scene. Slow down. Don’t waste energy and focus trying to find the funny. Everything you need is right in front of you. Depth will always trump breadth in the end. You’ll get more out of going deeper into a single discovery (thus leading to other honest discoveries) than moving laterally or bouncing around trying to “find” the perfect game or idea.

In a broader sense, I would recommend investing in just a one or two improv projects at a time. Make classes your number one priority – take notes, ask questions of your teachers, and see shows. If you start feeling pulled to play on an independent team (which is great!), find one group of people that inspire you and commit to them. Jumping around to a lot of one-off projects or jams is good stage experience but has its limits. Commit deeply to one or two things and let them grow. That’s where the real special stuff lies. Again, in the long run depth will beat out breadth.

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?

Dave Koechner was in town a few years back and ran a workshop at The Improv Shop. One note that really stuck with me was his assertion that “the stage is your temple”. He had great reverence for the gift of performing in front of an audience and had zero tolerance for anything less than your full commitment and focus while on stage. They are giving us their precious time and attention for 30 minutes and we can’t be careless with it.

More than any note on improv mechanics or techniques, this advice has helped guide my overall mindset going into shows. It’s such a gift to perform in front of an audience, whether it’s 5 folks or a full house. You never know who is going to be there watching improv for the first time. We owe it to them to give it our all. We have to treat our teammates, theatre, and audience with our fullest respect and admiration. It’s our temple.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

Vulnerability is power. Opening up and allowing yourself to express honest emotions, insecurities, and hopes are great tools in improv. More and more I’m seeing this bleed into my life. I let the people I care about know how I feel with regularity, I express gratitude more freely, I acknowledge and share my fears and insecurities so that I can better handle them.

I just feel much more mentally healthy when I’m open, honest and vulnerable in daily life.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?

If you have a chance on a Friday night to check out Meowsers and Pone Pone play in the Soiree, please do! The people on these teams are my favorite, and they inspire me constantly. It’s the best part of my week.

Also, on Saturdays, don’t miss Storyteller. It’s a very special show that I’m lucky to be a part of. Huge cast, amazing guests, and a really fun format.

I’ll also plug Compass Improv’s Open Court fundraiser that happens the third Wednesday every month at The Heavy Anchor. It’s a longform improv jam where teams are pulled from a hat. Super fun and open to anyone and everyone. Come get some stage time and play with new people!

Compass is also putting on a Trivia night in September, so keep an eye out for details.

What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?

Ranjan Khan, Meghan Kenny, Guy Stephens

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

I love this TED talk excerpt. It’s basically watching a Harold opening happening in real life. It’s one of my favorite videos and always inspires me to be a courageous follower.

This blog on commitment by Jimmy Carrane is a great read. Good stuff to keep in mind for those forming new independent teams.

I also really like reading Bill Arnett’s blog in general.

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