Spotlight On: Kevin McHugh

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Kevin McHugh is an improv pianist and teacher from Seattle, based in Tokyo. He began working in improv theatre professionally from age 15, when he joined Seattle’s Unexpected Productions, studying piano at Oberlin Conservatory, and in 2006 he won a year long Watson Fellowship to pursue a self-designed project exploring improvised music scenes in São Paulo, Cairo, Mumbai, Shanghai and Tokyo. Since 2009 Kevin has lived in Tokyo, working as a full-time jazz pianist and accompanist for both Broadway and improv theatre shows. He is a founding member of the Japanese improv group “Improlabo”, and the pianist for the Tokyo Comedy Store. He has performed in hundreds of shows with actors from nearly every major improv theatre in North America, Europe, and Asia. 

Tell us a bit about your workshop and the idea behind it, and why/how it excites you.
In my workshops I will be breaking down improvised song into some of it's most fundamental ideas: melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics.  I've always been interested in fundamentals. Asking and trying to answer the most basic questions can bring some of the deepest insights.  I also fiercely believe that mastering the basics is an ongoing process that makes us more and more aware of what we are doing, and always merits returning to.  To share in this learning process is a real joy.  

What shows are you most excited to see? Why?
It's hard to choose!  But Matt Powell's Don't See This Show Alone sounds like a fascinating way to think about your fears.  And Takayuki Ueda's Shibuya Scramble Crossing might make me think about my own adopted city of Tokyo in a new way.

What's the best thing about improv?
The out-of-body moments when you forget you're improvising and just enjoying being part of something greater than yourself.

How would you describe your personal improv style?
Flexible but analytical.

Weirdest/best way improv has helped you in daily life?
It's helped me adjust in a lot of daily life situations where I don't understand or have different values than the culture I live in.

What's going on in the improv world where you are?
While improv has been around for a while now in Japan, it runs counter to the somewhat rigid social structure there.  So I think a lot of beginning improvisers have to spend a lot of time "unlearning" or "rethinking" the way they were educated and the way they think, on stage anyway.  I'm not Japanese but I've heard this from a lot of improvisers there.  In this sense the learning curve is steeper, and more time is spent on basic improv concepts.  That said, there is a lot of interest and it feels like the beginning of a big movement.  

Is improv in NZ/Wellington very different to your country/city? How?
I don't have enough experience with NZ improvisers to fairly answer this.  

What's going to be the NEXT BIG THING in improv?
ME OF COURSE.  Just kidding.  In fact, the opposite!  Not a big expert on improv history, but it seems to have been dominated by a lot of white men in its first stage.  Recently I think there has been more interest/empowerment/awareness by women and minority groups in improv.  It's kind of like most governments of the world lamenting lack of diversity, only this time I am actually optimistic things will change, although not without dialogue and willingness to balance (or overthrow!) a kind of paternal order.  I think there will be more inclusiveness and I hope more awareness to bring fresh perspective and ideas that white men like myself just don't have.  
Any Improv/Theatre/Comedy heroes?
People who are terrified of singing but still keep going to musical improv workshops!

Make up your own question and answer it!
No? Yes.

Kevin teaches Melody and Rhythm on Saturday 21 October, and will be playing in various shows across the festival.  Catch him and our other musical improvisors supporting the programme at BATS Theatre