Mee-Ow: A Q&A with the Co-Directors

By Lexi Vollero

“It really has held my college experience hostage,” says Maya Armstrong, with a smile on her face. And for once, she’s only half-joking. Mee-Ow co-directors Jake Daniels and Maya Armstrong just completed their first (and sadly, their only) season leading campus’ craziest operation in comedy. Known for it’s high quality and quick turnaround, the demanding show process was full of ups and downs in which the duo demonstrated an impressive amount hard work and perseverance this season as they weathered (literal) storms. On the closing day of their first show, “In Mee-Owdieval Times”, Scene + Heard sat down with the co-directors on their way out discuss their “thruple” with sophomore producer Jackie Orlando, the desolation of UChicago, how to breathe underwater and the method to the madness that is Mee-Ow. Excerpts below to honor the close of the their second successful show, “In Mee-Owmoriam":

Q: How would you describe Mee-Ow in your own words?

Jake Daniels: Mee-Ow is a comedy show that works because the audience gets to be a part of it. I feel like most stage shows fly for the performers but not necessarily for the audience and for this one it does because the audience are a little bit the performers.

Maya Armstrong: I think it's also like, as an organization within it, it's a bunch of people coming together to create one thing which are the shows. So whether or not we're writing or whether we're going through tech or doing crew view, it's all leading up to a final product for the audience.

Q: How did you each initially become involved with Mee-Ow?

Maya:I got into Mee-Ow my sophomore year, so it's my third year and it's kind of crazy because it really has held my college experience hostage. In the winter, this is all I do because of the intense rehearsal process. But, this is so much fun and I think it's like my favorite thing to do... I feel like when I look back in college it'll be mostly Mee-Ow and then a bunch of other stuff.

Jake: Freshman year I was at UChicago and I was in a comedy group there that was very stingy, very stuck-up: the rehearsals were very serious, the shows were very serious, it was all about like the art of improv or whatever. And my best friend Max from high school went here and I would come up to visit him on the weekends and we went to the Mee-Ow shows together sometimes. And it was at those shows where the audience was having so much fun and people were like dancing on stage that I realized, "Oh my god! People have fun at other schools!” So I realized I needed to get out of UChicago as quickly as possible… [After I transferred to Northwestern], I auditioned for Mee-Ow sophomore year but that was [only] my third week here, so I auditioned for it again junior year, got in and basically it's just a dream come true in terms of trying to make it as fun for the students that are here to love Northwestern as much as I did when I was at a different place.

Q: So are you confirming that fun goes to die at UChicago?

Jake: 100 percent. And you don't even realize until you go somewhere else where the fun exists.

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Q: When did your roles as directors start?

Jake Daniels: Our role really [started last] May making sure we have a producer for the following year. Our producer is Jackie Orlando, she's amazing, and [we’re supposed to make] sure that the producer knows the timeline of everything, that we know the timeline of everything, that we start booking spaces for auditions and everything so that when we come into the fall we're ready to like hit the ground running...So basically from day one to fall, the directors are almost putting in the full-time winter workload and then winter comes and it's like basically double whatever rehearsal is.

Maya: So we're also in the cast, so we are writing sketches, performing, learning our lines like that, but on top of that we're leading the rooms while we're doing workshops, we're kind of leading everyone and learning those improv games, we're coordinating with the producer, we're coordinating with the band, we're coordinating with the crew and answering a crazy amount of emails.

Jake Daniels: So. Many. Emails. And texts.

Q: Give me a timeline of the Mee-Ow season–when do you hold auditions, when do you start rehearsing and writing?

Maya: We do a round of auditions in early October and then we have callbacks. We usually try to get the team to about nine people [by] replacing people who graduated the year before. We look at people based on their improv ability and their sketch-writing ability. The first time I wrote a sketch was for my Mee-Ow callback, and so we kind of look at how they're telling the story and escalating a scene because once you have that, we can work with you. From there, we start having rehearsals once or twice a week during fall quarter where we're learning all of our improv games and we're reading and writing once a week.

Q: How do you plan and pick material for each show?

Maya: Once winter quarter starts, we have rehearsal Sunday through Thursday 6-10 p.m., so 20 hours a week and that is all workshopping sketches, so [each member] brings in two sketches every day.

So everyone's writing 10 sketches a week...we read 90 sketches a week. It's disgusting, right? … Closer to the show, the writers have the opportunity to go back, rewrite, bring in their edits and then we'll vote on sketches.

Jake Daniels: The Sunday [before the show] is our first day of tech week and the Sunday before that we did sketch picking.

Maya: It's a very quick turnaround. So after sketch-picking, [Jake and I] cast it as the directors and the cast has two or three days to learn all their lines for crew view, which is where we bring [a lot of people from the campus comedy community] all into one room and we perform our sketches for them. Afterwards, the cast leaves, we get feedback from everyone, we cut some sketches and then we have our show.

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Q: How comfortable were you with sketch-writing and improvising before joining Mee-Ow?

Maya: I feel like for me, having a background in improv really helped. Of being able to focus on the sketches and have improv feel a little bit more like second nature really helped me during the auditions and callbacks and also just like getting ready for the shows because in the winter, or at least in previous years, we don't really practice our improv very much. So in the fall, we're learning the improv and then after that, it just really needs to be part of your instinct.

Jake: I was kind of comfortable with sketches before but having to write two everyday, it becomes so much easier. I think I was like decent at writing sketches before last year but it would still take me like a lot of time. Now, I'm like, "Oh I have two hours before rehearsal? Ya, I'll write two sketches and like there's a decent chance some of it will be funny.”

Maya: It really is just a matter of practice and quantity becoming quality. So, we're writing so much that no matter what you will get better and no matter what you will write something good eventually...Once you're coming in every day you're like, "I need to get the groundwork for this sketch going and the people in the room can help me make it better.” And so like none of our sketches are in their final iteration when they first come in.

Jake: It’s a really collaborative process...having eight people in the room, it basically means that your sketch gets written for you. So it's just about bringing in the right words that trigger the right things for people.

Q: What makes for a good sketch when you do the first read-through?

Maya: I feel like I've said the word escalation a lot but that really is it. A sketch is one joke told three ways...It's all about finding a game and then making it bigger every time come to an absurd level I like to do.

Jake: For me, a good sketch is an angle that you're not expecting at all. I really like sketches where it's a situation that everyone in the audience is like, "Oh, I know what's going on”, and then three seconds later, everyone's like "Oh, what?!" [and it turns into] something the audience was never expecting.

Q: If sketches makeup ⅓ of your show, how many do you normally have to work with?

Jake: We choose 19 plus an opener basically for this show. And then in each show, depending on the amount of time, like we have to be out by midnight or something, we'll choose between 12 and 16 to perform that night...So we actually rotate amongst the 19 to 20 every night. So every show you'll see a different sketch than if you like come to two, you'll see stuff you didn't see in the first.

Q: What does the turnaround between your two winter shows look like?

Maya: The [Saturday] show is our last show at 10:00 p.m. Sunday morning, we remove all over junk from McCormick Auditorium and then we are we're taking Sunday and Monday off...Tuesday we start rehearsal all over again.

Q: How was Mee-Ow impacted by the Polar Vortex?

Jake Daniels: We were sort of eyeing the weather the entire time.

Maya: I didn't believe it would happen.

Jake Daniels: Yeah, we didn't get to do any like queuing or any sound queuing which is like the harder part of the show until Monday. So we basically got like nine out of 19 sketches cued with lights before we basically heard, "Oh, also you're not going to have half of your tech week” because we didn't have half of Tuesday or all of Wednesday. So, Maya and I have basically just been in McCormick any time that it's been open all week this week...and we finished running through all the cues, like not even a full dress rehearsal, six minutes before we actually had to do the show on Thursday.

Q: What went wrong in that round of “O2 Deprivation”?

Maya: It is Mee-Ow's most dangerous game.

Jake: So here’s what happened with that: I have great lungs, I can hold my breath forever, and so I always tell people beforehand like "Hey. I'm fine to like be in that tank for a while." But I was so nervous about the fact that we all had to be out [of Norris] by midnight and there was a second where we were like done explaining the game and no one was walking toward it immediately, so I just went, "OK I'll go in and put my head in at the end of a sentence and I was mid-sentence, still talking when my head was underwater... I would love to have breathed first. That's how the game is meant to be played, I just didn't, [so] I put my head in the water and was like "there's no breath already."

Maya: It's the worst experience. I don't have a good lung capacity, so when I walk on stage to play that game, I'm already upset. And even though we're used to being onstage like you still think adrenaline going through you and you're onstage you're under lights and you're like in order to put your head in the tank you're kind of upside down in front of 300 people. And so for me, my lungs are just shot as soon as I go in. And so I feel like I like ruin the game because my hand goes up immediately and I'm like "Get me the fuck out of here.”

Q: That's so stressful. Have there been any casualties?

Jake: Well we haven't had any, but Mee-Ow's Been around a long time. So we don't know.

Q: Any advice for the future Mee-Ow auditionees out there?

Jake: I think that like the number one thing is care about what Mee-Ow cares about, in terms of Mee-Ow is really trying to make a fun show for a Northwestern audience that like isn't going to make anyone feel worse about themselves. [It] is really just designed to get people wanting to dance and then once they're dancing, like hitting them with some feel-good stuff. And I think that working on our crew caring about that idea so much, if you ingrain that in your mindset. Then, when you are practicing your performing, when you're practicing your writing, if that attitude shines through ,this collaborative thing of, "We are Northwestern let's laugh at that", then it'll be way more clear that you're the right fit for Mee-Ow.

Maya: I think also positivity... Mee-Ow is an ensemble, it's no individual person, it's no individual part. We are the crew, we are the cast, we are the band, we all work together and we want to make sure that it's a roomful of people who will encourage each other and make each other want to have fun and be funny and have a great time… why [else] would you want to spend 200 hours a year together really?

Jake: Think of Mee-Ow as a group thing...No one is going to be funnier than nine people. You can't be coming in as an individual and like carry the show. Like it is all about like figuring out how to make a show with every voice you've got.

Maya: It's not "I'm going to get to perform with Mee-Ow, I'm going to get to write stuff for Mee-Ow." [Instead], it's, "I get to contribute to the organization", which is bigger than all of us– it’s 45 years old!

Steven Norwalk