For Colin Mochrie, performing has always been about rolling with whatever happens onstage.
But when your improv troupe is made up of hypnotized audience members, things can get a bit hectic.
On his latest tour, Mochrie teams with hypnotist Asad Mecci for “Hyprov,” which makes a stop at Rivers Casino in Schenectady on Friday.
Many know Mochrie from “Whose Line is it Anyway?” the popular improv show that began in the 1990s and has continued to entertain through reruns and YouTube clips. Over the past two decades, Mochrie has also done plenty of touring, often with fellow “Whose Line” comedian Brad Sherwood.
Mochrie’s interest in improvisation began in college when he first saw “theater sports.”
“It’s improv in a sporting setting. There were two teams, there was a referee that would issue challenges, and I saw it and thought, ‘This looks like fun.’ So I signed up for a workshop,” Mochrie said.
The improv format worked for him on several levels.
“I loved the fact that I didn’t have to learn anything. I just liked the idea of being onstage with nothing, and somehow making a scene and making an audience laugh. I was very lucky when I started. There were a lot of great players around. I got to learn from some of the best,” Mochrie said.
In 1990, after a decade of honing his craft in college and at The Second City in Toronto, Mochrie auditioned for “Whose Line,” which was a British show at the time, and got the gig.
“You always hope when you go into a project that it’s going to pick up steam and do well. But I think we were all taken by surprise. I know for sure the network was. I’m still kind of shocked that they actually produced it because I can’t even imagine what the pitch was: ‘Four guys who don’t have a show will have one by the end of the tape,’ ” Mochrie said.
“It became really popular even when it went off the air in ’98. I’ve been touring with one of the guys, Brad Sherwood, for 17 years and we noticed our audience was actually getting younger, which doesn’t happen. It was because they were all catching up with old shows on YouTube.
“It was because of that groundswell that they decided to do more shows in the CW,” Mochrie added. “We just had the 30th anniversary of the British one last December. We all went over and did some shows at the Royal Albert Hall. It really is amazing what this show has done for all of us,” Mochrie said.
Lately, it’s got him touring with “Hyprov,” an idea that was jump-started by Mecci.
Mecci first learned about hypnosis and started studying it in college after a friend had used hypnotherapy to help manage the pain of a bad sunburn. After college, Mecci performed on cruise lines all over the world, but wanted to continue working on his craft, so he began taking improv classes at Second City. He noticed that improv had something in common with hypnosis.
“With hypnosis . . . you’re circumventing the conscious mind and dealing with the unconscious. The unconscious mind controls your nervous system, your breathing, your heart rate,” Mecci said.
“So I thought to myself, ‘I see what they’re doing [at] Second City. Is it possible to hack this process with hypnosis?’ It’s been a resounding yes, because what we’ve done is shortcut the process. People reacting to my suggestions onstage, they’re not consciously thinking, ‘What could be entertaining to the people in the audience?’ They’re just reacting to the suggestions that I give them. Colin makes it funny,” Mecci said.
At the start of each show, Mochrie and Mecci ask for volunteers to be hypnotized. They usually take 20 people onstage, though it sometimes seems the entire audience wants to volunteer. Mecci hypnotizes them and does a few exercises with the volunteers to get a sense of who might be the most responsive. Of the 20, he picks five to perform with Mochrie and form an impromptu theater troupe.
From there, they’ll play theater games, which is the only thing Mochrie plans before getting onstage. One involves creating a radio mystery program in which Mochrie asks one person to do all the sound effects and another to be all the characters.
Then there’s an old-fashioned western drama, during which someone has to propose to Mochrie.
“The best part is I’m throwing in obstacles here and there. So there’s a scene where somebody proposes to Colin, I give them the instructions that they can only propose to Colin while he’s seated. I say ‘You’re not going to push Colin into the chair, you’re not going to manhandle Colin, but you will coax him with your words.’ So I set up obstacles like that. They’re in a mock job interview and Colin is interviewing the person, and I may give a suggestion: ‘Every time I snap my fingers you’re going to sneeze,’ ” Mecci said.
The obstacles add comedic tension to the show — though that never seems to be in short supply.
“Colin is amazing. I get a front-row seat to watch a comedy legend do his work and it’s absolutely hysterical. I’m cracking up most of the time,” Mecci said.
The first few times Mochrie and Mecci worked on the show together, both were terrified.
“We didn’t really know whether it was going to work. I would always ask Asad, ‘If I ask them to do this will they do it?’ And he would always say, ‘I don’t know.’ We’ve both been pleasantly surprised [that] it’s worked the way it has,” Mochrie said, adding, “It’s always nerve-wracking. There’s never been a show where I’ve gone ‘Oh, I can just relax tonight.’ The beauty of improv is even if there [are] mistakes and things aren’t going well, it still works.”