Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Staffa (USA)
Improv comedy group founder
Photo Credit: Michael Holmes Photo
Almost two years ago we last talked with Mike Staffa, the founder of the Pirates of Tokyo Bay. The group is Tokyo’s only bilingual comedy group specializing in improvisational (improv) comedy. He told us how and why he started his own comedy group in Osaka and Tokyo to bring laughter to audiences regardless of their native language.
This year, the Pirates of Tokyo Bay will mark their 5th anniversary with a special show on November 29th at SuperDeluxe in Roppongi. The Pirates are inviting everyone in Tokyo to the show to help them celebrate 5 busy years of shows across Japan, Asia and the USA!
We recently asked Mike to share some of the difficulties in leading such a unique comedy company and how he learned to grow from those challenges. Mike also told us about the new things the Pirates are offering audiences and steps the Pirates are taking to offer some unique business training to Japanese company. But first, Mike shared some exciting information about the upcoming 5th anniversary show, making it a show not to be missed!
*Interview in Shibuya
*His 1st interview: See this article! (Jan 18, 2014)
Improv with YouTube stars!
On November 29th, The Pirates of Tokyo Bay will hold our 5th anniversary show at SuperDeluxe in Roppongi. It’s a special venue for a special show! We will even have members of the “Pirates of The Dotombori (POTD)”, our Osaka improv group, join us so it’ll be a huge show.
For the show, we will collaborate with some YouTube stars like EpicLLOYD of Epic Rap Battles of History (ERB) from the US and Bilingirl Chika from Japan. ERB has almost 13 million subscribers and they have a background in improv and they have been fans of ours for a few years. Both YouTube stars sent us special videos challenging us to do a scene of their choice. We will show the videos live for the first time at the anniversary show. Not even the other Pirates in the group know what the video challenges are!
Besides providing laughs for the audience, our sponsors are providing some great gifts for the anniversary show audience (like Dominoes, wine and craft beer). We are also offering merchandise. Fans can purchase custom Pirate shirts or download our newly released LINE stickers.
POTB 4th Anniversary Show (November 16, 2014) *Photo Credit: Michael Holmes Photo
Fear of not growing
I think one of the toughest things for the Pirates over the past 5 years is trying to grow and stay fresh in Tokyo with such a small improv community. There are other improv groups in Tokyo but unlike the Pirates, they are small and do not always perform regularly nor travel internationally. The Pirates do about 4 international tours a year!
The relatively small community of improvisors in Tokyo makes it hard to see new improv styles to push our skills. In the US and Europe, there are lots of improv groups. Even in my hometown of Minneapolis there are 20+ improv groups. Every week you can go to 10 shows, learn new styles, techniques and see amazing performers.
On the other hand, in Tokyo, we don’t really have that opportunity to see such a variety of improv.
So the toughest thing is… I worry our style could get old. If we don’t adopt new styles, if we don’t grow, then we’ll become boring.
Improv should be always fresh. We want to package each show in a fresh way that will keep the audiences and our fans coming back each month.
Embarking on world tours
In order to stay fresh and get outside of the small improv community in Tokyo, we’ve done 10 international tours in just 5 years. We’ve performed in Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and New York City. We’ll go to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Chicago next year. All these world tours have allowed us perform alongside other groups and learn new games and techniques. We also take great pride in representing Japan in comedy festivals around the world.
One thing that is very special about the Pirates compared to other improv groups in Japan is that we are very eager to travel internationally. We do that about 4 international tours a year. Touring is a way to get out of our comfort zone, challenge ourselves and make new friends around the world.
Improv friends and the groups we meet while touring also are eager to come to Tokyo to perform with us. This October we had 2 performers from Texas join us. And 3 months ago, we had a performer from Australia. Early next year we’ll have a group from Canada share the stage with us. When these guests come to perform with us in Tokyo, they usually give us a private workshop as well. This is another way we try to expand our comedy skills by learning from others.
Gain business experience while in the Pirates
Even though some Pirates have their day jobs, they are involved in our activities once a week, sometimes twice a week. It’s quite busy, but I think one of the benefits of being in the Pirates – I hope- is not just performing, making people laugh and maybe making a little bit money. We try to have each pirate have a kind of “2nd goal” or gain a “2nd skill”.
For example, one Pirate really likes to build websites so he does the Pirates’ website and gets experience that he can use in his day job.
Another Pirate really likes SEO, he does the Pirates’ SEO. Now he works for a really big global tech company and is doing SEO. This is the one way to encourage Pirates to be active within the group because they are not only performing but getting life skills that they can learn in the Pirates and hopefully use it in their work.
If you work at a huge Japanese company, you cannot make mistakes. But at Pirates, it’s not a big deal even if you make some mistakes. Then you can learn, grow and gain experience that you can apply at your day job.
Not strong in English or Japanese? It doesn’t matter!
Currently we have 16 Pirates in Tokyo. The large group size allows us to have flexibility off stage in terms of scheduling and on stage we are able to put performers in the kinds of scenes they can really excel in.
We practice every Sunday and occasionally have shows on Saturdays as well as Sundays so it can get quite busy. But since we have so many members, it isn’t a big issue if a Pirate misses a few practices or shows because we have lots of Pirates!
On stage, we play a variety of games. Since each Pirate has different strengths and weaknesses the large group size allows us to always play to our strengths. For example, if a Pirate is not fully fluent in English or Japanese, we make sure they only perform in the language they are most confident in. We are hoping to add more Japanese members even if their English is not strong.
A big reason we have been so strong in just 5 short years in Tokyo is because the Pirates really is a family. We support Pirates members on stage and off stage. People are always ready to be involved and help the group be the best in Tokyo.
Photo Credit: Michael Holmes Photo
More Japanese WANTED!
One of my goals is to have more Japanese members. Now we have 5 Japanese members out of 16 Pirates. There are 4 women and one male. I think we can only get stronger if we can continue to add more Japanese members. If we want to really grow in Japan, we need to make sure the Pirates are not seen as some silly “gaijin” group. We want to be seen as a great entertainment group in Tokyo. To do this we would like to be “half foreigners and half Japanese” or even a little bit more Japanese!
Also there’s another reason why we need more Japanese members. After 311 Earthquake, most Pirates left Japan and went back home. That kind of thing could happen suddenly. We don’t want to be dependent on foreigners that would go home at any time. With a focus on Japanese members, the Pirates can be more stable and we can plan for the future.
Anybody can be a Pirate
We welcome anybody from any country to join the Pirates.
In Osaka, we have had members from Korea, Chile and China. Thanks to a Chinese member, we could perform in Chinese a little bit when we went to Beijing for show. Audiences were very surprised and very happy.
So if we are able to get Singaporean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, we would be able to really engage with audiences when we travel overseas and even to audiences in Tokyo.
I like to think of the Pirates as a “Bento box of comedy”. We need a very multicultural group to perform to such an international city as Tokyo. We’re performing to 100 people or 200 people from Japan, US, England, Canada, Singapore, China and so on. If we can mirror the same thing on stage, it means everyone is laughing and feels included.
Photo Credit: Michael Holmes Photo
Changing the way Japanese businesses work, through improv
In 2015, the Pirates of Tokyo Bay started offering a wide variety of business training workshops for companies in Tokyo. Companies contact us to work with their Sales teams on how to use improv skills to think quickly on their feet to close a sale. We have had Embassies hire us to help facilitate cross-cultural communication in their multicultural teams.
We are hoping to do even more training in 2016 and help companies use skills we gained from performing improv. We are offering training targeting: teamwork, communication, team building, problem solving and trust. More information can be found on our website.
☆See http://piratesoftokyobay.com/schedule/2015/11/29/5th-anniversary-show-5 for the details of POTB 5th Anniversary show on Nov 29 in Roppongi.
☆Buy ︎Tickets: http://ptix.co/1PI7krS
Pirates of Tokyo Bay SNS:
LINE stickers: http://line.me/S/sticker/1185895
1st interview with Mike Staffa (Jan 18, 2014): www.myeyestokyo.com/6692