The 25-year-old native of El Paso, Texas, has a degree in Theatre from Swarthmore College. He has extensive experience as a comedic performer, writer, and improviser throughout Chicago and across the nation, and is putting the finishing touches on a new scripted two-person comedy show with collaborator Adam Schwartz and director Tim Baltz.
Neal has performed his one-person show, Mango Chutney on Mesa Street (directed by Maria Möller), in Chicago, El Paso, and Philadelphia. In this comedy-drama, Neal portrays nine characters—including himself at various ages and the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh. In one scene, 9-year-old Neal observes that “‘Barfi’ sounds like ‘barf’”; Ganesh immediately appears to assure Neal that “It doesn’t TASTE like barf,” while gorging himself on the sweet.
Neal uses theatre as community activism through his work with entities such as the venerable comedy institution The Second City and its Outreach and Diversity Ensemble; the Asian-American comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night!; the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools; and the Indo-American Center in the Devon Avenue / Little India neighborhood of Chicago.
Did you participate in theatre as a child?
I first got involved in theatre during my freshman year of high school. My parents were not exactly thrilled about this. I had always been really good at math and science and enjoyed both. This new interest in theatre was a bit unsettling to my parents. Finally, we made a deal: I would stop doing theatre, and would take two science classes per term, but I would be allowed to put my creative energy into speech and debate.
But in the realm of speech and debate I focused on humorous interpretation—so I kind of got away with acting even while I was not allowed to act.
This began a double life that would continue for the next several years, really until just last year.
At Swarthmore I completed studies in both theatre and pre-med, and took the MCAT, though I did not apply to medical schools. After graduation I moved to Chicago and started studying improvisation at The Second City and ImprovOlympic, but simultaneously worked full-time at The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.
Much of my work was on the Center’s PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) Failure project. PSA failure is a recurrence of cancer following prostatectomy or radiation therapy. Our research looked at treatment choice versus decision satisfaction in veterans who were prostate cancer patients and who experienced PSA failure.
It was great work, but I left last year to pursue theatre full-time.
How does your family feel about your finally leaving the medical field for good?
(laughs) They are very supportive, but it’s a bewildered supportiveness.
Medicine is essentially the family business for us. My mother and sister and brother are all OB/GYN’s, and my father is a general thoracic surgeon. (laughs) So I was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle.
How did you begin working with the Indo-American Center?
A couple of years ago I applied for and received a Neighborhood Arts Program grant from the City of Chicago, to develop and teach an improvisation and sketch comedy program for youths at the IAC.
The demographics of the neighborhood are changing quite a bit. When I worked with the IAC in 2007, the kids were about half Indian, half Pakistani. But in my most recent IAC class in the fall of 2009, the kids were maybe one-fourth Indian, one-fourth Pakistani, and the rest Latino/Latina and Assyrian.
What about age and language?
These kids are ages 4-14, and I’d say about half of them speak English as the primary language, and the other half speak English as a secondary language. But, in general, the kids have pretty good English-language skills.
What do the students gain from learning improvisation and sketch comedy?
Improvisation at its core is about working cooperatively with others, so you tend to see kids working together who would normally not do so. This is one of the main things I love about it.
Typically, at the beginning of a given after-school period, the large group of kids will gather in the main hall, and there you see the different groups and cliques. Then I take my 10 or 12 kids to another room to work on improvisation or sketch, and I get to see new relationships form among kids who were in different cliques before.
While I don’t see the kids outside of the context of the IAC, it would not surprise me if these new connections are cultivated outside the walls of the Center.
That’s a major benefit—especially in a neighborhood whose diversity is growing so dramatically.
The kids also get to perform for friends and family, right?
Yes, and that results in the obvious benefits of gaining confidence speaking in front of a group, speaking clearly, and so on.
But also, we see benefits in terms of the connection-building that I spoke about earlier, but in a slightly different way.
With friends and family in the audience—plus other kids involved in the IAC but who did not take the improvisation classes—the audience represents a vast array of cultures, generations, native languages, and levels of proficiency with English. And yet, somehow this whole audience laughs and enjoys the work of these kids on stage. This strikes me as pretty extraordinary—that it is possible for such a wide range of people to agree on what is funny on a stage.
Yeah, that is rarely the case for other forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and music.
Besides the clear benefits to the community, what else do you like about this work?
I’m relatively new at teaching improvisation, so I really enjoy the sense of mutual discovery. At the same time that these kids are discovering this art form, I’m discovering along with them.
Ah, that’s like good improvisation. When you are improvising well, you the performer are discovering the scene at the same time as the audience, rather than planning the scene in your head and then executing it.
Yes, it’s that same sense of mutual discovery!
In addition to the group benefits that we’ve discussed, I have seen young people transform individually as they learn this work. In my class at Tilden High School, a student who was “Mr. Attitude” at the beginning of a course changed so much that by the end he was volunteering to give extra help with the end-of-term shows.
What are your plans for 2010?
Getting the two-person show up and running is foremost right now. But I also look forward to continuing to use improvisation in the community. This is the work through which I can create and teach and—always—discover.
Ranjit Souri is a writer in Chicago. He and Neal Dandade have collaborated on numerous theatrical projects.