Lilian Shen on 12 Years of Zmack Improv Comedy Laughs

By Ned Kelly, April 7, 2021

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Shanghai-based improv family Zmack are about to turn 12, and they have a whole load of shows lined up to celebrate their last year before they become a teenager. We caught up with Lilian Shen, who has been on board for six of those years, to find out a little more.

How did Zmack come about?
Zmack was founded in 2009 by Curt Mabry, who at the time was hosting improv shows, workshops and open mic nights; a catalyst for the growing comedy community in Shanghai. Zmack was really born out of passion for improv and making people happy, creating a wonderful community of positivity and support. Now Zmack has weekly shows, classes and applied improv corporate training.

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Your background is in finance – tell us about taking up improv?
When I first joined Zmack in 2015, I was a financial analyst at a boutique investment bank specializing in cross border mergers and acquisitions. I always had a flare for creative endeavors – visual arts, dance, crafts – but never had the opportunity to pursue those interests in my career because they weren’t “serious.” I had never even heard of improv until I was working in Shanghai.

What can people expect from a Zmack show?
People can expect to be surprised, to laugh their butts off and to have a wonderful time with warm-hearted people. Improv really decreases the distance between the typical “performer” and “audience” dichotomy. The audience is as much a part of a show as the performers.

Zmack is always innovating. We have improv teams in English, Chinese and French and have new projects with puppet improv, long form immersive improv theater and even an all-women’s improv team! One of the beautiful things about improv is that it is so malleable; you can integrate almost any art form with it!

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Where have you guys performed?
Chicago, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Beijing, Suzhou, Changshu... all over! Some of my best memories with Zmack are when we travel and always have smiling faces and warm embraces on the other side of the world waiting for us. 

I’ve shared rooms with many Zmackers, played video games, rehearsed on rooftops, relaxed on the beach, performed on state-of-the-art stages and theaters, taken trains, airplanes, buses, ferries and really, no matter where we go and what we do, we always have a blast when we are together.

How do you find your inspiration?
Like Charna Halpern says in Truth in Comedy, our inspiration comes from life and from each other. In Zmack, our philosophy is to be authentic, honest and genuine. We don’t need to invent when we can discover the moments that create magic, when we connect with our partner on stage. 

At the end of the day, improv is about communicating and taking care of the people we are on stage with. I suppose that’s why it has been called “Theater of the Heart.”

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What special events do you have lined up for the 12-year anniversary?
We kickoff the anniversary celebrations on April 10 with the Puppet Improv Nep Squad (PINS). When we bring these puppets to life, they will remind us of that joyous childlike wonder we all have.

On April 17, we will continue one of our newest projects – Curators Cut. It is a two act improvised drama that keeps the interactive elements of improv but with a dark and dramatic twist. Be ready to gasp, chuckle and cry out during this show.

We are honored to welcome the Bilingual Improv Group from Beijing on April 24 for a collaboration show with Zmack’s Chinese improv team Zhimakong!

On May 15, we will have Beijing Improv joining Zmackers for an English collaboration show, this time performing all your favorite classic short form improv games. Beijing Improv was founded in 2007 and are one of the leaders of improv in China.

Last but not least, our premier French team Zut Alors will be performing on May 22. Zut Alors has also helped build and cultivate the French improv community in Shanghai, and we are so happy to see the community flourishing.

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