Saturday, February 23, 2013

Spotlight On...Nikhil Tilwalli

Name: Nikhil Tilwalli

Hometown: Chicago, IL

B.S. in Mathematics, M.S. in Electrical Engineering

Favorite Credits: Performing stand-up at Comic Strip Live, Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater and People's Improv Theater

Why theater?: Theater is so expressive.  I come from the world of stand-up comedy, where emotional vulnerability is usually parodied, so exploring sincerity in those venues can be intimidating.  In theater it's the opposite, performers and audience members value emotional vulnerability on-stage. They see it as a strength instead of weakness. Not surprisingly, after I started doing theatrical venues for performances instead of just ones for stand-up, I starting feeling more freedom to explore different parts of my character, which made it easier for me to be myself on-stage, which definitely made me more funny.  It's not a coincidence that five years ago, the thought of being myself on-stage would have horrified me, since, at that time, I was trying with all my might to be Woody Allen instead, which I should have realized was a bad idea for an aspiring comedian, since, as we all know from his movies, anyone who's ever tried to act like Woody Allen, other than Woody Allen, comes across as not funny.

Tell us about A Panda Suit, Pythagoras, and Plenty of Puns: It's a stand-up comedy show, with some significant theatrical elements.  There's a costume (a panda suit), jokes that are based on video elements, and I play characters to give body to certain stories, but there's also a lot of just straight-up joke-telling.  That being said, the stand-up that I do is non-traditional, in the sense that it's non-observational.  It's very wordplay-driven and I'm very interested in puns, and generating surprising narrative arcs between two different takes on the same word.  I also have jokes about Pythagoras, and Einstein and Gandhi.  A lot of my jokes have references to historical figures, but it's really goofy.  It's super-fun.

What inspired you to create A Panda Suit, Pythagoras, and Plenty of Puns?: The panda suit. I find that once you own a panda suit, putting on a show is the obvious next step. I'd also have to say Penny's Open Mic. Penny's Open Mic, which is run by the beautiful actress Penny Pollak, is an open-mike that happens every Tuesday night in the East Village, and you get to see musicians, actors, playwrights, poets, comedians all under one roof trying out old and new ways of expressing themselves.  The vibe of that environment is just so encouraging and the people are all working to help each other get better. That's where I first tested a lot of this material. That's where I first learned about FRIGID Fest. That's where I first met people, personally, that had previously done their own show.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: A talking theater, unless you mean that question metaphorically?  I guess, right now I'm really into the idea of making a character out of the audience, like I really loved One Man, Two Guvnors last year with James Corden.  It had good writing, but it also relied deeply on the actors to make decisions in the moment on stage in a way that was so engaging for the people who were watching. That real-time interplay between the audience and the story, the breaking and then rebuilding of the fourth wall, I found very entertaining and a bit thought-provoking. Woody Allen's and Steve Martin's stand-up material continues blow my mind and keeps me challenged, and the structure of Demetri Martin's stand-up act has also influenced me a lot. I'd be lying if I didn't also say, beautiful women (I'm just like Picasso that way, and that may be the only way) and of course my mom and dad.  Oh, and my nine-year-old cousin whom I remember once asked me, "Is there a such thing as a peanut butter and jellyfish?"  She's why I keep my nose to the grindstone.  She's my most feared competition.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: Steve Martin, for sure.  My nine-year-old cousin, definitely not.  She'd steal all my scenes.  So would Steve Martin, but he's not my nemesis.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: One Man, Two Guvnors was my big go-to recommendation.  It's not playing anymore, but if you can go see it last year, do.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: I'd love to have Leonardo DiCaprio play me, but since I'm Indian, just for skin-color reason, I'm pretty much obligated to say Kal Penn, which would be fine.  He's good.  The movie would be called, "A Panda Suit, Pythagoras and Plenty of Puns." Is that cheating? I hope not, because if the stage show is any indication, the movie will be great.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?:
I've been known to derive pleasure from listening to Justin Bieber's music, which society has forced me to feel guilty about, in a big way.  Alas.
If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: A programmer. If there is anywhere in the theater-scene it's safe to admit to liking computers, it has to be a theater-oriented blog, right? Computers are my friend.

What’s up next?: TBD, but I'd love to take this show to the Edinburgh Fringe.  That would be fun.

For more on Nikhil, follow him at