I never thought of “acting” as part of my future. School plays or performing on stage are not a part of my history. “Do improv comedy!” did not make my goal list for 2015. Yet a little more than halfway through the year I find myself contemplating my future in improv comedy.
I just finished my second improv comedy class (“Level 2: Game of the Scene”) at the Harrisburg Improv Theatre. I’m not sure what I expected to gain from improv classes; maybe a few laughs and certificate of completion. But as I look back on the past 4 months of classes and shows, I’m genuinely pleased at how much I have learned about acting, about my millennial classmates, and about myself.
If you’re not sure what improv comedy looks like, here is a link to Amy Poehler and Tina Fey performing improv at the United Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre. Warning: You’ll never think of “Ham” the same way again! Our Level 2 instructor, Jake Compton, is a co-owner of the HIT, and a UCB trained improviser. This is the format our class shows have followed:
If you want to see and feel this magic up close and personal, there are shows every Saturday night. I think you’ll be impressed with the depth of the talent pool of the House Teams at the HIT.
What I’ve learned about stage performance is that it is really not about riches or red carpets that the term “acting” has always conjured up in my brain. It’s really neither of those things. There is an exhilaration that springs from not so much the audience’s applause or laughter – but rather from the joy of “connecting” with another on-stage scene partner. The audience reaction is always great to hear, but it pales in comparison to “mind-meld” that occurs while creating an in-the-moment collaboration.
Improvisational comedy requires discipline, focus, and trust not unlike any other successful competitive team or collaborative venture in which I have participated. These are the attributes instructors have us develop. Even the “warm up” exercises are designed to work these muscles. As silly as Passing the Clap, Bad Rap, and Knife Throw are as games, they are designed to build awareness and responsiveness to the other members of the group.
Yet fear always creeps into my brain. On stage, in the silence before a scene is initiated, the whispering voices of doubt and uncertainty scream at me the loudest. It is in this moment every one of my insecurities feel raw and exposed.
I’m not quick enough.
I’m not smart enough.
I’m too old to relate.
I’m out of touch.
And at first glance, it’s not terribly unreasonable or unjustified. Most of my classmates are 25 – 30 years younger than I am. They are, to a person, some version of hip, slick and cool and all seem to have a crazy confidence that is mesmerizing. Don’t let the skinny jeans and hipster t-shirts fool you; these millennials are talented, smart, attentive, disciplined and funny. Even more importantly for me, they are compassionate and accepting.
Although the whispers of doubt and uncertainty persist, with each and every one of my classmates, together, we have created a scene where our minds meld, age melts away, and we co-create and play. It is magical. Sometimes it’s funny and gets a laugh, sometimes it doesn’t; but the thrill of collaborating in-the-moment, is like watching my grandchildren play and explore in their own world. It is fun.
One of our classmates, Jerry Stevens, works in the Spring Creek Nursing home in Harrisburg. He invited anybody who might be interested to come in one evening to perform improv for the residents in the Alzheimer and Dementia Unit. 8 people showed up the first time to perform for the residents. I went in thinking this would be a time to practice (and if it was bad, it really wouldn’t matter!). Like any comedy show, sometimes the audience gets it, sometimes they don’t. But what I will always remember is the lighting up of their eyes and smiles when they were truly entertained by a scene of Donald Trump breaking out of a jail cell, or a two ice skaters performing on a “skating pond”.
Two weeks later, we did it again.
Some of my memorable roles along the way include an ice dancer, big sister getting ready for a date, Donald Trump’s getaway chauffeur, co-founder of “Gnomes R Us”, a religious misogynist receiving “post-divorce marketability counselling” (Tinder?), an Amish college kid looking to get lucky, and a dog. Yes, a dog.
At the end of the day what I have learned in 2015, I first learned in the 70’s:
Fear is the lock and laughter the key
To your heart.
Crosby Still Nash – Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
While my future in improv comedy will likely peak at playtime with my grand-kids or in an Alzheimer’s and Dementia Unit, rest assured that I will be forever grateful for the classmates and instructors who’ve shown me how to play. Thank you for the love you have shown and the knives you have thrown. And thanks for letting me play catch.
Now if I could just get Jake to send me my diploma for my “Wall of Higher Education”.
Live Improv Every Saturday night at the HIT! Open Mixers start at 7:00! Be there or be square!