Improv – a game changer.
Most people have heard of improvisation. They’ve seen Whose Line is it Anyway or a show at one of the prestigious Improv Theaters around the country. They are familiar with the quick-wits of the players and enjoy a night of laughing at the unexpected. What many people don’t know is that short-form is simply a branch of the art of improvisation. Digging deeper and exploring improv through improvised scene work allows actors to fully immerse themselves in a scene by controlling a heightened presence, listening, and reacting. It provides a different perspective when working with scripted material. It’s a powerful performance tool in both comedic and dramatic storytelling.
Improv builds a confidence and an ownership of our voice as a performer and a writer, providing unlimited opportunities by utilizing those tools in an audition, on set, or on stage, and in everyday life.
This is how improv changed my life:
In April of 1997 I sat behind a brochure-covered table representing my college in front of thousands of high school students. This was my job. Some grabbed the glossy, tri-folded brochure to learn about my alma mater. I remember telling myself the year prior, as I stood behind that exact table, that this is the last time I’m doing this. I held back tears as I packed up and answered, “Yes you will” to the coordinator, when she asked if she’d see me this fall.
The next morning I entered the triangular-patterned lobby for coffee. That was the 99th night in a hotel within four months. It was an unstoppable rotation. I was stuck. I remember my box of brochures falling off the table and onto the floor.
Three years of that and I was burned out in my mid-twenties. Nightly I woke, fearing that I was living a life not meant for me, yet soon I’d be behind another table, spreading out brochures like the Monet of college fairs. The goal that night was to find parking close to the gym. Found one. I lugged my box of brochures and headed inside. It’s empty. I asked where the fair was and they said, “Cafeteria.” I bit my tongue and asked how to get there. “Easiest if you drive to the other side,” she said.
Instead of driving home that night, I went to my parents. It was midnight when I opened the door; my mom straggled out with my dad behind her asking what was wrong. I cried. I told them I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. My dad asked me what I was supposed to do and I said – make people laugh. He looked at me and said – go do it.
I moved to Chicago and signed up for what I thought would be a good first step: an improv class. I had no idea what it was, but I knew that Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, and Jan Hooks did it, so it can’t be bad. The night after my first class I slept through the night for the first time in a long time.
I surrendered myself to the art of improv and was soon hired to perform all over the world. September 6th we were in Alaska doing shows for the Coast Guard. Our final stop: Kodiak Island. As I turned on the morning news, I witnessed the terror that we all did on September 11th, 2001. We didn’t do a show that night, but did do one the next.
That tour shifted my goals, it was the night I realized improv is much bigger than me. I changed. Improv was an opportunity to impact people and provide a moment of play by being present and creating a place where people can get lost in a moment. I moved into a deeper exploration of improv.
Some people fear improv, afraid they aren’t funny enough or there isn’t a script. But what I try to convey is to simply be in the moment and not force the funny; it will find its way on its own. In improv our partner is our script and we simply have to “yes-and,” listen, react, and the script will unfold, providing us the blueprint to follow to create a fully developed scene.
Improv goes depths beyond short-form game play (which is what most people connect with improv – funny, fast-paced games). There are vast opportunities in improv that we can bring into our work as actors, most importantly: being in the moment and portraying very real, honest, and grounded scenarios. If we can trust that being in the moment, listening, and “yes-and-ing” our partner is enough, then the truth of the scene will fall into place.
Improv provides a place where you can’t live anywhere but the present. It’s freeing and has allowed me to transport that feeling into scripted work.
Twenty years later, I still can’t wait to improvise with other players, knowing we will support each other by placing pieces along the way to make fully improvised shows look as if they’ve been written and rehearsed.
Through this art I have become a better actor, writer, listener, and a much better auditioner. You don’t have to come into training with a wealth of experience to give improv a shot; you just have to be and take it moment by moment.
The high school coordinator who asked if she’d see me in the fall didn’t see me that fall, but she did see me four years later. She was in the third row and gave our improv ensemble the suggestion of “brochures.”
-By Celeste Pechous
More on Celeste HERE
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