Improv

Today I finished the Level One course at Improv Olympic in Chicago. My teacher was the amazing Craig Uhlir.

I was introduced to some high-energy warm-ups, which usually concluded with Craig saying something like, “That was some awesome pointing, clapping, making weird noises, etc. You guys are killing it!” I’m already planning to use one of these as my next get-to-know-each-other exercise whenever I get back into teaching English classes somewhere, maybe as a week two or week three class exercise once people have done a bit of writing and are ready for a weird release.

The level one course builds toward what’s called a Harold. That’s what we were doing today: a series of sort-of connected scenes during which actors carry on improvisational conversations, frequently tagging to replace each other to change a scene or running across the stage, called an edit, to end a scene. Groups of scenes are separated by games, which are intended to provide the group with lots of raw information from which scenes can be inspired. Games can be word-association or, my favorite, the monologue.

I especially enjoyed the monologue, telling unplanned stories for several minutes, such as:

  • my power washer running away with the deposit check
  • receiving a haircut and unwelcome sexual touching by my next-door neighbor
  • watching my sister’s dog dangled off a balcony and then somehow accidentally throwing another neighbor’s dog down the stairs
  • receiving a threat that I might be fired from my job as a college English teacher if I didn’t report the Math teacher’s affair with a student
  • etcetera…

All of these monologues ought to be written out and performed elsewhere though I recall now performing the haircut anecdote several years ago at Story Club. I used to tell the story of accidentally (it was, I swear) throwing a dog down the stairs sometimes to my English classes if it seemed I had an open-minded group, comfortable hearing crazy stories by their eccentric professor.

So, yes, improv was a good experience. I certainly found myself “in my head” (as Craig would say) too often. It’s hard to play pretend when you’re self-conscious of the fact that you’re playing pretend. I’d find myself sometimes on stage thinking, ‘This is stupid…what am I supposed to do now…and why am I doing it…and when can I sit back down?’ But fortunately that didn’t happen too often. Usually I was able to embrace the experience, play off others and add to the energy and humor of a moment.

The philosophy of Improv Olympic can be summed up in one brief phrase: “Yes, and.” If someone says something – anything – it’s your role to accept that line and to build on it. A musician friend says that’s similar to how his band approaches songwriting. Someone offers a chorus or a line of verse or a chord pattern or whatever, and the others get excited and try to turn it into a “kick-ass” (again, as Craig would say) song.

So, I appreciated Craig’s positive energy. Hoping to take the level two course this September, and even if I’m too busy to continue quickly, I can imagine ways that the level one experience will support other activities.

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