In 2012 I was invited to Fort Hays University in Hays Kansas to instruct the university Theater Company in the work of improvisation. This was a first time experience with improvisational theater for a majority of the students. Many of them had never seen improv performed and had not participated in the work, even in the form of theater games and exercises. Those who had done improv before never imagined it could be a stand alone performance craft. They had never considered it as artistry. If they expected anything at all it was jokes, gimmicks and an emphasis on funny.
The students had nervously anticipated the workshop. They worried they wouldn’t be funny enough, practiced what they might say, what jokes they would try to use…etc. It’s a misunderstanding I run into frequently. Initially the students were baffled by my pedagogy and technique. “What do you mean by steer clear of punch lines?” They asked. “Humor is a symptom of improvisation” I told them, “At its best, humor arises out of an authentic “accident” or an organic character response. At its worst the quest for humor supersedes all and compromises the integrity of the whole. When we aim to be funny, we limit ourselves. We privately obsess, isolated in our desire to charm the audience. We loose touch with the other improvisers, stop listening and are unable to connect to a group mind. When we aim to be funny, we sacrifice more than we gain.” These words were met with confounded stares and lots of questions which I welcomed and answered. We worked long hours that day. And to my delight, even as I tired, the students remained enthusiastic, engaged and energetic. They hadn’t realized they wanted and needed this work, but now they were hungry for it, starving.
By the end of that visit the Fort Hays students were creating dynamic scene work alive with wholly realized characters, authentic emotion, exceptional acting and carefully crafted storytelling. I was as surprised and proud as they were. They learned through play. They grew from honoring their mistakes. They learned to utilize their every sense, to listen with their whole body and to believe every moment. I was delighted with their growth and astounded by their willingness to work so hard despite having expected a laugh a minute play time. We had laughed, a lot. We had incredible fun together. But by the end of that day the laughter inspired from their scene work arose out of commitment to the navigating of many creative minds at work. The laughter arose from the audience’s identification with the characters and the stories. The jokes and the gimmicks had died, and from their graves grew honesty, imagination, group mind and a fresh perspective of improvisation as a living performance requiring craftsmanship and artistry.
I had grown as much as they had, finally accepting that I am a capable instructor, that I have a talent for sharing this passion of mine. I had thought of myself as a good teacher, but this was more, now I was a leader. I cannot describe the satisfaction of that feeling.
I was gladly invited back for a second visit and have just spent two days leading an incredibly productive 12 hours of fun play and hard work. Again I was astonished by the student’s zeal and motivation. The returning students were relaxed and ready and the first timers were engaged and willing. Again I found that many of the new students imagined that improv was simply an unscripted sketch comedy. They had been told how fun last year’s workshop was and signed up “just for the laughs”. I am always glad when a workshop begins with this sentiment. It’s a less complicated task to pour enlightenment into an empty cup than to attempt topping off an improv encyclopedia. And again by the end of the workshop the students had come to a greater and more holistic understanding of what improv is and can be. Their performances were lovely, honest and yes sometimes very funny. The only trouble was, I left feeling like I had so much more to give. Since the last time I worked with them I’ve traveled quite a bit and taught in many new places. I have developed a stronger sense of my own theory, my own style, and my desires for the work and my design for reaching those goals. 12 hours is simply not enough. But 12 hours is all a visiting instructor is likely to get. All of my hopes for the students had been realized, but after a few days in Hays it was very clear that improv is a once a year adventure for these students.
Back home in Portland, my community is brimming with improv, everywhere you turn something new is popping up. There is seemingly no end to access to improvisational theater here. Thus, my Portland students have an obvious advantage. It’s a disappointing realization as I leave a group of truly exceptional young actors. As this little plane ascends from the tiny Hays Kansas airport I cross my fingers that I have done more than altered their perspective of improv, I hope I have inspired them to create opportunities for themselves to play and perform improvisational theater with as much vigor as they pursue scripted theater. I hope I have opened a door and left it open. I hope they are willing to walk through on their own, trusting their talent and their capacity to create good, strong, entertaining pieces of theater spontaneously. I am already looking forward to my visit next year.