“Some of the funniest people I’ve ever met have been at recovery meetings.” This high praise comes from someone who is in the business of being funny. John Gebretatose, who left alcohol behind 15 years ago, performs and teaches Improv theater. He also mentors others to do the same.
At HUGE Theater in Minneapolis, a popular home and incubator for Improv, Gebretatose is the director of diversity and inclusion. He is also the co-founder of an African-American Improv comedy troupe called Blackout, which has performed internationally.
What is Improv theater?
Improv is a lot like when you were a kid and got invited to play house or cops and robbers, says Gebretatose. You jump into whatever’s going on in the scene, bringing your fresh take to it with the goal of everybody having a good time together. “We’re just there to build community and have fun,” Gebretatose explains. Hang around Improv for a while, and you are also likely to build new skills in communication, resilience, and self-trust.
When Improv is performed live on stage, the actors make up a scene on the spot. For example, they may ask audience members to call out suggestions – for a location, a conversation topic, and a period in history. Picking the first answers they hear, they create a scene based on the suggestions. Suddenly they’re in a barbershop during the 1930s talking about “The Ugly Duckling.” Absurd? Yes, and perfect material for generating laughs.
At a recent Blackout performance at Mixed Blood Theatre, the troupe leader invited an audience member to describe highlights from her day. The Improv team then performed exaggerated versions of these highlights, including an agonizingly codependent encounter between a needy workmate of hers and a needy customer. In the scene, the two needy people became so entwined that the suspenders of the workmate were soon wrapped around both of them. The audience exploded with laughter.
If the thought of doing Improv before an audience terrifies you, don’t worry. Classes and informal “jam” sessions abound where you can learn Improv skills just for the fun of it. Performance anxiety is soon over-ridden as the encouragement, safety, and connection you experience pull you in. Once you find yourself being funny and getting wildly cheered for that, well, who wants to stop? Even your “failures” are lauded for bravery. Among the venues for these classes are the Brave New Workshop, HUGE, Stevie Ray’s Improv Company, and Dreamland Arts, as well as various school and community education settings.
Improv contributes to mindfulness and relieves anxiety, says Jim Robinson, a psychologist who teaches Improvisation and Mental Health at the University of St. Catherine and also teaches the Brave New Workshop’s course, Managing Anxiety Through Improvisation.
“Improv develops a mindset grounded in the present moment,” he says. “Anxiety occurs when we’re not in the moment – when we’re worrying about the future and regretting the past. You want to run away to get relief, and then you feel guilt and shame for leaving.” Improv calls your attention to what’s happening right now, asking you to respond to what the present moment requires.
Robinson points out that, for addicts, anxiety is often a gateway to trouble. Rather than feeling uncomfortable feelings that arise, they may seek stress relief from alcohol, chocolate, sex, or other self-destructive sources. In Improv, you practice living each moment fully, then letting go and moving on, so you can be available for the next moment.
Some Improv activities intentionally create chaos to generate humor. They can also help players learn to meet chaos in everyday life with present-moment confidence and creativity. “Improv is a low-stake situation where you get the opportunity to try doing things differently,” says Robinson.
Improv classes and jams emphasize safety while allowing room for risk-taking, honest connections with others, and mutual support. After every exercise where you create a scene on the spot, you’ll find people cheering you on, no matter what comes out of your mouth, Gebretatose points out. “That’s going to build your self-esteem,” Gebretatose emphasizes, “You see people walk away with way more confidence than when they started the class.”
Robinson confirms this confidence building, saying that after a spontaneous scene is created, “We talk about what worked [well], and what skills they already have that made it work.” Gebretatose adds, “We set it up so people feel like they can do it, because they can do it.”
Safety and support are built in
Guiding principles for Improv are to stay curious, non-judgmental, and supportive of the other players. You learn to think in terms of “Yes and…,” no matter what your fellow players offer you in a scene. If another improviser walks up to you and says, “Hey, honey, let’s go mountain climbing today,” you look for ways to play along and respond within the role and the occasion this person offers you. Your response might be, “Sure, baby, rising to the top is still on my bucket list,” or “I wish I could, dear, but my hiking boots are in the wash.” Funny — in part because these quirky, almost-believable responses flow along with what your partner offered.
Classes and jams start out quite simply, giving you a chance to first get yourself into a playful, non-self-censoring mode. Improv teachers introduce games where you can’t fail and you laugh a lot. In fact, Improv is a failure-rich environment. Things that normally seem “off” can often seed the funniest responses. That’s why failure is referred to as a “gift.”
HUGE Theater believes so strongly in safety and support that they present their students with a bill of rights. Among these rights are:
- You have the right to define what feels fun and what feels comfortable (and uncomfortable) for you without judgment from others.
- You have the right to turn down a suggestion you feel is demeaning.
- You have the right to fail.
- You have the right to be brilliant.
Some of the stated rights are meant to dispel fear of the unknown. “If we can remove the fear that someone’s going to grab you or touch or pick you up, we’ll limit the physical contacts to handshakes and high-fives, or whatever we all agree on,” says Gebertatose. “Maybe it’s no physical contact. And we’ve learned it does not stop the fun.
“We also have a shared agreement that anybody in a scene or anyone watching gets to say, ‘Time out’ if they are bothered by something in the scene. And everybody will honor that and respect them for being brave to say ‘Time out,’ and they’ll freeze the scene or whatever.”
Everyone gets to play
Gebretatose noted that Improv has historically been practiced mainly by white people. Wanting to widen the participation, he sought out and invited local comedians, actors, spoken word artists, and other performers of color to give it a try. To help them ease their way into this new territory, Gebretatose created monthly Improv jam sessions at HUGE exclusively for people of color. “If people there are a reflection of you, you are more likely to be relaxed and to continue,” he says. It worked. Before long, more identity-specific jams were introduced, including one for people over 40, one for Latinos, one for Native Americans, and still others specific to gender. A variety of Improv teams that got their start at HUGE have begun popping up on stages around the metro area.
Duck Washington, a Twin Cities actor, director, playwright, and member of Blackout and other troupes, says, for him, performing with other African-American Improvisers makes for a rare kind of closeness and authenticity. “There are not a lot of spaces where you can have honest conversations,” he said after the Mixed Blood performance, where scenes were peppered with race-related humor, adding, “There is a comfort in doing things that might seem out of place in other Improv.”
Washington also says he enjoys Improv because, “It makes me a better person. It makes me happy.” His practice with “Yes-and” helped him deal comfortably with glitches in a show he is currently directing. When cast members were not showing up for rehearsals due to wintry weather, Washington says, “It would be easy to fall into the hole of Man, this is impossible! But no, I see that this is the situation and I just move into How do I go about working through it? Whatever happens, you ‘Yes-and’ it.”
Jenni Lilledahl, co-owner of Brave New Workshop, explains, “Improv reconnects you with yourself and reminds you that you have the ability to be creative, make mistakes, figure things out, and find your strength in the world.” She has brought Improv training to people with autism, developmental disability, and brain trauma, among other groups.
Lilledahl also founded Gilda’s Club, a resource center for people touched by cancer. Every week, she offers an Improv workshop there, creating what she calls, “a magical, safe and sacred space where we just get to play.” She says, “Sometimes people just want to forget about cancer for an hour, or if it comes up, to find a way to still laugh.”
What Twin Cities actor Adam Glatzl likes about Improv is that, “it brings out the most truthful expression of a person, because there is no chance to edit yourself. And while you’re being vulnerable, people are saying yes to you.”
Pat Samples is a writer and speaker who supports others in living creatively and writing their stories. To connect with her visit www.patsamples.com.
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