Five years of improv (… well, sort of)

So, five years ago on this day, I took my first improv class at Unexpected Productions in Seattle. It would be a slow climb to where I am today as an improviser, in part because I was also training in other disciplines (Clown, Stage Combat, auditioning for and performing in theatre projects), but in part because I practiced at a much smaller volume than I do today. I went to the one class on Tuesday and that was it. Occasionally I’d go to a jam, or occasionally I’d do a workshop.

It wasn’t until I concurrently took a class at Jet City Improv and met the guys with which I’d form the group Wonderland that I’d practice on a more regular basis. And even then that was no more than two 3-hour sessions of practice a week. But it was regular practice, even when I wasn’t in class, and it also afforded me the chance to occasionally lead an exercise or coach scenes.

Having to stay ahead of the curve with my group pushed me to study up on improv, read books about it, watch a lot of it. Seattle is largely a short form and themed long form play town. They don’t do the montages and Harolds that are done elsewhere (though U.P. has recently introduced a Harold-themed 8pm show, and Randy Dixon’s Harold is typically more free form than the typical opening-scenes-game-scenes structure).

Over time, a) I learned a lot about improv and b) I gradually became bored with seeing the same shit and the same people doing it over and over. Plus, I was getting a chance to do clown pieces, do more experimental work, and most of all I got cast in Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sideshow, which introduced me to the dance community and sent me spiraling into quite the coming of age as a theatre performer… one that led me to gradually fade improv and leave it behind during 2012.

The timing of that exit is a bit weird and unfortunate because it was at the 2012 Seattle Festival of Improv Theater that I met Joe Bill, Asaf Ronen, Marz Timms and others who more than any of us realized did a LOT to shape the improviser I’ve eventually become today. Joe Bill introduced me to the Invocation, which when done with commitment is one of the great Harold openings. Asaf Ronen showed me that directing improvisers is not so much about knowing the answers as it is being just as observational and adaptive as a player on stage. Marz Timms showed me how to break the 4th wall in improv and not only keep an unruly audience in check but see them as a companion to what you’re doing. (And yeah, they’re also terrific performers)

And then a few months later I had dove headfirst into dance, and all but left improv behind. I occasionally played or checked back in, but I was definitely into dance and would stay in until the year I moved away. To be fair, the scene and my situation had by that point stagnated a bit, and unless you earn the favor of one of the big theaters, your opportunities to play are a bit slim even if you’re creating your own. I had taken in such great lessons, but I didn’t feel there was much of a place to apply them. In fact, I probably applied more of these ideas in my experimental and dance work with Studio Current, GENDER TENDER and others than I ever did with the Seattle improv scene.

The catalyst to come back to improv was actually my 2014 summer trip to New York City. Improv by no means was the goal, but I got to see shows at PIT, UCB and Magnet, and the enthusiasm for playing showed me something more inspired than what I had experienced in Seattle. I knew there had to be something more to improv. Shortly thereafter I was asked to move to Chicago, and with my arrival I dove right back in, armed with past experience and all the lessons of the past gestating in my subconscious. I didn’t realize how good I was at this shit until I started doing it regularly again.

As of this date I have logged 230 hours of improv in 2015. Compare that to the 277 hours of improv and sketch I logged total in Seattle between 2010 and my exit. Again, that just came down to opportunity volume: In Chicago I can practice all the time whereas in Seattle I might have had two days a week to get it in. (And I logged over 1600 hours of total performing arts practice in Seattle doing mostly lots of other stuff; improv was one part of a larger puzzle). But at this point I feel like it’s making sense on a higher level, and now I’ve got ambitions beyond just Harold teams or headlining 8pm shows.

Five years down. Many more to go.

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