I was going to use this space to talk about the upcoming Arrow and Flash premieres on CW (October 7 for Flash, October 8 for Arrow). Since I really can’t fill 1500 characters with unique information, I’m going to go a different route.
Today is Green Lantern Day. You probably didn’t know that. Mostly because I’m the only one who celebrates it. June 26 became Green Lantern Day in 2006, one year after I launched my blog “Battery of OA” at the Improv Resource Center. On this “Throwback Thursday” I’ve decided to devote this space to a reprint of my June 26, 2005 entry. It happens to be my improv “origin story.” Enjoy.
Originally printed at improvresourcecenter.com June 26, 2005.
How did this all begin for me? How did I begin this journey to become the person I am today?
I’ll skip the playground. We were all there in one way or another, so to retread that path would not give any new insight for me.
High school. That’s where the genesis happened. That’s where I was first exposed to the art of improvisation, packaged as a thing called “improv.” I was attending a speech/debate tournament one Saturday in the fall of `88. If you ever did speech/debate in high school, you know that the Saturdays are long and there is a lot of down time between events. During one of these stretches of time, a large circle of people had gathered in the middle of the campus to observe AND participate in a chaotic game of Freeze. Now, in a story like this you are probably expecting me to talk about how I jump in or was pulled into the a scene and became instantly intoxicated with the thrill of improv and how I became addicted forever. That didn’t happen. I stood back and watched. I thought about yelling “Freeze” and jumping in like “the big kids,” but I was paralized by my own fear. Some are afraid to go in because they have no impulse or ideas. That wasn’t me. I had ideas… I had cute one-liners that I was tucking in my pocket. My fear was that I didn’t know what to do with the scene after I got the one liner out. I was afraid of doing “one-joke bits.” Looking back, I see some wisdom in my fear. I was making the stronger, more generous choice of staying out and letting the other scenes happen. This was my first glimpse of improv… No one had told me about offers, acceptance, justifying, “yes, and…” or any of the tools we take for granted. All I knew for sure was that it looked like they were having fun, and I was too afraid to try.
Jump ahead a year. I had moved to a new state, and for some reason had left one of my fears behind. I wasn’t afraid to get on stage anymore. I was looking for reasons to get up there. Maybe it was the new surroundings. Maybe it was hormones. Who knows? The stage was the one place where I liked getting attention. I was given the opportunity to play on the school’s Theater Sports team. We learned how to play the games… at least we knew the rules… but we didn’t know a lot about how to really improvise. Every now and then we would come up with a fun scene… and we would pimp each other into doing those scenes again (none were ever as fresh as the first time). Once again, the fear was there. We were afraid to come up with something new every time when we already had something that worked (or so we thought). It aslo didn’t help that all of the shows we went to were competitions, and our audience was made up of people either competing against us or rooting for somebody else. Cometition makes improv ugly. How can you enjoy the experience if your audience is determined to see you fail?
My Theater Sports experiences could have soured me on improv forever, but I was aware that there was still something to love about it. I knew that if the pressure of competition were removed, the joy of the game(s) would return.
When I first started college, there wasn’t an improv troupe on campus… not exactly, anyway. There was an SNL inspired sketch troupe that I eagerly persued… partly to satisfy the same part of my ego that I discovered in high school, but also because I wanted to exercise my writing skill. The troupe would occassionally do improv at the end of the show. Most of the games were “Who’s Line…” inspired games, or theater games we all knew like “Freeze,” etc… And even though the fun was there, something about our “improv” gnawed at me… I just knew there was something missing.
Enter the Canadian… Ken Decore was a third generation Johnstone deciple who was eager to begin an improv troupe. He swore by IMPRO as if it were the Bible (I tried reading it at the time, and was completely lost; years later I would read it again AFTER reading TRUTH IN COMEDY… While the philosophies of Johnstone vs. Close are as differant as Old and New Testiment, IMPRO makes a lot more sense after reading the more user friendly TIC). I took workshops with this man, and began to see improv as a skill and an art… more than just a game to fill time. The show he produced, unfortunately, was not very audience friendly. Looking back more than 10 years, I now have a better understanding of what he was trying to create. The show did take off when it was reformated to look more like “Who’s Line…” It has since surpassed the sketch show in popularity.
So, bring me to my post college life. After college, I thought I would never be able to do improv again. I had talked with some friends about moving to another city to start something, or to even start something here in Phoenix. Nothing ever happened with that… For three years I was without improv, without the stage, without any kind of creative outlet. I was more misserable than I have ever been in my life. In 1999, some of these same friends that I had been working with in college called me up and told me that they were doing ComedySportz… and of course I wanted in. What has followed in the past six years has been an evolution in art and philosophy, as well as my circle of friends. I am still in touch with all of those I performed with back in college, but I have similar bonds with those I work with now. I am now teaching theater in high school, using improv as an important part of my curriculum, and doing what I can to help my students overcome their fears.
You can say I’ve come full circle, but I hardly think that is an accurate image. A circle implies completion and repetition. I see my evolution as an artist as a continuing spiral. I have spent about half of my lifetime with improv, and I cannot imagine how I will see it in another 15 years.