Not Being a Dick: My First Improv Experience

“We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess, than to be praised for the fifteen we do possess.”

– Mark Twain


I. Acting Schmacting

I am, by no means, an actor. I have no experience acting. Well, let me hold up a minute. I have minimal acting experience. There was an appearance by yours truly in our middle school production of The Wizard of Oz, and I played a soldier. There were about nine of us, I want to say, and we lined up tallest to shortest. The first soldier, the commander, let’s say, gave the order and each of us would echo that phrase one-by-one until the shortest soldier was reached. For comedic reasons, Kevin–who played the first soldier–was shorter than me; the choreographer purposely had him stand next to me, examine my height, and then he had to pull up a box to stand upon; hence, this made him taller than me. There were not many lines, and whatever lines were to be said were literally read to me.

How can you screw up repeating? Well, I guess anything is possible.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the play experience so much, I decided to participate in the following year’s production of Anne of Green Gables as a member of the tech crew. I was the glorified spotlight guy, which was badass in that time and place. Being in the tech crew made you less of a drama dork than you really were; there was the illusion of the being cool aura. Granted, if plays were not an essential part of your personality in middle school, you may have been afraid to admit that you were participating; however, the blow of expected embarrassment was a lot softer when you said that you were part of the tech crew. I played soccer in the fall and participated in basketball during the winter; this was taking baby steps to Jockdum or Jockhood.

As part of the teach crew, I operated the brighter of the two spotlights, which made me that important. However, I did screw up one scene. My light was supposed to be on two main characters while the secondary light was focused on the two eavesdropping characters. This was completely reversed. Oh, well. The coolness factor was essentially erased after that obvious screw-up.

II. Trying Something New

This improv class is just proof that there are–in fact–things to do in Syracuse. I love advocating the Syracuse and statewide Buy Local movement. I love participating in locally-focused events. I love being a part of the place where I have lived my whole life.

The improv classes are through the Syracuse Improv Collective, and Mike is taking the reins of leading the Level One workshop. Opening the first day, he asked if we were familiar with improv and the variety of examples with emphasise it, i.e. Whose Line is it Anyway? and Upright Citizens Brigade among others. It was, also, stated that improv is just more than comedy, which had put me at ease.

It is easy for everyone to associate improv with comedy, because of the abundance of familiarity: improv comedy and prop comedy being the key associations. Mike reiterated the importance of sticking to the consistency of a scene. It’s possible to infuse comedic lines or actions in more of a serious scene, but it is respected if it subtlety and naturally comes out; the more true to life a scene is, our associations with life’s idiosyncrasies will make the scene funnier, but not detracting away from the serious nature. If the actor hits the switch, being funny and making a comedic action, it kills the scene.

This can hurt you, if you cannot keep a straight face.

This first session was a basic one. We began with stretching and name games, which was purposeful for many reasons: getting familiar with those in the workshop, to generally get comfortable, and to help you step out of your bubble. If you haven’t done this before, like me, there is actually a lot to overcome. It’s like pooping in public; you’ll have to do it sooner than later, so suck it up and just go with the flow. This isn’t actually pooping in public, nor was that last line to referring the the dropping of one’s drawers and doing their business. Everyone in the workshop is attending for the same purpose; however, it is important to realize: this is supposed to be fun escape and a learning experience. No one is going violate your comfort zone to wipe your ass; that’s only for yourself to accomplish.

Shit or get off the pot. Participate or just leave.

Just keep in mind that no one likes a quitter; you’re only hurting yourself.

III. Session #1

So, it seems to be that I am the only person with very little acting/improv experience. I don’t mind that, because my knowledge and experience can only expand from here. There isn’t any degeneration!

Although, in my opinion, there is small group participating–six total–I am glad that knowing someone else in the group is reassuring. Emily, a friend and associate from Freedom of Espresso, sent me the link for the workshop via Internet social networking. She had taken an acting class at Syracuse University, which helped her learn about this offering. What better way to spread the word of an activity than by word of mouth? Oh, and the Internet…

However, the fact is that I am glad there isn’t anyone that I truly know in the group when it comes time to realizing that I am making an ass out of myself. The rest of our group didn’t seem to know one another, which gives Emily and I an advantage when it comes to being spontaneous. The coffee shop talks predating the class helped ease the tension of the process of getting to know people. Hooray for head starts! Plus, there are only four other names to really try and remember instead of five. Yes, it does make a difference.

Aside the ice breakers and games to warm everyone up, the first improv exercise was a three-line exercise where the six of us split up into two lines. The first person would perform an action, the other would say something, the first would reply, and the other would end the scene with a comment.

For example:

I stepped up and pretended to be taking pictures. In my mind, the scene visualized was a landscape from atop a mountain. Alexis, I think that was her name, said, “Do you really have to take a picture of every nail in the wall?” I replied, “Yes, it’s best to be safe than sorry.” She replied, “I knew I married my father.”

It’s the concept of the “Yes, and…,” which is giving the other person something to work with. The two actors on stage may be thinking of two totally irrelevant scenarios, of course, but it’s the fact of giving the other something to work with.

As Mike said: “Don’t be a dick.”

In the second scene with Alexis, the duties were reversed: she had to act and I had to provide the first line. Initially, I had no idea what the fuck she was doing. It was probably some exercise, but it looked like the Elaine Benes dance from that–one of the many–favorite episode of Seinfeld. I could tell she got offended by calling the exercise–probably what it was–a dance that one would do for those interactive video games. I don’t care.

The last scene, I was paired up with Danielle. I acted out, pretending to eat. We performed two three-lined scenes. The first, I pretended as if I was eating alone, and spoke to her as if she was a waitress making fun of that fact. The second: I was a child, and I asked for more milk.

The very last game we played was a glorified game of Telephone. One-by-one, each of us would act out a scene of a death. It was our duty to figure out who this person was, where they were, and how they died. In essence, this is a bastardization of Telephone and Clue. I highly enjoyed it.

IV. Blind Leading the Blind / Going to Hell

The two-hour session flew by. There I was, nervous about going through with the session; however, it was not to the point where I was going to skip out on it entirely. I didn’t know what to expect, and anyone could feel the same way. The thought of the unknown is bothersome, but curiously anticipated. This was to be another adventure, and a learning experience. The time ran out with me wanting more. The realization of a two-hour workshop was not enough. This was the same feeling after a show; the cliffhanger is so rich that you don’t want to wait until next week to watch the continuing segment. However, in this case, it’s participating.

What can I do? I can effectively try to mess with people. This is kidding aside. Actually, no there is no kidding. It will be weird, but that’s one of the purposes of life: to be weird. I don’t have to say anything aloud–if I so choose–however, the process of generating conversation over a dead comment (my opinion towards a comment or notion or action that kills a conversation, i.e. the record scratch sound effect utilized in movies and shows) could be to my advantage. I can get others actively involved for practice, although they probably will have no idea what is going on. In that case, it would be the blind leading the blind.

In that case, the lesson would be improv in itself. Hmm…

People should wear signs around their person, and they should read: Will Improv With You. That would make life easier (for me), but temporarily. It all depends on how far I want to pursue this.

On that note, the sign wearing reminds me of a time in high school where I would check out the girls in church. After all, at that age, meeting a girl at church would be the most idealistic match, especially if you had an Italian mother. The thoughts flowed through my head: I church, she churches. Hell, we all church. My family and your family recognize each other from the continual Saturday night mass. We’re around the same age. The easiest time to spot the perspectives was when everyone was going up to communion.

Yep. Going to hell.

V. The Continual Search

Those girls didn’t want to be there–at church–anyway. It’s funny how people still tell you the same thing nowadays, especially when you are almost 30. The individuals who take it upon themselves to look out for you, bring up what was told to you a handful of years ago. Oh, you’re 25 now! Why don’t you have a girl friend? Go to church; you’ll meet someone there. Same thing when you’re 30. I haven’t hit it yet, but when I do, the conversations will bloom. However, these conversations would be stressed by short, choppy sentences and the over utilization of the word You.

Person: You dating anyone?

Me: Well, I’m dating around. Been hanging out with [insert name here] a handful of times.

Person: You‘re attractive. You shouldn’t have trouble finding anyone. You should go to church. You‘ll find someone there. Do you go shopping often? You should hang out more in the produce section.

(This goes to show I need to stop focusing time to hang out with my parents and their friends. One day, I am going to slip and continue.)

Me: Nah, church probably isn’t a good idea.

Person: Why? Do you go often?

Me: Many reasons. One being: I don’t go to church often. The girls at church are either way to young, or they are visiting their parents from out of town. Plus, it’s personally pathetic to resort to my high school self, checking out the female church population as they receive Communion. It, also, doesn’t help that God hates me.

Person: God doesn’t hate you. He loves everyone, flaws and all. Have you thought about moving?

Me: Oh, trust me, the G-O-D hates me. How do you know God isn’t a woman? Although, I was not born, I am pretty sure I had something to do with the Titanic’s sinking. Plus, I have to find a job before I consider moving anywhere. That, in itself, would be a time consuming process, which I do not have time for–when considering–amongst all the projects that I have going on in my life.

Person: All you do is write.

Me: That’s not all I do.

Person: I know that’s not all you do. I was just saying. Don’t get so defensive.

(At this point in the conversation, I would begin to get defensive. The person would bring up exes or former potentials that I let slip through my fingers. Since dwelling on the past is not my thing, the inquisition would only annoy the hell out of me.)

VII. Finally…

I am distinguished at being That Guy. I truly appreciate the help and appreciation to put in those good words for me, but sometimes life just has to be lived spontaneously. It’s my duties to pick up on the clues and the cues, cherishing and making the “Yes, and…” opportunities work to their fullest potential.

“Everyone and everything is interconnected in this universe. Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny.”

– Jeff (or Jason Segel… from Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2012])

As the quotes I have referenced from Jeff, Who Lives at Home (I posted that on Facebook, considering using it for a rainy day) and The Silver Linings Playbook (my previous and award winning post), a person has to keep an open mind. Are there really cues and clues? Who knows? Life is what you make of it.

Life is simply improv. Communication is crucial. It’s important not to let things get misconstrued.

3 thoughts on “Not Being a Dick: My First Improv Experience

  1. Ok so that improv experience sounds AMAZING. Would have been something so far out of my comfort zone that I would have thought about going. Not sure if that thought would have gone further than just the thought, but sometimes I surprise myself. I did not realize that type of thing even existed in Syracuse. Any links you can share where I might see something like this offered again to think about going to?

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