Diary of an Improv Newbie: Say Yes


Maybe you are a natural at making people laugh; maybe someone has asked you “Are you a comedian?” Maybe you are a natural storyteller; someone has asked you, “Are you an actor?” Maybe one day you ruined a training session designed to show how difficult ad-libbing is, by doing just that. That last one was me, eight years ago. The trainer asked me, “Do you do improv?” Of course I didn’t, but somehow the idea burrowed into my mind.

Fast forward to 2017, and the echo of that idea caused me to read the book “Improv Wisdom” by Patricia Ryan Madson. She is not only a former Richmonder, but she is also Emerita faculty from the Stanford University Drama Department where she taught from 1977 through 2005. In her book, she boils down a lifetime of improvising and teaching into a set of thirteen maxims. She also leaves a challenge at the end of the book; take a class in improv. Acting, comedy and whatever preconceptions I had of improv were also things that were frightening to me. Nevertheless, I Googled for classes in Richmond, hoping I would not find any, and finally put the idea to rest. The website for ComedySportz® popped up. Scanning their site, my greatest fear was realized. I could not deny the existence of an adult class in improv. If my time spent reading Patricia’s book was to have been fruitful, I had to follow her advice:

[the first maxim] say yes

In her words, “This is going to sound crazy. Say yes to everything. Accept all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Say “yes”; “right”, “sure” “I will”; “of course”; “YES!”

And I did. I signed up for the ComedySportz® newsletter and as soon as the next classed was advertised, I registered. Before long I was standing in the ComedySportz® Theater with folks I didn’t know, to learn about something I barely understood, for a reason I was not clear on.

Joining any new team can feel awkward. Introductions were followed by why we each said yes. Next, our teacher Scott Ingwersen started sucking us out of our shells with self-styled signatures of silliness. Our first act of improv then was to name our own character and act it out:

“Tired” Tim, a teacher by day, laid his head on a pillow made of his hands.

“Bouncy” Brandy, actress and mother, energetically hopped from side to side.

“Crazy” Keith, Executive Chef and educator, made his hands dance next to his knees as they swayed.

“Silly” Sarah, a world record holder in skydiving, waved her hands and danced a jig of joy.

“Ancient Andrew”, part-time magician and wizard of technology, creaked and hunched like ancient Merlin himself.

“Groovy Guy”, yours truly gave a passable rendition of that classic Saturday Night Fever stance.

Scott started us out with a deceptively simple exercise. We formed a circle and Scott launched a beach ball to the other side of the circle. We were to keep the ball alive for twenty-one hits. Simple enough. After a few hits, the ball fell. Scott restarted but this time he tossed the ball to the empty middle and we watched as it hit the floor. We stood there not knowing what we should do. The message was simple. Learning the norms of a new team is difficult. To become an improv team, we must learn to say “Yes” to whatever was needed of us, in the moment, to keep the improv scene ball aloft.

And so was formed a merry band of improv beginners with a journey ahead ending with our first live performance. After that, we didn’t know.

Over the coming installments of “Diary of an Improv Newbie”, I hope to give you a glimpse inside the transformation of a gathering of strangers into a community of friends. I leave you with part of Scott’s advice from the first two weeks:

“I like to emphasize the presentation quality of performing. Although we are going to be making things up on the spot, we can always practice the fundamentals of a “good stage picture” to add an extra layer of polish to our performances as a team. Also, the unified response to the phrase “Players, are you ready?” with a resounding “YES!” lets the audience know we are confident.”

So “Loyal Readers, are you ready?”

Guy Winterbotham has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since May 2017.

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