Ilana In Improv-Land

Improv, improv, glorious glorious improv. A magical place where, with only a few words and a lot of imagination, men can be women, women can be men, and both men and women can be everything from serial killers to penguins.  A chair can be a cat, curtains can be wings and just cue your piano player, and suddenly, life’s a musical.

I am an odd character in that I have taken a fair amount of improv classes and even been part of a few troupes over the years, and yet I will still adamantly insist that I am neither a good improviser nor an “improv person.” I’m a thinker, but not a quick thinker; my personality is composed of at least 50 percent apprehension, and I find it pretty impossible to get out of my damn head. The defining improv mantra of “Yes and” is honestly pretty alien to my instinctive philosophy of “No, goodbye; now please leave me alone.”

But oddly enough, I think it’s precise because I’m not an improv person that I keep ending up back in class. I’m so awkward in the real world that being onstage is only slightly more frightening to me than your everyday conversation, and I think that if I can just master my anxiety in-scene, I’ll be able to do the same in life. For, in the end, isn’t all the world but a stage?

Plus, improv is just a hell of a lot of fun. Since moving back to Florida, I’ve been a bit of a regular attendee at the improv drop-in classes that take place thrice weekly at Delray Beach hotspot Improv U. As I’ve said, I’ve taken quite a few improv classes before, but these drop-ins seem to me to have particular magic. There are usually somewhere between 10 and 20 people at each one, and though there are always a few familiar faces, it’s never exactly quite the same group. Attendees are of all ages, hail from all walks of life, and range from experienced performers to total novices.

Yet despite the fact that many of us are complete strangers to each other, somehow, miraculously, we all seem able to let down our guard. We muster the courage to be as silly as is required in games like “forward/reverse”, in which the host can suddenly tell the players to start running their scene backward, and “Ding”, in which, when the host rings a bell or says “ding”,  the performer who last spoke must come up with a new line on the spot.  Each class is concluded with the students circling up to compliment each other on their best moments, a practice called “warm fuzzies.”

The inviting atmosphere is largely due to the enthusiasm and expertise of Improv U founder and Monday night teacher Anthony Francis, whom I caught up with for a quick interview midweek.

“Every class has just been my favorite thing,” Francis says.

Perhaps even more important than his obvious knowledge of the form, Francis exudes warmth and patience; I’ve seen him explain even the seemingly trivial art of gibberish with a minute specificity, and he seems to have a knack for knowing when to offer suggestions and when it’s time for a round of applause. Four years ago, he started teaching his first drop-in, hoping mostly just to find other people to play with; he now heads a lively improv community of at least 200 people. He speaks of becoming one of the leaders of the South Florida improv scene as something he did almost by accident, but his success is something he would never take for granted; he feels “honored to be where he’s at” and as if, after years of searching, he has finally found his place.

Improv is, in some ways, relatively accessible. You don’t need extensive training to get started, or even to memorize lines. Yet the form is also deceptively difficult; it takes a lot of talent and training to generate entertaining material in real-time. It not only takes intelligence but a particular kind of intelligence. Though Francis referred to himself as not being “book-smart”, sure as hell would fall flat on my face if I ever tried to perform a solo musical improv set!

“I don’t know anyone who’s in the highest levels of improv who’s not a genius,” Francis says.

Mastery of the “rules” and of skills like object work, character building, and “gifting” your partner with information are certainly important to the making of a good improviser, but even a solid foundation is no way around the inherent vulnerability of stepping on stage without a script. Yet the resulting scenes are often wonderfully weirder and more viscerally entertaining than anything that could spring from a playwright’s pen.

Francis is determined to prevent people from giving up on the art of improv, which he describes as a “candle in the wind” that he is determined not to let go out.  Yet though Francis referred to improv as a “dying art form,” in South Florida it seems to have taken off. Even from the sidelines, I’ve noticed that there are not only many more troupes out there than there were a few years ago, but that the caliber of those troupes has improved noticeably as well.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the 4th annual Palm Beach Improv Festival, which was spearheaded by Francis and Improv U and took place last weekend at Delray’s Old School Square Theatre. “If for whatever reason you didn’t make it, you’re dead to me.” Francis deadpanned at the following Monday’s drop-in.

The three-day fest featured 32 troupes, plus 3 big-name headliners. Even taking into account that some performers appeared in multiple troupes, it amounted to quite a crowd. This is the first year Francis had to, reluctantly, turn a few troupes away.

I attended every night, and found each one riotous; highlights of Thursday and Friday’s shows include the surreal physical comedy of CatBird, the energetic short form of No-No Square, and the fierce musical improv of Wakanda Vs Everybody. However, I’m going to spend the rest of my recounting zooming in on the Saturday shows for simplicity’s sake.

Each block was introduced by a mysterious “Guy,” whose bumbling delivery elevated the pre-show listing of sponsors (Dada, Honey, and Subculture Coffee) and announcements into a mini comedy show in and of itself.  During the night’s first block, I was struck by Banana’s Republic’s snappy internet-inspired form, in which performers could return to a previous scene by looking through their “browser history” or explore an interesting loose end by opening a scenic “new tab”. Next, the Society of Circus Players began their set by passing out objects to the crowd, including a hat full of lines, a die, and a book, which all eventually made their way back on stage to serve as the lynchpin of a game.

Duo Four First Names kicked off the second block with a whimsical and strangely touching musical improv set, inspired by an audience member’s story of her sister’s “miracle baby.” Next, Understated brought awestriking detail and specificity to the humorous tale of a couple united by their shared penchant for murder. Then there was Da Boyz, whose performance was so off the wall that my initial reaction was to emphatically declare that they had “broken improv.” Before their set had even properly started, they had lifted a large pole that held up a “Palm Beach Improv Festival” banner from beside the stage and begun waving it around, which led to a joke about whether Francis had gotten proper insurance for the venue.

“Hey Anthony, I think there’s something going on in the hall,” troupe member Dallas then said. Francis gamely stepped out, and Da Boyz proceeded to facetiously attempt to damage things. Soon, the two were pontificating on the purpose of the p in “pterodactyl”; apparently the extinction of the dinosaurs was actually caused by poor pronunciation. Then, as penguin and penguin trainers, they proceeded to heckle the audience and try to feed us imaginary fish.

Closing out the final block of troupe performances was Improv U house team Business Casual. Their method of jumping quickly from game to game without explaining the rules might not have worked very well with a general audience, but it did work quite swimmingly in a crowd of improv aficionados, fitting in perfectly with the jam-packed, festive atmosphere.

The first headliner set was Chris George’s I Am The Show, in which George asks an audience member to choose from a group of three films he has never seen before, plays the movie on mute, and then improvises his own dialogue, complete with sound effects. This makeshift soundtrack was both hilarious and surprisingly fitting to what was happening onscreen, with George often seeming to predict the camera’s next move. “If you’ve seen enough movies, you can kind of have a sense of how they work, what’s going to happen next,” Francis hypothesizes. I, for one, favor the explanation of “magic.”

Next up was TJ Mannix, starring in his solo musical improv show Limboland. Along with his vocal and comedic chops, he embodied his characters with such emotional commitment and developed his plotlines with such specificity that moments of his set were as affecting as any drama. I remember a few “awws” interspersed with the laughs.

I’m sure the final 2 sets of the evening (Francis and Billy Merrit in This Is Your Fault and a teacher jam), were also great, but I am admittedly a little sketchier on the details for those since I’d celebrated the headliners by consuming some vodka lemonade “Headliner” cocktails in a rather rapid succession beforehand. Note also that it was only sometime during that insane tipsy night that I decided that yes, I was going to finally actually start this bloggy thingy—I will henceforth make an effort to engage in more responsible reporting behavior.

Luckily, I managed to (mostly) sober up in time for the very last event of the night: the mixer, in which any improviser present, whether they’d performed in the fest or not, could throw their name into a hat to be paired with another improviser for a two-minute performance. I had the good luck to be paired with Francis himself for a musical scene in which I was a queen and he, my knight, had failed to rescue my daughter from a dragon.

Francis, was, as usual, brilliant. I, though, wish I had been more of an active contributor instead of stuttering a few lines and letting him take the lead. But so it goes. Oh that the world was a mere improv scene; oh that we could all call forward/reverse on life, ring the magic bell, and ding ourselves a new choice. Unfortunately, the reality is finite, time is inalienable, and the laws of physics are kind of a thing…oh well. Wonderland may still be a fairytale, but Improvland is a pretty dope substitute.

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