How Improv Saved Me

Three years ago, I was formally introduced to the art of improv. I say formally because I had dabbled in it as a teen, and was exposed to it throughout the years. However we were formally introduced in August of 2011.

2011 was the hardest year of my life. I finished grad school by the skin of my teeth, I had gotten out of a bad relationship (and replaced it with another), and my dog, grandfather, and uncle passed away within 5 months of each other. It was very hard to be around myself. I tried to escape with partying and jetting off to Portugal, but I could never run fast enough. Soon, I was back home sitting on my staircase wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  And wondering how I could escape.

Within two weeks of that moment, I had a job doing what I went to school for and doing what was expected of me. As I was fitting in at my new job, my uncle passed away. Although expected, there was always a hope that maybe the cancer would disappear. Maybe then this pain would too. When it didn’t, I felt a part of me was dying as I was “living.”

A few days after my uncle’s funeral, a slightly bearded man named Jose came to my work to do a team building workshop with a focus on improv. I played it off as nothing during the workshop, but inside I felt a burst of happiness I hadn’t felt in I don’t know how long. I was timid and a bit reserved during the workshop, but a part of me knew I wanted to do more of this.

I convinced a friend of mine to come to Jose’s theater, The Torch Theatre, for a free class. It was me, her, and this guy in the class. I was really bad and wondered why did I waste this Wednesday night? Feeling down about the class, I didn’t go back the next month. 

On November 11, 2011, my nephew Luke was born. On that day he was, and still is, perfect. Here was this beautiful life I was holding. So innocent. He didn’t know how bad the world could be, or cared how sad I was. He was happy just resting in my arms. As I held them, I decided that 2012 was going to be my year of growth and change. I wanted to be better for him.

A week before my birthday (November 18), I wrote down new things I wanted to try in 2012. On that list was improv. In December of 2011, I went to the next free class. I was still was bad, but with Level 1 starting soon (and on sale) I decided to give it a go. One class session wasn’t going to hurt. What was the worst that was going to happen?

The first class session was hard for me. I was scared a lot of the time, and people kind of scared me as I had personal space and intimacy issues. I didn’t like people getting too close or touching my face as they would know who I really was and would feel my imperfections. I would like to think I hid it well, but I don’t think I did. I would often go home from class feeling bad, but as the weeks went by and the classes progressed, I started to feel a little less bad about improv and myself.

 It would take months and months of classes and shows to break down walls, but once they did, I started to enjoy the art more, and being around myself. One big breakthrough was when a fellow classmate, and now great friend Andrew, literally touch my face during a scene. He didn’t know about my issues, and I don’t think would have cared. He showed me that I was alright and I can be myself. I was okay.

As I started to attend more shows and perform more, I started to feel comfortable in my own skin, onstage and off. I discovered new things about myself, and didn’t feel scared to express and show them. As a result, improv has allowed me to travel more, have closer relationships with my family and friends, and find happiness that I could create. I started to enjoy being around myself more, and enjoying my imperfections. I’ve also liked to think I’ve gotten better at improv.

Improv saved me. It wasn’t therapy, but it allowed me to express emotions and feelings I would have kept hidden from the world. I’ve met some of the greatest friends and family from improv. It also gave me strength to move from the tiny pond I love of Phoenix, Arizona to the massive lake of Chicago to study this art. Without improv, I don’t where or who I would be.

Probably still on that staircase.

May regret posting this, but I found the video from that workshop because Google. I also have bangs. Enjoy?



The Improv Retreat

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I would like to start this by saying I grew up in the desert. December for me is 60s and a cactus with some lights. May not sound as romantic to you, but to me it’s the bees knees. It was also that December when I got a Facebook message from Rick Grove and Lauren Corl telling me we must go to Wisconsin (which was under piles and piles of snow) for the Improv Retreat with the one and only Tara DeFrancisco – who I had met for the first time on stage as a part of her show DeFrancisco. While I would like to say I thought long and hard about the snow, before I knew it, I clicked the link to pay and off my pay check went.

I was more than happy to spend my weekend in the woods with 275 other improvisors at B’nai B’rith Beber Camp in Mukwonago Wisconsin. The Improv Retreat started as a dream of Tara’s to help bring improvisors to the Midwest for a weekend of workshops, art, and the love of improv. It’s summer camp for adults who like to make things up. And maybe dance in the woods. And hug.
The weekend finally came as Lauren, Brandon and I picked up Rick from the airport and drove towards the land of cheese. Armed with snacks, cider (did not drink it on the way there mom), and Starbucks, we spent the ride trying to guess who was teaching what, where we were sleeping, and how much bug spray we may need. Rick, Lauren, and I came from The Torch Threatre in Phoenix, so we were even more excited/nervous of the different improvisors we were going to meet.

Upon arrival, I was in awe of how green and big the camp was as we walked to Crown Hall to receive our bunks and schedules. To greet us was Tara, looking excited and happy to see everyone. If you don’t know Tara, she has the ability to make you feel like a rockstar with just a hug. She made us all feel welcomed as we walked up the hill to our bunks. On the way down the 72 steps (which we walked up and down every morning), I started running into familiar faces from my last summer in Chicago, including my level 1 teacher Higbee (who had the same whit and charisma. Big fan.)

Lauren and I quickly got situated in our bunks, covered ourselves with bug spray, and went back to Crown Hall for announcements. During camp, everyone would meet one to two times a day to talk about events, policies, and to laugh. The camp had everything schedule from the moment we got there, to the moment we left. While it left us little time for free time, it also gave you the option to stay active and enjoy your surroundings.

Included in our schedules were three workshops, shows each night, shows during the day, smores, food, and my favorite- Joe Bill talking under a tree. While technically it was by a flag pole, to be given the opportunity to talk with Joe Bill about his traveling and experiences in improv is something I will not forget.
The camp experience is something I will not forget mainly because it took you out of your comfort zone. From each of my workshops they emphasized being here in this moment-this is what matters. And I know we say this over and over again as improvisors, but we sometimes need to be reminded to get out of our comfort zones. In Fear No More, Nnamdi Ngwe told us to look in our fellow actor’s eyes and fall in love. In the past, I’ve had trouble with eye contact and this was intimidating. However, in this moment, you are here and can’t look away.

In Organic Games with Higbee, we literally played childhood games to find patterns in the play happening and how we were going to support it without saying HEY SUPPORT THIS. For a moment, I had to remind myself how to play leapfrog. In Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard, we focused on reacting without telling your partner their nana is crazy, and saying the first thing to come to mind (banana banana) by remaining active in your play.

Stepping out of your comfort zone spilled over in other areas of camp. With a large group, it can be intimating at times to go up and talk to people. In reality, everyone at camp was very welcoming and said hey jump right in! For me I got to be a part of my first rap jam, play with improvisors from all over the world, do handstands by the lake, and play Merlin (sorry Robert and Colin if I messed up the name).

Camp gave me the refresher boost I needed. It rocked its first year and can’t wait to go back to the woods. It was awesome.


A Social Festival For All.

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So you have a Facebook and Twitter for your improv festival. You may even have a Google+ page. Sweet. Awesome. Now what? Many festival organizers and improv groups know they need a Facebook, Twitter, and all the things because everyone else has it. But most of the time those pages just sits their unused which can be your biggest mistake. By leaving your social untouched and unloved, you are missing out on one of your festival’s biggest assets to help not only promote, but also build your festival’s presence. Here are a few tips to help you get started make your Social Media well social.

1. Make it a part of your marketing plan.

Along with your website, interviews, and flyers, your Social Media should be considered in your marketing plan. As Ariel said, go where the people are. With nearly 30% of Americans getting their news via Social Media, it is a force that can not be ignored when it comes to promoting. Just posting everyone once in a while is cool, but it doesn’t get the word out. You get the word out by coming up with a plan for before, during, and after the festival. This can range from what you are posting, Facebook advertising, and hashtags for the event.
On anything you use for marketing, make sure it connects with your Social Media. For example, on flyers make sure you have your Facebook and Twitter handle. Connect your website with your social platforms. The main purpose of Social Media isn’t to sell sell sell, but think of it as a television commercial or radio spot, but online. While you can’t always connect directly to ticket sales, the proof will be in how well the word got out.

2. It’s Personal

Let your festival reflect the offline atmosphere online. That means all your posts shouldn’t be come to our show! Come to our workshops! Buy tickets! Some of your posts (which should maybe be 5-7 a week leading up to the festival) should be about the groups, some of the planning, fundraisers, or anything personal towards the festival. One of the 13th Phoenix Improv Festival’s most popular posts were photos of the performers as teenagers. Another was images from past festivals that built up nostalgia and got users excited for the upcoming festival. People in general relate to things more on a personal level. As a result, they are more likely to invest in seeing your festival, and are less likely to ignore your buy tickets posts when they do happen.

3. Get the performers involved

Piggy backing off point two, if your performers are having fun it will reflect in their shows. This can be done before the festival by featuring them in your social media, emailing asking for any of their promotion, or as the Phoenix Improv Festival likes to do, treat them like rockstars. Be creative in how you post or get them involved, and know they may not want to and that is alright. You may want to start with local groups and build from there. Those groups that are invested personally will your biggest advocates for your current festival and beyond.

4. Your audience isn’t just improvisors.

While the performers of the festival may be your biggest advocates, they aren’t the ones buying tickets. Sure their family and friends may purchase some, however you should try to appeal to the general public of your city. With your Social Media, make sure some of your posts are directed at people who love watching improv to those who have not seen it before. This can range from videos, photos, and getting the venue and local businesses involved. For example, any Tweet we were sure to mention the Herberger Theater and mention our Family Friendly shows. Also connect with your local audience because who knows your city better than you?

5. Have Fun!

At the end of the day, improv is adults playing make believe on stage. While we can have grounded moments, your social media shouldn’t be your Office Space type of job. Your Social Media should reflect the fun and beauty that is improv. Whether it is pictures from the event, quotes from the show, or what is going on backstage, let your audience, performers, and online community know the fun you are having. Don’t be an asshole.

Feels Like Home

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One of my favorite things about The Torch Theatre’s stage is its familiarity.

I know where the holes in walls are, the right corner to hide in, and where the ramp is to not eat it on that stage. I have acted, sang, dance, and been injured on that stage. Some of my favorite memories of performing and class are on that stage.

It feels like home.

The Torch’s stage has also been a place where I play with my friends and have my friends and family come see me. As any improvisor knows, explaining what longform improv is can be hard to someone who hasn’t seen it. While you can defend it all day and tell your mother that she is not a part of your act, it is better when someone sees it.

While some of my friends and family saw my earlier shows (again, I’m sorry), it wasn’t until a few months into learning about improv where I felt home on stage and able to explore. The players in Adult Bakery really helped with this as we spent many Sundays together being goofy and baking with one another. Those Sundays turned into spending a few days at the Torch to basically living at the theatre.

Two of those people who have made me feel at home at the Torch were Chris Hooper and Lauren Corl. They have also made me feel at home in Chicago. While I have made great friends here in Chicago, it is nice to have a little piece of home here.

So it was a no-brainer that we would want to perform together at iO’s BYOT (Bring Your Own Team). BYOT is an open mic night for people to bring their teams to perform a 10 minute set on Saturdays midnight. You submit your team, and it is chosen at random to get up and perform.

Chris, Lauren, and I’s plan was to watch a few acts, perform as Quarter Baker’s Dozen, watch a few more then leave as the show may last until 3 am. Some of our family and friends came out to see us perform which was great because they hadn’t seen us perform before.

For BYOT, after everyone has submitted, they pick your team name off a man dressed as a robot. You are given 10 minutes to warm up, and then your team goes up and performs for 10 minutes. As the crowd roared with excitement, the host and robot picked the first team…us. Chris, Lauren, and I looked at it each other like ummm what? But we didn’t have any time to process it-we were up.

As we waited 10 minutes while the BYOT house team performed, we warmed up near iO’s cabaret bathrooms. We were all a little nervous, but we comforted each other by saying this is like the stage back home. This is like the Torch back home. Sure greats like Tina Fey, Chris Farley, and countless others have performed here, but this is just like any stage. The scene from Hoosiers where Gene Hackman measures the basketball court went through my head, along with my dad cheering, and oddly enough that comforted me.

We were ready to go! They announced our name and sober-ish people welcomed us to the stage. Lauren asked for a suggestion and we were off. We were yelling, chatting, and working out with each other on stage. I laughed a lot and we had fun. In Susan Messing’s words, if you didn’t have fun, you are the a**h***.

Those 10 minutes went quick. Was it our best show? No, but we had a great time. Yes, it was a different stage, but we were familiar with each other and knew we each had each other’s back. I am so blessed to have had Chris and Lauren with me that night, and during my time in Chicago. No matter what, I know I can count on them to have fun, laugh, and be silly on stage and off.

Rainbow Connection

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What is amazing about improv is that it brings people together from all walks of life. You meet people that you may not have met otherwise. It is these creatures and their other interests that help connect you. It is what helps you discover new characters on stage, as well as yourself, that you didn’t think you had in you.

For me, improv has helped me become a better marathon runner. I know it sounds like that those two don’t go together, but for me it does. I started running seriously around the same time I started improv in 2012. Towards the end of 2011, which was the worst year for me emotionally, I decided I needed to change. Some might describe it as a quarter life crisis and others depression, but the channel needed to be changed as I was unhappy with where the story of my life was going. I decided to try new things in the new year, two of which were running and improv.

Running long distances is probably the worst/best time for me. I curse myself as I run, but crave it most of all. This last weekend, my cousin Lindsey and I did the Graffiti Run, a fun & colorful 5k. While Lindsey doesn’t run, it was one of the most fun things we have done together in Chicago and just life in general. It allowed us to bond, get dirty, and have fun.

It is the same bond, dirtiness, and fun that I love about improv. And while different in many ways, running and improv have taught me three thing:.

Stay Committed – Let me not be the first to say waking up at 5am sucks, especially when you stayed up late the night before watching Scandal. However, running events start early in the morning most of the time. Your body has to be ready, awake, and in the moment with the race or you will injure yourself. While most improvisors are not up that early, it is the same mentality that you bring to your craft and a show. While we make up most of what we do, if we stop listening or we don’t react, we lose the scene. If we don’t work on our improv muscles and strive for better work, we become like stale bread.

Be true to yourself (or your character) – Unless you are Barney from How I Met Your Mother, you cannot just get up and run a marathon. Your body knows you are lying and will punish you for it. In improv, if you commit to being a crazy French maid don’t then deny ever being one on stage. You take yourself and the audience out of this reality.

Wear sensible shoes as heels and flip flops will prevent you from going the distances – A better title for this should be don’t limit yourself and don’t wear clothing that will hinder what you will do. Sure, I can run in 6 inch heels … not far, but I can. And sure, I can wear a gorgeous ball gown on stage. However, you will then have players like Andrew Bernier folding you in half like a pretzel on stage.

The point of this fashion rant is to say don’t limit yourself. With improv and running, it is going to take you out of your comfort zone — let it. It is alright to be characters you love and characters you cannot stand in real life. In some way or fashion, you can find an element of yourself you maybe didn’t know was there.

You also get to learn more about others in this limitless world. In the past month-ish, my Level One teacher Matt Higbee has asked us to bring a new object each week that represents us as individuals. We then put them in a trash bag and pull out something new that represents other people in the class and get to learn about them. In this exchange, I have gotten the book Good Omens, a Southwest traveling magazine, and the horrific movie The Little Black Book. It is different and fun to learn about the other characters in my class. It is also fun having them learn about my character through the book Man Up, Women’s Running Magazine, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (my Mexican and Jewish family in a nutshell; also, why I need to run as we LOVE to eat).

I enjoy my weird and fun rainbow connection of the two and am forever grateful for these two activities. They helped me get out of a dark place, and pushed me to Chicago.

What if you feared nothing?

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As kids, we do not fear anything. We do not have any hang ups, the post man hasn’t dropped off the baggage yet, and our issues are hopefully few and far between. As adults, we fear random things like mustard and come with baggage that is marked with a heavy sticker. As adults, we are told to keep your crazy to yourself, blend in, and be normal like everyone else.

It is the opposite of what we’re told to do as improvisors. We are told to get out of our heads, be real, and be in the moment. Do we actually do it? Uh, no. I have been in many of my shows where I was not in the moment.

In our Level 5 class with Bob Fisher, he asked us how many minutes we’re actually involved in our show? As a class, we wanted to be answer, the whole thing, but realistically, it’s maybe 10 to 12 minutes of a 25 minute piece. He then asked, What would happen if you were involved with the whole show from listening to sound effects to acting?

What would your show become?

The comedy is in the truth according to iO’s theory, and if we are not in the moment, you won’t discover it. Our lives are hysterical; we just don’t tap into it because it can seem too bland. But iO, through my classes and the shows I’ve seen, has emphasized that it isn’t. The fear of showing yourself is what is boring. Being told this has taken my improv to another level. Seeing it applied well has taken it further, especially with Blessing and Improvised Shakespeare — both which I have seen multiple times.

For those at home who may not know what Blessing is, it is a two-person improv show with Blaine Swen and Susan Messing. Their setup is simple, but I believed every character they portrayed even down to the way Messing ate a fun-sized Snicker bar. I am slightly biased as I have been a fan of Messing before I came to Chicago and she is one of my teachers, but whatever her secret is, after seeing Blessing, I want to steal it.

Improvised Shakespeare … there are no words for how amazing this is. It is about a 45 minute show done in the style of Shakespeare. And while the high schooler in me would like run far, far away from it, it is done so well with imagination and character choices that you become a part of the world and find some similarities. At many points, I was crying from laughing so hard.

While very different shows, they are similar in that some of the best moments were not the one-line joke, but the human experience. It is raw and scary, but you love watching great improv because you can relate. Yes, my boyfriend and I have had this fight. Did I throw a shoe at him? No, but I thought about it. You hate the character Karen because she was a witch to Suzy. Why such strong emotions for people you just met? Because everyone has a Karen in their life, however you are told not to express that in the real world. But, on stage, please bring the baggage and salt.

It is such a great feeling to see something you love so much done so well. It is something to strive for and discover your truth.

What if you feared nothing?

Yes, Improv, and the Blackhawks: My first week in a new city.

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January 4, 2012.

This date is important to me because it was my first official class at The Torch Theatre. It was when this love and obsession for improv began and where it’s only gotten bigger.

My very first class I was nervous. I didn’t want anyone to invade my bubble space of three feet around me, and I wondered to myself, “What am I doing here?” By 9:30pm that night, I knew the answer exactly. What do you mean I get to play like a kid for 3 hours? I am in. The personal space issue took a few months to get over but now I cuddle my fellow players just to say hi.

This experience was extremely different than June 24, 2013, my first class at iO Chicago.

I decided last November that I wanted to take classes at iO Chicago. Not sure how I was going to do it. But all I knew is that I had to get to Chicago and be at iO. After arranging it with my job and cutting down on buying shoes, I was off to Chicago for the summer to do this crazy thing we call improv.

So here I was standing in front of what I had been working towards. Rain poured over me since I had forgotten my umbrella and I was surrounded by Blackhawks fans. It was the 6th game of the NHL Finals, and I was in the middle of it. I decided to be a bandwagon fan because, hey, wouldn’t it be cool?

I stepped into the theater of 18 students, into silence. No one really knew each other and we were all avoiding that awkward “Ummm, hi” moment. This is different from Phoenix because I know everyone and everyone knows me. Who am I going to cuddle with now?

I sat down right in front of the iO’s Cabaret stage. Holy Conley, Batman … I am here.

After taking the moment in, our teacher Matt, or Higbee, stepped on the stage to introduce himself. He is awesomely awkward with a potty mouth I adore. He then had us step on stage to hold hands and make eye contact with one another. It was a weird growing moment for me. 18 months ago, I would have ran for the hills if I had to be this close with strangers. This time, I was fine because of my lessons from The Torch but I could tell others were like me, then and now.

Higbee then said what happens in this class is like Vegas – it stays within these walls. No judgment. Nothing you do is wrong except not reacting. It reminded me of something Bill Binder would say, except as Christopher Walken. I felt at home immediately. I later found out that Higbee knows and has performed with some of my favs and teachers at The Torch Theatre. I now felt really at home.

Towards the end of a great class of newbies and seasoned performers, there was a loud eruption. Did we have that great of a class? Sure, but the ‘Hawks had also won the Stanley Cup! As a class, we emptied out into the streets to join the celebration.

In all the chaos, I had lost some of my new classmates but it didn’t matter. I was taking in the moment of a city celebrating. Ironically, I ran into a one Miss Kate Anderson, a great gal, Chicago newbie, and Torch performer.

My night of linking the new and the not-so-new was complete. As smoke and sirens filled Clark Street, I felt I had made the right decision to come to Chicago for the summer for improv.

I am not sure what will happen or what I will learn from Level 1, Level 2, and musical improv. But I said Yes to this adventure, and here I am.