My first improv

A first-timer learns to relax in Empire Improv’s drop-in improvisation class

At Empire Improv's beginner class, participants find the art of improv is harder than it looks.

At Empire Improv's beginner class, participants find the art of improv is harder than it looks.

Photo By audrey Love

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As a teacher, I always joke about teaching in front of a class as being like improvisation—you can prepare, but you can’t really predict what’s going to happen, and it’s different with every group of students.

So, when my editor asked me to write an article about Empire Improv’s beginners’ improv class, I immediately said yes. Then, I actually started to think about it. What was I really getting myself into? It couldn’t be that hard, right? You just make it up as you go along. … Right?

That sounded pretty terrifying.

Nonetheless, I had agreed to write the article, so I decided to go in with an open mind and try to have fun. At the time, I had only a vague idea of what improv actually was, so I set up a meeting with some of the guys from Empire Improv.

Michael Lewis, the founder of Empire Improv, has been doing improv for more than 13 years. He started teaching workshops in Reno in summer 2007. Those workshops led to the formation of a troupe that included Lewis, Ben Craig and Tim Dufrisne. They performed their first show in January 2008 and are celebrating their three-year anniversary this month. Besides having regular performances, Lewis also teaches weekly drop-in improv classes and other workshops.

Lewis teaches long-form improvisation as opposed to short-form.

“When I say short-form, I mean games-based improv,” explains Lewis. “When I say long- form, I mean you’re gonna get one suggestion, then create a whole piece that’s all connected together instead of tiny little snippets.”

Short-form tends to be composed of unrelated scenes based more on silly games, whereas long-form is based more on solid narrative and characters. Improv, according to Lewis, is most often used as a tool for learning or writing, as in most sketch comedy.

“[Improv] actually is a viable performance art. Most people see improv as, ‘Oh, that’s a parlor trick,’ or it’s a tool to create written work,” Lewis says. “I actually believe that it’s a completely viable form of theater that’s worth watching in its own right.”

For their shows, the improvisers create an entire piece with a linear plot and a consistent storyline out of a suggestion from the audience—making it up as they go along. They know as little about what is going to happen as the audience does. It’s like taking the tasks of writing and acting and wrapping them into one, on the spot.

David Gormley, who started doing improv because “it was on that list of the scariest things in life,” now regularly trains with Empire Improv and recently started performing with the troupe. “You create characters, and those characters are what are listening to the other person’s characters, and a story develops out of that. As opposed to the short-form, where the game structure is there, here there is no structure—the characters form the story. The story is the structure.”

At its most basic, improv is based on the “Yes, and …” idea. Essentially, it’s listening, responding and always assuming that the person you are working with is completely valid in what they are saying or doing.

“You’re a better-than-average improviser if you can listen to what your scene partner says and respond honestly,” says Lewis. “If you can do that one thing—which sounds really simple, but it’s really hard—you’re a really good improviser.”

That’s about how I felt after that conversation—that this might actually be really hard. How do you respond honestly to a completely fictional scene?

Michael Lewis, fourth from left, leads the improv class.


Take charge

At 6:55, I was still the first to show up for the improv class on a recent Sunday evening—though the guys from Empire were there already. It felt a little bit like an exclusive club as I was ushered in the back alley entrance to the Good Luck Macbeth rehearsal space—a small room with black curtains and a couple of space heaters and folding chairs. By 7, the class filled out. There were eight of us, including Lewis, Dufrisne, Craig and Gormley. I was the only woman but found out later that that isn’t always the case, although improv tends to have more male participants.

The first thing Lewis told us in class was not to think about anything. We did some warm-ups and games to get to know each other and loosen up a bit.

In one exercise, we were asked to impersonate someone we know—perhaps a family member or close friend. The idea was to respond to our scene partner the way the person we chose to impersonate would. The rest of the class was asked to name a location to give a bit of context to the scene. I ended up working with Dufrisne, and our suggestion from the audience was the bedroom.

Me: “Let me help you with that. I mean, I don’t want to tell you what to do but …”

Dufrisne (in a somewhat creepy and pathetic way—perhaps imitating an older man): “Oh, no. I like a woman who takes charge.”

Me: “I’m not trying to interfere, I just think that this might be better. What if we move this over here? But I’m not trying to tell you what to do.”

Dufrisne: “Do you think I’m pathetic? I mean, really. Look at me.”

I put my hand on Dufrisne’s shoulder.

“Ooohh,” he uttered immediately.

I quickly pulled away, thinking I had violated some rule of improv—maybe I wasn’t allowed to make physical contact?—“I’m sorry.”

Dufrisne: “No, no. That was kind of nice.”

Clearly he was still in character.

Dufrisne: “It’s been a while.”

Me: “Uh, I’m just being supportive, I don’t mean anything by it. It might be good for you to put yourself back out there.”

Dufrisne: “Are you, you know, seeing anybody? Any men?”

Me: “Oh, no. I’m done with that. I’m done with men.”

At this point, Lewis cut the scene and asked us who we were impersonating. I prefer not to mention the family member I was impersonating less he or she read this and take offense. And, I probably shouldn’t incriminate my scene partner either, who was also impersonating a family member.

Sometimes, in the middle of a scene, it was hard to think clearly and respond in an unguarded way. Needless to say, right after I sat down, I thought of plenty of witty and perhaps better responses than I gave. It showed me that letting go was important and that this also might take a bit of practice.

At least five of the eight people in the room had some experience with improv, which turned out to be helpful. Their confidence helped guide me through the exercises a bit, and watching the way they responded to each other helped me understand how the interactions worked.

“Primarily what I try to do is get people out of their own way,” said Lewis. “Because people are all good improvisers if they don’t judge their own ideas or judge their scene partner’s ideas or concern themselves with being funny, or looking silly, or looking unintelligent.”

I found that if I thought too much, I wasn’t really in the scene, and my responses didn’t feel authentic. Once I got more comfortable, it got slightly easier.

Lewis says that the weird thing about improv is that you’re at your best when your unconscious decides what you do.

In a way, it sounds like some new-age philosophy, but it actually works. Not that I got to that place in my first and only class, but the less self-conscious I was, the more I found myself listening and responding. And often, the interactions would end up being funny. I found myself laughing a lot and, by the end of the evening, felt like I’d just experienced something unique and intimate with a group of virtual strangers.