Although it might surprise you, I have always enjoyed being in the spotlight. When I was young, I hated sitting at the kids’ table. I had a large vocabulary and interests outside of indoor soccer, tee ball and Dragonball Z, and I made my way to the adults table to show off for my parents’ friends and relatives.
Some things never change.
In middle school, my mom signed me up for a three-week theater camp. She wanted to get me out of the house and hoped the experience would help me learn to share the spotlight. That and I had already quit every sports camp she signed me up for that summer.
To an extent, my mom’s plan was a success – she definitely got me out of the house. And not just that summer, for several summers after that as I attended more theater camps, after-school acting classes, and play rehearsals. But when I left high school and started choosing activities in college, I ultimately elected to ditch acting.
In part, I was more interested in hanging out with new friends rather than attending rehearsals and memorizing lines. The primary motivator, however, was that acting in plays had become stale. Once I got the blocking and lines down, I went into auto-pilot, showing up to dress rehearsals and shows simply reciting lines and faking emotion until the run ended. The magic had worn off.
So imagine my delight when I discovered improv two years ago. It was everything I loved about acting minus most of what I had grown tired of.
And while I spent over a year and a half showing up to the Improv Shop with no plans for what was about to transpire on stage, this past summer, John Langen announced auditions for a Halloween themed sketch revue. But the cast would be using improvisation to write the show. While I hadn’t performed in a non-improvised show since high school, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to combine my interest in improv with my writing abilities and my former love, scripted acting.
I was lucky enough to be cast along with six other fantastic improvisers, and together, we set out to write a Halloween sketch show.
The process was both entertaining and inspiring. It was also unlike a lot of the other sketch work going on in St. Louis.
When people asked me which sketches I wrote, I had trouble answering, because technically, I didn’t write any sketches. Everything performed was discovered through improvisation. We would come to rehearsal with pitches like “what if Count Chocula had to make an apology speech” or “what if a wizard went to Target,” and then we’d start improvising. When we found something we liked, we played the scene again focusing on that aspect, and like any great improv scene, we built each sketch together, piece-by-piece.
Unlike any great improv scene, however, we got unlimited do-overs. Wish you had a stronger character? Do it again. Wish you had said a different line? Do it. Wish you had made a different choice? Do it.
I think the smartest decision we made, however, came from Kevin McDonald’s sketch workshop. Rather than write down each sketch, line for line, we elected to simply write down the skeleton of the piece and then leave ample room for improvisation.
Every night of the run, we made new discoveries about our characters and the scenes. Or we just tried to make each other laugh. I was able to blend many of the lessons I had learned through improvisation each night to a scripted show.
Life can often feel like scripted acting – going into autopilot mode as you put on your costume, go through the blocking you’re taught, and say the right words. But there is so much room for improvisation if we’re only willing to leave room for it and take risks.
Just because you have the basic skeleton of your day – wake up, go to work, go to improv rehearsal, relax, go to bed – doesn’t mean you cannot make new discoveries and keep things fresh, new and interesting. Wear something you haven’t worn in a while. Go to lunch with a different coworker than normal. Skip an episode of Orange is the New Black and hit a bar with your teammates after rehearsal. Or just put down your phone while you’re walking to your car and look around you. You never know what you might discover.
If you’re interested in seeing some footage of the sketch show, check out this short interview I did for the social media team at my office.
Photo Credit: Julia Madras, Larry V.