You Can’t Make This Up, With Melanie Penn

An Improv Shop mainstay, Melanie Penn is a superstar on stage and behind the scenes. She teaches Level 0 and occasionally a Level 1 class, coaches my house team, Bluebeard, takes tickets, hosts shows, runs tech, cleans up after we’ve all trashed our empty cocktail cups on the floor, practices with her own teams, GalaxanderStoryteller, and Maudlin O’Clock (see them in the CageMatch this Friday, 7/18), and generally just spreads the good vibes.

No matter what’s going on in her own life, Melanie is always positive and encouraging, which makes her a great teacher, awesome friend, and someone you want to be around all the time. When I coach, I repeat the mantra, “Be Melanie,” in my head, because I know by embodying her, I’ll temper my own criticisms with positive reinforcement.

And with a lucky 13 years of improv experience under her belt, she’s someone you want to get to know if she hasn’t already made a point of getting to know you. So without further ado…

Meet Melanie Penn:

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

I got into improv in 2001 when I tried out for my high school improv team, Five Finger Discount, my freshman year. I had always liked acting and had just learned what improv was that previous year in my first drama class, so I already liked the idea of it.

Also, I didn’t make any of the sports teams I tried out for.

How would you describe your style of play? In other words, what sort of scenes/shows do you have the most fun doing?

My style of play is something I try to keep evolving so that I don’t have one style but infinite styles, so I can be ready to adapt to any show and any scene I find myself in. That being said, I am typically having the most fun when I get to be loud, animated, and really emotional about something. I’m also having the fun whenever I get to talk faster than I’m thinking.

Can you regale us with a tale about the best or worst scene/show you have ever done? 

Jeez, I’ve had a billion! But yeah, my old house team, Magic Ratio, likes to joke about one of our student showcases in which our suggestion for a location was “Tim Burton’s house.” Everyone got caught up making bits, bits, bits, and references, references, references that even we weren’t sure we understood. We got so in our heads about the novelty of that suggestion that we didn’t branch out from it at all. We didn’t have any honest or emotional groundwork for anything we were doing, and we were wildly uncomfortable the entire time. It was spectacular.

What do you do to find inspiration for improv? In other words, do you have a life? If so, how do you spend it (besides pretending you are someone else on stage in front of large groups of people)?

I guess “have a life” is relative. I’m doing something at the Improv Shop – playing, practicing, cleaning, teaching, coaching, hosting, ticketing, etc. – five to six nights a week, but that’s where my favorite people are. But yeah, I maintain a day job with St. Louis Arc in a community integration program for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. I also do yoga and I like to run a lot.

Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?

Don’t beat yourself up about your choices. You’ll continue to do bad scenes and have bad shows for the rest of your improv life. But, the more you practice and watch and practice and play and treat this thing with integrity and take your teacher or coach’s notes and try new challenges, they become fewer and farther between organically.

Also, when you do have an occasional bad scene and/or bad show, you won’t always be caring so much because you’ll be having too much fun hanging out with your friends that you met in he process. They love you unconditionally anyway.

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?

“Economy of words” from my coach, Katie Nunn. I have had a tendency to talk in paragraphs and fill in oodles of exposition, but it’s way more fun to leave room for your scene partner to build off of what you said than it is to blow through your steam off the bat.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

I try to think of ”yes, and…” as a life philosophy.

“Yes” means I acknowledge, validate, and accept whatever reality is in front of me, objectively and without any value judgment. I don’t have to like it and it doesn’t have to be positive, but it’s a waste of energy to deny or argue about what’s been established as true.

“And” means I do what I can to add my part in making it a little bit better.

“YES, I have food poisoning and can’t go camping with my friends which makes me sad, AND, it’s okay to be sad because being sad is the best time to watch a good sad movie at home…” That sort of thing.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?

I’d like to plug the middle school and high school classes the Improv Shop is offering this summer! It’s the first time we have offered classes specifically for teens, and I positively love teaching improv to teens! It’s a great experience for young people to feel empowered, smart, and playful.

What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?

Katie Nunn, my coach-mentor-friend and Marshall Cox, my teammate-colleague-friend.

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

I’ve really enjoyed the Improv Nerd podcast for interviews with people that I think of as famous.

Also, as corny as it sounds, it’s a lot of fun reading through conversations on the St. Louis Improv Facebook page because some really juicy Qs&As come out of it, combined with just the right amount of silly.

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