Melissa Darch and I don’t go all the way back to the womb (as some people suspect), but she is one of my oldest improv friends. We met on the first day of classes, and I have been fortunate to continually find myself on her teams.
She is incredibly ambitious – she takes her job, teaching 13 year olds, very seriously as well as every other project she devotes time too (and there are many) – STL Up Late, Improvised Missed Connections, a new Harold team, Musket, the Creepy Basement Players, something else I probably missed.
She is one of those people who is effortlessly funny. On stage she shines because she can look at a situation and immediately call out the odd or idiosyncratic thing and heighten it. Also, she plays a great mom.
Meet Melissa Darch:
Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?
I’ve always put on weird plays for my parents (seriously, there’s a family-famous picture of me dressed as a poor woman and my brother dressed as an alligator farmer from when I was 6 and he was 3).
When I was a freshman in high school, I signed up for theatre instead of the financial class my dad wanted me to take, and I was cast as the Old Man in James and the Giant Peach. I fell in love. So my sophomore year of high school, when Comedy Sportz sent a “ref” to our school to teach us short form games and practice with us before we put on a showcase, I jumped at the chance.
I didn’t think of myself as a good actress, and I thought improv was a way to do theater without having to act. After sophomore year, every time we went to Theatrefest (nerd alert) I enrolled in any improv workshops I could. When I got to college, I found an improv group and performed every Wednesday for three years. Every time I came home to visit Chicago, I would see as much improv at iO that I could. I loved every moment.
When I moved to St. Louis, I was terrified of joining a Longform theater, but the only companionship I had was 200 students under the age of 13, and I had just run out of episodes of Law and Order: SVU. So I risked it.
You have been a member of the Creepy Basement Players for almost two years. What have you learned from collaborating and performing with the same, committed group of people for that long?
Ben is going to do an impression of someone in the group. Colin is going to be late. Pete is going to suggest we do another show. Alex is going to say something that confuses me. Steve is going to lunge.
Once we knew these things about each other, we knew how to play with each other. With Ben, I say what I want and he justifies it. With Pete, I slyly tell him what to do and he’ll play that game to the fullest. With Colin, I play the husband to his wife. With Alex I sit back and listen. I let him play the crazy and I support his reality. With Steve I try not to crack up.
And then two weeks later, we’ll grow. We’ll change. We’ll adapt. I’ve played with the same humans for two years. But we aren’t the same people and we aren’t the same improvisers. We were coachless (uncoached? coach impaired?) for the first eight months of our existence, and in a lot of ways we changed the most during that time.
But more importantly, we got to know and trust each other. If I may be so bold, the gentlemen of the Creepy Basement Players are some of my best friends. We hang out before, during, and after practice. We have a group text that we’ve used on multiple Saturday nights when we’re all apart and wish we were together. It’s cute if you think about it.
The Creepy Basement Players have performed in Fringe and several other venues that are not traditionally accustomed to improv. What has this taught you about longform?
Improv is impressive. A lot of times we, as improvisers, talk ourselves down (“Watch us do ‘make-em-ups’”, “I just go out there and say stuff”, etc), but when we get on stage and play an emotional scene, an honest scene, a memorable scene, it leaves the audience wowed.
There are no bounds to improv. For Fringe, we were asked to do all sorts of things that were decidedly NOT what the Creepy Basement Players thought improv was, but we had a blast doing. When we went to the Chicago Improv Festival (CIF), we saw a UCB show that was also decidedly NOT what CBP thought improv was (Acronyms!). Both of these experiences helped me to see improv as an incredibly mutable art form with branches that I like and branches that I very much dislike.
You are involved in tons of projects – STL Up Late, Creepy Basement Players, Improvised Missed Connections and more. What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
My autobiography. Or my published dream journal. Or my interactive art piece on the science of triangles. Or whatever new project I decide to settle on.
My dad is really into making sure I’m safe financially in case I never get married (thanks for the vote of confidence dad). And one thing he always talks about is diversifying your portfolio. I don’t know what that means when it comes to money (but just in case, I’ve kept money from Italy and Iceland), but when it comes to creative projects, I think it is just as important to have the career defining ten year projects as it is to have a three month run with a new idea. I think often I have ideas that are “so genius” (like slipping a stock metaphor into my interview) and then I abandon them because I am creatively better off without them.
So, in the next year, I have no idea what I’ll be doing. Straight out of college I said yes to teaching Spanish to middle schoolers in a city I’d never been to, and here I am. The beauty of this next year (and I guess the thing I’m most looking forward to) is seeing how everything that is changing shakes out. STL Up Late is writing a pilot. The Creepy Basement Players are going to do more festivals probably in other cities. Improvised Missed Connections are going to try to get into the heads of singles across St. Louis. ANYTHING could happen.
Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?
I can, but you’re going to hate me for them.
You’re not a star. If you don’t believe me and you still think that you are a star, then think of your improv team as a galaxy. It’d be SUPER(nova) boring if it only had one star. Additionally it’d be super boring if all the stars were in the same phase of their lifecycle. So embrace the diversity of the players around you (age, experience, playing style, how openly hipster they are) and your galaxy will shine bright like a diamond. That’s a ghost written Rhianna quote that I’m working on.
Positive Advice: Do it. If you want to audition for something- do it. If you’re thinking about forming an indie team- do it. If you want to ask to read my dream journal- do it.
What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?
Every time I read this question in your blog, I ask my coaches and people I quietly refer to as my “mentors” for more notes. The two big things that come to mind are a note from Katie Nunn and a note from my theater director in high school.
There are billions of people in the world. I’ll never get to play all of them, but I am going to try. Katie told me this because I was being a mom in every scene and she wanted me to diversify my character portfolio.
In the beginning, there was the word. My theater director told us this when we would do voice exercises. If no one can hear you, then nothing that you’ve said matters.
What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?
I don’t remember who said this or when, or why or wherefore, but I know that some teacher somewhere along the way told us that no one is pure evil. If you’re playing a type of character that you don’t like playing, stop playing them. I tell my students this (middle schoolers trying to figure out who they are, looking like fawns that discovered ice for the first time).
When I’ve got a kid in the class that no one seems to like, it is my motivation in the scene of my life to yes, and that kid into a redeeming quality. There is SOMETHING about you that gets the audience on your side. Let’s find that thing and play with it.
When I side coach kids’ lives, I remind them of the second thing “if you’re playing a character that you don’t like, stop playing that character.” If you hate that you’re “the mean girl”- stop being her. If you find in scenes that you’re the douchebag boss- stop making all the bosses you play be douchebags. And for me, if you find yourself being the nagging girlfriend, the teacher that assigns homework as a punishment, the daughter that only calls home when you need your dad to explain what a portfolio is- STOP being that character.
Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?
STL Up Late’s 3rd season recently ended, but check out our youtube channel for more videos in the post season and like us on facebook or follow us on twitter or text me to keep informed about our upcoming pilot.
Also, please be my 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 can give you my favorite quote about creativity:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to’.” – Jim Jarmusch
If you like Melissa Darch and want to be her friend, why not like me and by my friend too? It’s like a BOGO for Christmas!