IMPROVing self-esteem: Liking who I am, and thinking on my feet
If you were to walk in to room 603 (or 802 for some days) in the Logan Arts Center for the past three Fridays, you may have seen several desks upturned and flipped over, backpacks, shoes, and homework all strewn about the frigid floor, and several students who appeared to be getting stabbed, throwing around an angry cat (like a hot potato), or gently caressing a baby. In short, welcome to Hold the Script: A Short Introduction to Improvisational Theater, a two-hour Improv class taught by Alex Morales (the sophomore coordinator). Improv, according to Alex is “the foundation of most theater. It is acting without any knowledge of what is going to happen next, and without a script to cling to. All actors have some improvisational training.” How did a simple definition, one email, and an enthusiastic teacher turn the Logan Center into such poetic and beautiful chaos? Allow me to explain...
When I first heard of this Improv class, I was excited that it would help improve my acting and public speaking skills, but I was also skeptical. I had participated in two elementary school plays prior to this class, so I guess you could say I had “theater experience” but all it amounted to, was memorizing a script. For those plays, I was cast as the Herald in Cinderella and Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof. If one were to go even further back into my past, they would see that I portrayed a robin, among various other critters in my kindergarten school plays. I had always grown comfortable with a script in my hand, happy that as long as I memorized it, I would never falter or look like a complete fool on stage. There was a natural flow and an aura of assurance that I felt whenever I knew the lines in advance. But to tap into my creative energies? To act but with no script or crutch? To create something entirely new out of thin air? To (gasp) actually go to work without a plan!? Oh the pressure was too much…
But I did have an acting bug, and I wished to become immersed in this form of acting. I had also never met Alex before, and wished to meet him. I walked in for the first session, (30 minutes late!) and began pacing around the room along with everyone else, as Alex told all of us to take a deep breath, and to prepare for what was to come.
(As of now I am trying to write this post on the spot, in the spirit of Improv, so bear with me if my level of vernacular decreases and grammar gets loose.)
Let me say, that it would take a long time for me to hear the word, “prepare” again. These classes were hands down, super fun and amazing! We would often begin with a short recap of what the previous lessons were (those lessons usually being about defining an important aspect of Improv) but after that, everything was up in the air! From games such as scenes in a hat, party quirks, scene switch, question game, and a plethora of others whose names I forget, I never knew what was coming up next, and always had to be quick and think on my feet. Alex brought in a dynamic and new way of teaching that was less about him, and more about the students. He would constantly ask us about the problems, the solutions, and the ideas for future activities. It was by the second session when I ultimately realized what Improv was about: Improv was ultimately about being comfortable with yourself. While a script is a good thing, it can hinder an actor’s performance and abilities. Actors and actresses can become attached to the script and use it as a crutch, rather than as a tool and amplifier to help make their performances stronger. There were several moments where I was pressured to act in a scene based off of very limited criteria and I would often freeze up, trapped in my world about how to properly execute the act. Then an atomic bomb in the form of Alex’s words would blow up that world to bits, because he would shout “Don’t think! Just let it flow!” I often found that in those moments where I spoke the first thing that came to my mind and did so with passion and fearlessness, that was when I had the most fun and that was when I learned the most.
Now I don’t think that the lesson to take away is to never plan for anything and just take things as they are. Another lesson could be that even if things don’t go the way as planned, don’t make such a big fuss or a huge deal over it. Rather, just loosen up and tackle the new problems with calmness and maturity. Improv was an eye-opening experience and it was one of the most insightful classes I ever had. I also learned what true camaraderie and companionship meant: it meant acknowledging other ideas and humbly accepting them, rather than continually pressing for your voice. There were a few times where I would want a scene to go a certain way, but my partner would push the scene in a new direction. I could not simply destroy what my partner had done, but instead I had to build and act upon what he or she did. I could help cultivate the seed, but not completely uproot it. This proved to be a challenge, but it was a great way to help me bond with my fellow peers and jokingly laugh and go along at how they took the scene. It was great seeing so many different points of view based off of one criteria. It taught teamwork among other students, something I was not expecting, yet was quite happy about. Alex ultimately stressed how we all had “it” (however that may have applied to all of us) and we should not be afraid of our ideas but instead to simply embrace them.
But there were also rules to this world that Alex crafted. He asked an intriguing question of “how many numbers are between 1 and 2?” The correct answer? Infinite. When one is faced with criteria, that person has the responsibility to create a world around that criteria (using whichever of the infinite possibilities they have at their disposal) as long as they stay within 1 and 2, and don’t branch off to 3. This realism (within the theater world) was extremely important for teambuilding and communication. One could start a scene with “Hey I like this space station”, but the other person could not respond with “This is not a space station.” There are many ways one could answer the “space station” statement, but all of those answers have to be within the reality of that world, rather than branching off to a separate idea. Alex also taught to channel any energy (whether positive, negative, nervousness, etc.) into every scene.
Overall, I am glad that I had a chance to participate in the class. Improv ended up being much more than learning how to act without a script. It became a vessel for creativity, and a wake-up call for everyone to be happy with themselves and the ideas they have. It taught the importance of teamwork, and the importance of including every voice. By accepting ideas and letting those diverse streaks of color paint the blank canvas, people in the class were able to create a colorful collage that represented one whole, while highlighting everyone’s special gifts, and even idiosyncrasies. I hope Alex will continue to teach the class next summer and I can’t wait to implement these skills in the coming school year.