Certified to Improvise

Certified to Improvise; 09/14/18:
By Kody Hopkins

The American Stage Apprentice program comes with plenty of perks: free shows, professional development, well rounded theatre training, and of course, Timon Brown’s sense of humor. I was particularly thankful for the access to the education classes. After seeing Hawk and Wayne’s first improv show last season, I was hooked: I wanna do THAT! Flash forward almost a year and four levels of improv classes later, and I am now “Certified to Improvise!” Good thing, too, because now I’m a week away from my first professional improv show. I’ll be taking the stage with several other talented individuals in American Stage Improv’s (ASI) newest team, the Marvelous Marvin show! I’ve gone from seeing improv as a means to an end to realizing it’s not only a world of its own, but also beneficial to my acting and my lived experience. That’s right: ASI Improv classes are more than just a ton of fun. You’ll learn some things, too. (But that will also be fun!)

The last time I wrote about improv, I mentioned how unbelievably applicable it can be to life. You can’t afford to be timid or coy in an improv scene; either your scene partner will be unable to pick up on your intentions, or the audience will fail to latch on to any thread of funny. Improv teaches you to be bold, to make choices, to be willing to get out there and fail big. Honestly, that can sometimes be the best part: failing! Something Gavin Hawk (awesome improv instructor and co-founder of the ASI program) would always stress in class is that it’s not brain surgery; we’re just a bunch of adults doing funny scenes. The classroom is a safe environment for you to just go out there and be confident in yourself. Your teammates will always be there to pick you up if you fall. That leads to another big lesson in improv: trust and respect. A few months ago, I finished reading “Improvnation” (a book on the history of improv) and one of the takeaways that sticks with me is a tenet often followed by Second City performers: make your partner look good. Improv isn’t stand-up. That’s why there are teams. And the best scenes are ones where those teams work together rather than independently. Improv can be helpful in letting go of your ego in that sense. Focus on another person. How can you lift them up in this moment? Making someone else look good isn’t just useful on stage; it can be incredibly powerful in real life, too.

Another real life side effect of improv I believe is a new love of, or look at, life. Level 3 is all about character work, and level 4 is all about premise based improv. Both of these require an improviser to take stock of their lived experience, or to start being more observant in their everyday life. I know I often catch myself taking mental notes of some people’s habits or quirks, whether it’s the way they carry themselves or how loudly they choose to express themselves. As for premise based improv, that is when scenes are done that are inspired by a monologue, which in turn was inspired by a one word suggestion from the audience. These monologues tend to be memories, and as the Upright Citizens Brigade puts it, “a memory is created when the expected pattern of reality is broken”. What a pleasant way to look at life, I thought! Improv teaches you to open up your eyes and really start taking in the world around you, to appreciate the often bizarre and unique circumstances of our lives. I’ve found it so much easier to laugh at things now, or to twist a situation another way and think of it from a different angle, all because of the way improv makes your brain work.  

I couldn’t forgive myself if I left out one of the other greatest gifts from my time in the improv training program: the friends. I was lucky enough to keep two such friends from level 1 all the way through level 4! Getting to grow and perform alongside people like that is a pretty exceptional experience. And what better way to get to know someone than to make them laugh, or laugh with (and at) them? The ASI program has it all: friends, peers, role models, mentors, silly adults. It definitely got to the point where I was looking forward to the weekend for more than just time off: I was looking forward to class, which meant laughter, love, and light. That brings me to the quote I wanted to end on, by Sam Wasson, the author of “Improvnation”, about the transformative power of the art: “You only know the you you know. The rest of you, the complete and boundless you, is a prism of infinite refraction, waiting for a shock of light — a spontaneous impulse from another — to surprise a beam of unknown you to life.” And that is the power of people, improv, and of living in a way inspired by both: a life that is bold, open, and ready for anything.

If you haven’t made your way to an American Stage Improv show yet, now is a great time to start! ASI has just launched a new season of improv with some awesome revamps. You can still catch Hawk and Wayne (now in their 10th season!) every first Sunday at American Stage. Every third Saturday, you can see Improv Night, featuring a local indie team, the American Stage house team As Per Usual, the new musical improv team Definitely Not Murderers, and the new team (and format) that this former apprentice is a part of: the Marvelous Marvin Show! Get all the details, dates, and tickets you need by going to http://americanstage.org/improv/!

A quick final note: this may be the last blog you read from me (17-18 apprentice Kody Hopkins) for a while. Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog since the Advancement team helped me create it nearly a year ago. I hope it’s shown a little glimpse of what life as a young theatre artist in a top notch professional theatre has been like. Hope to see you all on stage soon!