By the time I finished chatting with Krissy Lenz on Wednesday, I was ready to write my letter to the editor or the superintendent of public instruction. What our high school students need, perhaps more than another class in math or science, is a class in improvisational theater (affectionately dubbed “improv” by those who practice the craft).
Lenz first got involved with improv as a student at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale (she’s a 1999 grad). She recalls wanting to be a performer and feeling that just a couple of school plays each year wasn’t enough.
First she took teen improv classes, then she and two friends joined a professional improv troupe. Today, just over a decade later, she works with the National Comedy Theatre of Phoenix.
Her work includes teaching for several improv groups throughout the Valley, including the All Rights Reserved troupe affiliated with the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company—a non-sectarian, professional theater company founded in 1988 whose work features multi-cultural casts, crews, teachers and students.
The Arizona Jewish Theatre Company will be auditioning interested teens this evening, Thursday, Feb. 11th, at 7pm at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale. I asked Lenz about what they’ll likely be looking for as teens try their hand at improv. She mentioned several things—including good positive energy and good listening skills. Letz notes that improv is well-suited to teens who “aren’t afraid to get out there and take a chance.”
So what can auditioning teens expect? Lenz says improv auditions often include playing improv games and doing improv exercises. Current All Rights Reserved members will be on hand to help potential troupe members show their stuff. Auditioners may be asked to invent a scene where they decide who they are and what they’re doing, only to be asked after a while to change it up somehow (such as changing the emotion their character is feeling).
Lenz observes that improv fosters teen creativity and teamwork. “Teens,” she marvels, “have a lot of enthusiasm and a type of creativity you forget you ever had.” Hence her insistence that improv is great for both teens who want to do theater and those who’ve chosen other career paths.
Teen improv isn’t just fun. It’s a means of developing and honing life skills, and even job skills. Consider your last job interview. Chances are, you had to respond to unexpected questions both instantly and positively. Pity you didn’t know to take that improv class ahead of time.
Improv comedy, reflects Lenz, requires listening and teamwork—plus trust and reliance on others. Teens who do improv “learn to say yes, to trust their instincts, to respond positively.” Hence my musings on whether we ought to find a way to include it in every high school student’s course of study.
Jessica Graeber, director of education for Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix, is another big fan of improv. She co-directs VYT’s improv troupe along with HaHa’s director Marten Niner. She’s also a mainstage performer with Jester’Z Improv Comedy Troupe in Scottsdale.
The HaHa’s includes about fifteen members (currently ages 13 to 16), including seven new members who auditioned just recently. Prior to auditioning, youth are required to take an introduction to improv class with VYT. Its focus includes listening, scene creation and character creation, plus good improv technique in general.
Taking the class doesn’t guarantee acceptance into the troupe, and teens who are accepted into the troupe are encouraged to continue with these classes to further refine their skills and technique. The troupe performs monthly at Valley Youth Theatre (near downtown Phoenix), and also performs periodically at community venues such as the Phoenix Zoo and Cardon Children’s Medical Center. I’m starting to lament the fact that I’ve never been at the right place at the right time to enjoy these young performers.
Teens like the improv experience, says Graeber, because there’s always laughter. “Improv is very social,” she adds. “It’s a team sport.” You’re only as good as the people you perform with, so the best improv performers learn to appreciate and accept the unique qualities of others. (Okay—now I’m starting to think an improv class should be required of every grown-up as well.)
Graeber says everyone in the HaHa’s is encouraged to stretch themselves and “to feel free to fail.” And here I thought these traits were only gleaned after a good 50 or so years on the planet. Do you mean to tell me that I could have had them decades ago if only I’d discovered improv as a teen? Why on earth didn’t anyone tell me?
It’s not too late, I suppose. Turns out there’s an improv group for grown-ups near my neck of the woods. It’s Jester’Z, which I’m delighted to learn is located quite close to an alternative theater I’m ever so fond of: Chyro Arts. That’ll double the fun on Friday and Saturday nights.
Never fear teens. They’ve got opportunities for you too—ala the Jester-ito’Z teen improv class and performance troupe. Their teen class, which teaches beginning to intermediate skills, runs from 4:30pm to 6:30pm on Friday nights for 24 weeks. Participants also enjoy opportunities to perform with the company at some of their Theatre 168 performances. The next session begins in less than two months.
Jester’Z owner Jef Rawls, who also serves as producer and director, says improv involves a lot more than fun and games. “It teaches you,” he says, “to think quickly.” It teaches great lessons in listening, in working well with others, in accepting diverse ideas and in letting go of the judgments we too often make of ourselves and others.
Folks who do improv, says Rawls, learn to listen to their gut, to weigh their options and make the best choice. The focus of their teen improv program isn’t to produce performance artists (although it does indeed happen), but to “give teens a good solid foundation of life skills.”
Rawls says many of their adult improv students find the experience “therapeutic” and “life changing.” The biggest gain for teens and adults alike, he says, is confidence. For many adult students, improv is a vehicle for learning to let go, for learning to relax. Adults who improv (yes, I decided I like it as a verb rather than just a noun) “enjoy being a kid again with no limits to their imagination.”
I asked Rawls about common myths surrounding the art of improv. He shared just one, but it’s a biggie. “You don’t have to be funny to do improv,” insists Rawls. “You just need to be quick witted.” He says that “the worse guy is the one who tries too hard to be funny.”
Improv artists are at ease just hanging out, relaxing and telling stories, reflects Rawls. “They’re really real people who enjoy life, taking everyday situations and exaggerating them with fun and frivolity.” The best thing about a gathering of improv artists is simply this, says Rawls…
Coming up: Tales of an artist’s touring Declaration of Independence, Review of “Mary Poppins” at ASU Gammage, Why I ♥ blogging