Tag Archives: improv

Thespian crossing

The streets of Phoenix are overrun each fall by high school students who look like they just inherited the world’s largest candy store. Dressed in colorful garb, they chatter with wide-eyed excitement — thrilled to be out of the classroom and into the spotlight of Arizona’s Thespian Festival.

These Santa Rita High School students enjoyed the thespian marketplace on Friday

A teacher from Higley High School who had 28 teens in tow was the first to cross my path, pointing me to the right part of the massive Phoenix Convention Center — where I soon encountered all sorts of thespians dressed for the day’s “jungle theme.”

Students from Desert View High School doing the jungle theme proud

Linda Phillips, state director for the Arizona Thespians, gave me a warm welcome — then set me up with a nametag and such before I headed out to explore the exhibitor area.

These students from Notre Dame Preparatory High School rocked safari gear and dialect

I hit the silent auction area first, eager to see this year’s offerings — which include amazing autographed items (Playbills, posters and such), gift baskets and more. Proceeds benefit student scholarships and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Samples of amazing silent auction items at this year's Arizona Thespian Festival

Soon I was trading Shakepearean insults with a charming fellow from Dramatic Publishing, and talking with a lovely woman about some of their newer offerings — including “The Bully Plays.” I bought a couple of things and made my way to several vendor tables.

I said hello to the fine folks from Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix, talked with Amanda Melby of Verve Studios about their relocation from downtown Phoenix to the Scottsdale Airpark, and chatted with a gentleman from Jester’Z Improv Comedy in Scottsdale.

Valley Youth Theatre was there to share news of their many programs and shows

Next I strolled through a hallway running past several rooms full of students taking classes in everything from singing for actors to theater lighting. A class titled “No Fear Ballroom Dancing” seemed the clear favorite Friday morning, with well over 100 students taking part.

This Friday morning ballroom dancing workshop was packed

More thespians crossed my path after workshops let out for lunch, and the convention center seemed a sea of t-shirts — all bearing the names of shows the students recently performed, from “The Yellow Boat” to “The Elephant Man.”

Sudents from Cienega High School in Vail gathered during lunch on Friday

Watch for future posts featuring thespian tales from this year’s festival. And watch as well for thespians crossing the road. They bring an amazing energy to the streets of downtown Phoenix, and I can’t wait for them to cross my path again as they start making their way to stages in Arizona and beyond.

– Lynn

Note: If I snapped your picture but didn’t include it here, there’s a good chance you’ll see it in a future post — so stay tuned for more thespian tales.

Coming up: Spotlight on spring musicals

Arts & culture — festival style

Valley Youth Theatre (pictured above, performing Annie) is scheduled to perform at 4:05pm during Saturday's Herberger Theater Center Festival of the Arts

I’m heading out Saturday to enjoy the Herberger Theater Center “Festival of the Arts,” a one-day festival in Phoenix featuring music, dance, theater, visual art and film. It takes place from 1-5pm, which means I have plenty of time to coffee and catch up on other things ahead of time.

The festival is $5 (free for those under 12), but I’m taking a little extra cash along too so food vendors can feel the love. Think hots dogs, gourmet tacos and more. I’ll be visiting vendor booths, enjoying performances both indoor and out, and exploring the work of more than a dozen featured artists.

Folks who attend with children can enjoy the festival’s “Kids Zone,” featuring various art and science activities, demonstrations, play areas and more. Think Free Arts of Arizona and the Arizona Science Center. Even the APS Clowns are joining the fun.

The Arizona Jewish Theatre Company All Rights Reserved teen improv troupe is scheduled to perform at 2:55pm on Saturday at the Festival of the Arts

It looks like there will be about two dozen vendor booths, where you can meet all sorts of artists and those who love them. Theater groups doing the booth thing include Arizona Broadway Theatre, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, Arizona Theatre Company, Grand Canyon University, the Scottsdale Community College Theatre Arts Program and Spotlight Youth Theatre.

I love the fact that several hail from parts other than downtown Phoenix so you can get a feel for the true breadth and depth of Valley art offerings. This is a great way to chat with folks who offer programs for children and gather information about their camps and such. (Yes, you should also watch for the 2012 Raising Arizona Kids Magazine Camp Fair.)

The Arizona Girl Choir is one of several arts organizations who will have a booth at Saturday's Herberger Theater Center Festival of the Arts

Dance groups joining the vendor booth fun include Arizona Youth Ballet, Center Dance Ensemble and Scorpius Dance Theatre. Music will be well represented too — thanks to the Phoenix Boys Choir and Arizona Girl Choir. Also keep an eye out for various art studios and others who offer family-friendly fare (like bobbles for wayward hair).

Several of the folks noted above will also perform at some point during the event on one of the Herberger Theater Center’s many stages. As will plenty of other groups — the Dance Shoppe Performance Company, EPIK Dance Company, Grand Canyon University Dance Ensemble, Theater Works and more.

An outdoor stage will feature music by the Bald Cactus Brass Band, Chicks with Picks and Take Cover! Porangui and String Serenade will perform inside Bob’s Spot, a lovely lounge adjacent to the Herberger Theater Center’s upstairs art gallery.

Performers who participate in the Herberger’s “Lunch Time Theater” series will also be on hand to entertain you. Think New Carpa Theater, Grey Matters Productions, Annie Moscow and Friendly People Productions. Sounds a bit like a smorgasbord, only sexier somehow.

Theater Works is scheduled to perform a scene and song from The King and I at 2:20pm during the Herberger Theater Center's Festival of the Arts

Film shorts run a little later than other festival offerings, starting at 4pm on The Kax Stage and wrapping up at 6pm. They’ll be introduced by emcee Ricky Faust, who will facililate Q & A sessions between films.

If critical body parts don’t give out (for me this means feet and knees), I might also hit the Rainbow Festival taking place Oct 1 & 2 from 10am-6pm at historic Heritage Square. It’s a “free admission street fair that celebrates the diversity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.” The event features “an international food court, artists, vendors and entertainment.”

If your city or town is offering festival-style fare with arts and culture flair, please comment below to let our readers know.

– Lynn

Note: The “Arizona Humanities Festival: Stories of Us” takes place Sat, Oct 22 from 10am-6pm at Civic Space Park in Phoenix. The festival features storytelling, children’s activities, author readings, dance performances, live music and film screenings. Info at www.azhumanities.org.

Coming up: Festivals featuring multicultural fare

Photos from organization Facebook pages

Comedy for a cause

Little did Michael Yichao know, when donning a Munchkin costume as a fourth-grader to perform in a Valley Youth Theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz,” that one day he’d become an MFA acting student hoofing three original works collectively titled “Boys are Dumb, Girls are Mean.”

But that glorious day has arrived, and Yichao is hoping families will come out to support the work. His “Boys are Dumb, Girls are Mean” trio features three short works that total just 90 minutes.

They’ll be performed Sat, Aug 27 at 2pm at Jester’Z Improv Comedy in Scottsdale, which describes the works as “kid-friendly” and “family-oriented.” The show is free but a suggested $7 donation will help Yichao fund future performances of the work.

He’s hoping to take “Boys are Dumb, Girls are Mean” to a variety of venues — including “Fringe” festivals in NYC and Edinburgh, a London playwriting competition, and children’s theaters in Minneapolis and Hawaii.

This weekend’s performance features “four kids from Arizona as well as two actors and a composer from California.” The local actors are Donovan Fiore (age 12) of Gilbert, Rachel Goodman (age 16) of Phoenix, Harrison Redmond (age 12) of Chandler and Jayna Jordan Sweet (age 16) of Ahwatukee.

The trio of tales includes a comedy titled “Dear Diary,” which follows a high school freshman “dealing with dances and diaries, girls and geeks, best friends and betrayals.” Also “Between: A Musical,” about four kids navigating the space between childhood and adulthood while confronting life-changing moments. And “Travis Tries to Talk to Girls,” a dramedy that explores the impact of heritage, mixed traditions and the Internet on finding love.

Playwright Michael Yichao

Yichao is a familiar face on the Valley theater scene, having performed in several VYT shows, directed productions for his own theater company “CloPet” (currently on hiatus) and more. He graduated from ASU with a double major in English and theater, and is currently entering his second year at California Institute of the Arts.

I’m told that space for Saturday’s performance is limited, and that folks who want to attend should make reservations by e-mailing Yichao at myichao@gmail.com.

– Lynn

Note: Waymire Studio for the Performing Arts presents “Wayward Comedy” Sat, Aug 27 at 7pm in Glendale. Details at http://www.waymirestudio.com.

Coming up: Finding audition opportunities for youth

Free family fun day

Face painting. Finger puppets. Book marks. Bracelets. Key chains. Journals. Goofy glasses. Buttons. Wind chimes.

They’re all free activities your children can enjoy this weekend at ASU’s “Family Fun Day” on the Tempe campus.

There’s free entertainment too. Think Blue Bike Kids Show and Zumbatomics with Melinda Mills-Walkey. Plus the chance to visit with “Super Why” from KAET/PBS.

Families can enjoy the “Words of Art” exhibition at the ASU Art Museum too. It’s also free of charge during the event, which runs Sat, July 9 from 10am to 2pm. Don the sunhats, lather up with sunscreen, pack the water bottles and join the fun at Mill Avenue and 10th Street.

Even Changing Hands Bookstore of Tempe is joining the fun with author/illustrator events at their “pop-up booth.” They’ve got all sorts of monthly activities for kids — including reading clubs, storytimes for preschoolers and bilingual storytimes.

There’s a costume storytime the first Saturday of each month, an animal talk with the Phoenix Zoo the third Saturday of each month and an explore-a-story event with Childsplay each fourth Saturday of the month. They’re all free.

Other Changing Hands offerings this month include a pajama storytime for preschoolers (Thurs, June 14), an animal collage workshop (Sat, July 16), a family pirate event (Sat, July 23), a family comedy improv show (Mon, July 25) and more.

There’s plenty for parents and teachers to enjoy this month at Changing Hands. Educator and motivational speaker Sandra Zerner discusses her new book “It’s Good 2B Good” Wed, July 6. Music education advocate Scott Lang presents “Leader of the Band,” his book profiling the professional and personal lives of nine music teachers, Fri, July 8.

Changing Hands Bookstore partners with Hoodlums Music & Movies for “Community Movie Night” Fri, July 22. They’ll be screening “Why We Fight,” a PG-13 film by Eugene Jarecki that “examines the rising influence of the military-industrial complex.” The uber-studious among you can click here to read a study guide.

Just don’t bother the rest of us. We’ll be busy playing with our finger puppets.

– Lynn

Coming up:  Tropical heat — Arizona style, NYC’s first “green” library goes orange!

I have a dilemma

I ran into a friend Saturday afternoon during the Raising Arizona Kids Magazine 2011 Camp Fair. She almost always greets me with the same line: “You’re everywhere!”

Sometimes she goes so far as to suggest I’ve been cloned, but if that’s the case she must surely have met a similar fate. She’s only seeing me everywhere because she too is out there flitting to and fro in theater world.

Cloning feels particularly tempting on weekends — when there are far more music, dance and theater offerings than we can possibly enjoy in just two days time. Festivals, art exhibits and museum fare also abound.

Lizabeth hit the ASU Kerr Cultural Center, just up the street from our house, Saturday night for an improv work titled “Jane Austen UnScripted” performed by L.A.-based Impro Theatre.

Comedy meets classic lit. That choice was easy. Especially given that missing such a show would be tantmount to blasphemy in our family prone to musings on history, literature and philosophy.

Sunday brought a tougher challenge. As longtime season ticket holders for the Broadway Across America series at ASU Gammage, we were sad having to miss today’s matinee of the musical “9 to 5.”

I was too busy working “5 to 9″ to take advantage of their ticket exchange program for season ticket holders. I kept thinking “the show’s not until February” — but alas, it’s now nearly March.

Lizabeth and I planned to see “Friends, Enemies, and People on the Subway” — a show featuring student-directed one act plays — together Sunday afternoon.

It was presented by fellow theater arts students at Arizona School for the Arts, whose next work — the play “Triangle” by Laurie Brooks — is being performed April 29, 30 and May 1 at the Phoenix Theatre Little Theatre.

But Lizabeth checked Facebook Sunday morning and found a reminder that a friend she’s studied with at Childsplay Academy, a friend who faithfully attends all of Lizabeth’s shows, was appearing in a show that ended its run Sunday afternoon.

Amanda was “Scar” one year when Lizabeth was “Pumba” during a musical theater workshop based on “The Lion King” — and they’ve been friends ever since.

“Mom,” Lizabeth told me Sunday morning over the breakfast table, “I have a dilemma.” She was torn, wanting to support both her classmates and her friend.

So we found a way to do both. She hit the Mesa Arts Center for the East Valley Children’s Theatre production of “Puss ‘N Boots” (which had two ASA students in the cast) while I enjoyed the ASA performance of five one-acts.

We got pizza together afterwards to swap notes on the shows, then headed home to watch the 83rd Annual Academy Awards — where I discovered that the thing I’m most interested in cloning is Helen Mirren’s stunning grey gown.

– Lynn

Note: David Hallberg, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York, will be honored Tuesday with the inaugural Young Alumnus Award from Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix. Click here for information about the free ASA event at which Hallberg will be recognized for his outstanding achievements.

Coming up: Art meets dance, A mother/daughter costume tale

History, hip hop and “In the Heights”

I sometimes wonder what my 19-year-old daughter Jennifer might do when she grows up. She’s a history major at Arizona State University, and we’re immensely proud of her. 

But how often do folks get hired to do history? There’s plenty of pseudo-history floating around these days, but not enough of the real deal. 

"In the Heights" director Thomas Kail

Yesterday Lizabeth and I ran into a former history major in a lovely little courtyard behind ASU Gammage, where we’d just seen the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.” 

He graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut after studying American history, but landed in a career that seems rather unexpected. 

He’s the award-winning Broadway director Thomas Kail

When I introduced myself as a writer with “Raising Arizona Kids” magazine, Kail did a full tilt rendition of a quote from the 1987 movie Raising Arizona.

It was something about not leaving a baby in the car, a sentiment well known to Arizona parents. (Pity some pet lovers have yet to catch on.)

But how did Kail get from history to theater? In a word: Storytelling.

Kail says it was the rich storytelling program that led him to Wesleyan University, where he first became involved with theater. 

He’s also a former athlete (think soccer) and describes theater as a “new team” he was really excited to be a part of. 

"In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda

The rolls of Wesleyan alumni include several cast and creative team members who worked together on “In the Heights”–including director Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Miranda originated the musical and starred on Broadway in the leading role, which he’ll reprise during today’s matinee at ASU Gammage. (Yup, you should go, it’s amazing.) 

As we spoke with Kail, Miranda chatted with folks who’d waited near the stage door after the performance hoping to get cast autographs or photos. Lizabeth left with some interesting reflections. 

“He’s really good with kids,” she said. 

She’d seen Miranda interact with several young fans, including a girl eager to tell him about her dad’s recent haircut. Miranda slipped off his hat—similar to the one he wears onstage as “Usnavi”–so the little girl could see his haircut too. 

Just before, he’d performed in the Saturday matinee, staying after for a talk back with what looked like a couple hundred audience members (including some who’d driven in from out of state to see Miranda perform). 

One young woman stood to share that she’d been a fan of Miranda’s ever since he appeared in “The Pirates of Penzance” during high school. Another rose to say how delighted she was to see such a diverse audience at the show. 

Gift from an advocate in Saturday afternoon's audience

A gentleman in the audience noted that “In the Heights” has special significance for Arizona given recent immigration legislation, offering Miranda a button that read “Reasonably Suspicious.”

Many of the questions were quite astute, including one about possible parallels between Miranda’s “In the Heights” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” I leave it to you to consider how Miranda might have answered this one. 

But first you’ll have to solve a more immediate problem—getting your hot little hands on the few remaining tickets for today’s 2pm show, your last opportunity to see Miranda and the “In the Heights” touring cast in Arizona. 

And one more, perhaps. How to sit politely through a show when you’d rather be dancing along… 


Note: To enjoy the ongoing adventures of Miranda, Kail and Blankenbuehler, stay tuned to their many projects–which include “Freestyle Love Supreme” (a hip hop improv group co-founded by Kail and Miranda), the new musical “Bring It On” (currently in development), the new play “Lombardi” (opening this fall) and the movie version of “In the Heights” (also under development). And keep your eye on the Tony Awards, where I suspect we’ll see these names time and time again…

Master classes & meringue?

The list of summer options at Phoenix Theatre, along with their Greasepaint Youtheatre (which performs in Scottsdale), just keeps getting longer. It’s like a dessert menu featuring many of your favorites that seems to have a sweet new offering every time you pay a visit. 

Phoenix Theatre is offering master classes for ages 16 and up on Monday evenings (June 7, 14, 21 and July 12,19) and Saturday mornings (June 12, 19, 26 and July 19). Classes run two to three hours each, depending on topic, and cost just $25 each. 

Reservations are suggested, but walk-ups are accepted subject to availability. Here’s their drama dessert menu of sorts…

Psychology of Auditioning with Robbie Harper—featuring tips on getting yourself in the right frame of mind for auditions and finding success strategies beyond the mere mastery of a monologue and 16 bars of music. 

Speaking Will’s Words with Maren Mascarelli—featuring tips for using Shakespeare’s texts to improve your use of words as powerful acting tools (even with contemporary texts). 

The Treasure in the Text with Maren Mascarelli—featuring tips for making smart choices in working with various texts. 

From the Outside In: A Physical Approach to Acting with Beck—featuring tips for using the body as a powerful communication tool. 

Improv-is-Action with Pasha Yamotahari—featuring tips for fostering collaborative spirit and rapid creativity while exercising sound acting principles during improvisation. 

Viewpoints with Bonnie Eckhart—featuring tips for working with other actors to create bold theatrical work that’s both spontaneous and intuitive. 

A new workshop just added features director Daniel Solis, one of five musical theatre casting directors for California’s leading theme parks, cruise lines and international theme parks…

Robbie Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre (also artistic director for their Greasepaint Youtheatre and Cookie Company, specializing in theater by and for youth), describes this master class as “a wonderful opportunity to get pointers and tips from somebody who literally sees thousands of auditions a year.”

I prefer to think of it as the master class equivalent of a hot fudge sundae with an extra cherry on top—served with a superb double shot of espresso. 

Solis’ master class takes place July 24 at Greasepaint Youtheatre (formerly Stagebrush Theatre), located at 7020 E. 2nd St. in Scottsdale. It costs $75 for participants (limited availability) and $25 for performers who audit the class by observing. 

The Solis master class for 12-17 year olds takes place 11am-1:30pm (auditors must be 12-17 as well) and the class for ages 18+ happens from 2-4:30pm. To register, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151. 

You can inquire about current and future Phoenix Theatre productions—from “Always…Patsy Cline” (performance just added by popular demand) to “Avenue Q”–while you’ve got the undivided attention of these fine folks.

I’ll leave you with just a taste of other summer offerings from Phoenix Theatre lest you feel you’ve splurged on a whole plate full of brownies rather than a single treat. 

You can jump on their website to enjoy a rich menu of master classes, summer camps, dance classes (featuring everything from Fosse to hip hop), upcoming productions for youth, and more. 

One bite is never enough… 


Note: Read Monday’s post to enjoy a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” wannabe that doesn’t contain the word “sexy” 

Coming up: The fine art of floods, More “new season” announcements, Getting your “art” on with local community colleges, Recitals from “Rosie’s House” and others, Alumni from “Camp Broadway” at ASU Gammage share why this camp rocks 

Photo credits (top to bottom): Cheesecake c/o www.halfhourmeals.com, Cannoli c/o www.cookinglight.com, Banana split c/o www.countryliving.com, Chocolate cake (a wee bit smaller but just as satisfying) c/o www.yourpersonalgourmet.com, Key lime pie martini (for those of you who prefer to drink your dessert) c/o www.dianasdesserts.com, Hot fudge sundae c/o www.littledebbie.com, Fruit tarte (okay—they really call it a pizza) c/o www.wheatfoods.org, Brownie (minus a bite) c/o a whole bunch of places–with thanks to all of you for sharing your dessert.

Arizona ala The Second City

Remember all those topics your mother told you not to tackle in public? Religion. Politics. Sex. Maybe even the way other people drive.

Somebody forgot to tell the cast of The Second City, who’ll be performing at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix through Sunday, May 16.

I saw the show last weekend, and was pleased to learn soon thereafter that an additional show has been added due to popular demand.

Cast of "The Second City Does Arizona..."

The Second City, established in 1959, specializes in improv-based sketch comedy and has theatres (as well as training centers) in Chicago and Toronto. But take heart aspiring Arizona funny folk—there’s also a training center closer to home in Hollywood.

The Second City counts legions of famous folk among its alumni—including Alan Alda, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Joan Rivers and Tim Robinson.

Six company members—three men and three women—tackle everything from Mesa Mormons to Sedona spiritualists in their two-hour Arizona show combining improvisational comedy with made-up-ahead-of-time mayhem.

The show closes the Arizona Theatre Company 2009/2010 season, described by one of the guest performers during closing remarks as “the most professional people we’ve ever worked with.”

The Second City picked on all the usual suspects, putting the issue of “illegal aliens” front and center. Another popular topic? Those pesky speed cameras—complete with flash.

I spoke with some friends during intermission who mentioned that while they were enjoying the show, they felt more simpatico with “Capitol Steps.”

Happily, there are enough political plunders and blunders to go around. This is good to know since I suspect some in the audience were writing their own material on the drive home.

I’m certainly among them. When a friend shared that she felt the Scottsdale riff was a bit weak, we began to imagine how we might have written it.

Perhaps something about having breakfast at Mojo and lunch at Yogurtland, only to complain of feeling too bloated for dinner.

I live in Scottsdale, mind you. So I’m poking fun at myself as much as the next guy. And hey—I drink my breakfast at Buzzberry’s.

Had they done more surveillance, they might have mentioned how we’ve been settling for Nordstrom rather than Barney New York in light of the recession. Or wondered how many studs are boarded at Martini Ranch.

The traffic bits would have gone way beyond photo radar to our penchant for driving either half or double the speed limit, and treating turn signals like just so much vehicular bling.

Our governor and senators, especially the “maverick-y” one, took a lot of heat—as did the sheriff ala pink boxer shorts. Gone are the days of the one-time governor with towering hair.

Cody Dove and Lauren Dowden in ATC's "The Second City..."

Be forewarned—sitting in the front row might earn you either on-stage time or infamy for all things odd affiliated with your occupation. Retiree Joan and “Larry, the chemical engineer” were both good sports the other night.

There’s a bit of crude humor many parents would object to their children hearing, so keep in mind the mature subject matter and language when deciding who to take along to the show. (The shower scene has nothing to do with Hitchcock.)

But give it a go. The audience members around me laughed at different things, but they all laughed. I did too, and I’ve had great fun ever since imagining what my own comedy shtick might look like.


Photos: Michael Brozilow (top L) and Tim Fuller (lower R) provided by Arizona Theatre Company

Note: Tickets are available at arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at (602) 256-6995. House seats are available for select performances. Call for details (not available online). Discounts are available for students, seniors and active military on specific performance days. Half-price rush tickets are available for balcony seating for all performances one hour prior to curtain at the Herberger Theater Center box office (subject to availability). Discounted group tickets are still available.

Coming up: Art offerings from city libraries, parks & recreation departments and more; Live theater performances for children

Today’s tidbits: “Walk-In Wednesday with Walt Richardson” featuring music by emerging songwriters. Tempe Center for the Arts tonight, May 5, 6:30-11pm. Musicians are welcome to drop in and vie for a spot in the June 2 Songwriters’ Showcase. Free.

The fine art of Darwin?

Life can take some surprising turns…

I went with my 20-year-old son Christopher (a budding wildlife biologist) to see the movie “Creation” the other day, expecting to see Darwin portrayed as a man pummeling his peers with hypotheses about the origin of species.

What I discovered, instead, was a refreshing alternative to today’s divisive and polarizing treatments of the topic of evolution.

If the movie depicts Charles Darwin—a British naturalist who lived from 1809 to 1882–with any degree of accuracy, he wasn’t anything like modern-day caricatures that paint him as an egotistical heretic hell-bent on destroying faith in God or respect for the church.

It seems quite possible, after seeing this film, that he valued faith and its institutions as the very fabrics of a society that might run amok without them–at least until tragedy struck too close to home.

I’m no Darwin scholar, so I can’t claim any insight into the ‘real’ Charles Darwin.

But the man I saw on film this week seemed humble rather than heretical, and far more tempered in his skepticism than peers who used his work to further their own anti-faith agenda.

If you’ve ever struggled to balance work with family, to embrace friends or family members with vastly different world views, to reconcile your own dreams with the expectations others have for you, “Creation” may speak to you in unexpected ways.

This movie surprised me on several fronts.

I hadn’t realized it was so exquisite visually—with its lush depictions of everything from forests and oceans to indigenous peoples and European architecture. Nor had I expected such a stunning soundtrack—alternating moving moments of silence with delicate violin and piano solos.

But what truly touched me was the tender relationship of Darwin to his children, especially eldest daughter Anne who appears to have shared his curiosity and love of the natural world. His interactions with animals—including an orangutan named “Jenny”—were equally profound.

Darwin with daughter "Annie"

Darwin and his wife Emma had ten children together, two of whom died in infancy. I loved watching Darwin tell “Annie” stories of the people and animals he encountered in his travels.

Whatever your view of the theory of evolution, you’ll likely find this movie is less about the origin of species than the bond between father and beloved daughter. It’s quite enchanting and, in time, heartwrenching.

I was no less surprised, when checking for movie times online, to uncover something called “The Charles Darwin Experience.” It’s an all-improvisation comedy troupe at the University of Arizona in Tucson that performs Tuesday evenings at 10pm at the Gallagher Theater at the U of A Student Union Memorial Center.

For those more serious moments, there’s something called the “Darwinfest,” presented last year by Arizona State University to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species. Transcripts and podcasts are available online.

So there you have it—the fine art of Charles Darwin—via everything from film to iTunes. I’ll bet he never saw that one coming…


Note: “Creation” plays for a limited time at the Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. Visit www.harkinstheaters.com for show times.

  • To learn more about Darwin and related topics, visit the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change at www.shesc.asu.edu.
  • Save the date…The ASU Herberger Institute of Theatre and Film “New Work Series” will feature “Dreaming Darwin” by Lance Gharavi and Jacob Pinholster Feb. 11th to 19th next year at Prism Theatre on the ASU Tempe campus. Visit http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/ learn more about this piece as well as the institute’s newly-announced MainStage 2010-2011 Season.
  • If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., consider a visit to the newly-opened Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. Visit http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/humanorigins/?src=e_h to learn more.

Coming Friday: Sampling of family-friendly arts events happening this weekend

Funny happens: The art of improv

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…

“Funny happens.”


Coming up: Tales of an artist’s touring Declaration of Independence, Review of “Mary Poppins” at ASU Gammage, Why I ♥ blogging