I’ve done theater in one form or another since I was eight years old. I started in classes then moved to the stage and loved every second of it. But improv. Improv had me shaking in my boots. Improv was a whole different beast and I didn’t feel ready. However, from the moment Heather, Brian, and I were greeted by Amy Angelilli of The Adventure Project, I could tell my assumptions about what to expect in an improv class were completely off base. The rest of the students were just normal people, not particularly theatrical, attending the class for a variety of reasons – a new hobby, a change of pace, getting ahead in their job, or getting out of their shell. None of them were planning to join Second City in Chicago but just wanted the everyday benefits that a six-week improv course could give you. And as Amy walked us through what she teaches in the classes, it was clear that benefits were numerous.
“Improv isn’t about being smart, funny, witty,” says Amy. “It’s not about telling jokes. Often it’s not even about comedy. It is always about working with your ensemble/team and actively supporting each other by staying in the present, connecting, and accepting the reality that is discovered together.” Each class focuses on themes that bolster this message. Amy teaches you to say yes – be positive – stay present, make your partner look brilliant, look for connection, allow yourself to be changed, and serve the bigger picture.
These are all big accomplishments that push you beyond the world of improv, but Amy explores them during each class with a series of games. She starts with quick and lighthearted warm-ups that force you to keep your focus and connect with other students. After each warm-up, Amy asked the class to acknowledge, embrace, and examine the moments in which they failed.
After warm-ups, we moved into the more substantial games that centered around the week’s theme (ours was connection). We spent three minutes finding things in common with a partner, four minutes making silent eye contact. None of the games were complicated, but all were significant and Amy discussed the meaning behind each, their relation to both improv and life.
Improv isn’t all about scene work, crazy jokes, and making people laugh. Improv is “we before me” – choosing the team, the group, the relationships before yourself. And having some fun while you do it.
After having such a positive experience at the beginner’s class with Amy, I was curious to see the work of more advanced improv students. So later in the week, I decided to attend a Valentine’s Day-themed improv event called Three Blind Dates. Amy was partnering up with members of the Mad Cowford improv group in Jacksonville to bring a little crazy, on-the-fly comedy to the Corizon Cinema & Cafe.
Before the show, I got to chat with students from some of Amy’s advanced classes and their reasons for attending improv were much the same as the beginners. They walked through the doors wanting connection and strength, looking for it out of their comfort zone. And they loved it and kept coming back.
The show itself was Amy and five other actors going on impromptu speed dates with each other. They then acted out the love stories (both successful and unsuccessful) with partners that the audience picked for them. While the show was undoubtedly hilarious, the skill of the actors on stage stole the spotlight. Such an ability to make connections and react with spot-on timing was a skill that took years to cultivate. Every chair in the theatre was filled and the audience was enthusiastic.
Though the talent that this improv show displayed was far beyond the reach of our beginner’s class, the lessons that Amy taught were still foundational to the scenes I saw. The key was connection, “we before me,” and making your partner (and the rest of the cast) look good. Whether you’re standing before an audience or just pursuing a connection, the lessons we learned with the Adventure Project will carry you through a lifetime.
Photography by Brian Miller