Creating an Improv Community in the Keys is New Found Joy

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Two improvisers, 5 workshops, 63 students in 24 hours at the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District in Islamorada, FL.  The ages of students were anywhere from 8 to 60+ and the expectations of the participants and the instructors varied greatly.  Betsy Keteltas invited us down for a 2nd time this year to host a bunch of improv workshops.  A fan of improv herself, Betsy understands the benefits of improv.  The first trip we held 3 generic sessions.  1 for adults and 2 for kids.  The response was overwhelmingly positive, so we were invited back.

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This trip had more focus and energy because the people knew what to expect.  There were a couple of familiar faces in most of the groups we saw which provided a sense of experience and confidence that didn’t exist 7 months ago.  Fascinating.  Each event held a special place in my heart, but I wanted to talk about the most rewarding part of the trip.

On Friday afternoon, cast member Julie Cotton and myself had already taught two workshops.  We were ready for the last group of the day.  As we pulled up to Morada Way, we recognized the body language of our final group to be lackluster.  There were 5 of them.  Teens.  You could tell none of them wanted to be there, but for whatever reason, they were.  The chaperone sat to the side and away from the kids.  When I say that these kids didn’t want to be there, I mean it.  As we walked up to introduce ourselves one of the students said “What time is dinner?  How long do we have to be here?”

Got it.  Challenge accepted.  You have no clue who we are or what we do and we are the bookmark preventing you from 5 pm dinner.  I get it.

We stand up and warm up … Julie and I start with crazy 8’s.  Goofy.  I see we get some of them to crack a smile.  Good.  That’s all I need.  They are paying attention while wearing a mask of apathy.  I’ll take it.

“Who’s ever acted before?” – All of them raise their hands.  Good.

“Who wants to do a scene?” – Nothing.

“Who wants to learn how to tell a joke instantly?”  – Interest.

I teach them innuendo, pick up artist and things you never hear.  And yes, we made some dirty jokes and yes, they were funny.  We finally found our in.

“Who wants to do a scene?” – Nothing.  Dammit.  I thought we were in.

“Who wants to see Julie and I perform?” – Heads nod.  Julie and I perform.  It clicks.  We get volunteers.  We have basic scenes.  One of the students has checked out and refuses to participate.  No problem.  We’ll come back to you.

The scenes really begin to pick up in momentum.  Character work, laughter, emotion and connection. It’s clear that we’ve been working with kids that haven’t had the easiest go at life and this type of work is stirring up mixed activity.

Julie calmly finds her way to one of the students.  She quietly says “Why aren’t you comfortable participating?” The student begins to talk.  I can hear some, but not all of the dialogue, but I see what’s happening.  Julie is engaging her into a smaller version of improv.  She finishes the scene and the student looks up to see that all of us have been paying attention.  For a moment, she feels important.

I ask if anyone would like to perform a scene with me.  One of the male students takes a chair.  “Who can we be to each other?”

“Cousins.  You can’t be brothers though. (Difference in skin color)”

“Sure we could be brothers, I just need to hit the beach for a few hours.” (Laughter)

We start a beautiful scene about two cousins.  One is asking the other’s advice on how to pick up women. I’m playing the inexperienced cousin.

“Well, you gotta make them buy you stuff. Don’t ever buy them anything.  If they buy you stuff, then they feel like they always have to.”

It’s clear in that moment that he is speaking his truth.  And he never diverts from this character.  The scene is one of the very best improv scenes I’ve ever acted in because my partner was not in it to be funny.  He was there to help his cousin.  He understood the games I would initiate during the scene and he played them perfectly.  He realized I was playing the game of the kid that didn’t understand any of the language he was using (because I didn’t) and instead of breaking character, he doubled down and began to explain slang with more slang.  The kids were engaged.  All of them.  Julie stopped for the first time in the day and became an audience member.

Then it happened.  Another student found his way into the scene.  The brother.  Upset that he wasn’t getting this advice.  I called in one of the female students identifying her as my cousin’s sister… or as my cousin pointed out… my cousin.  We were flawlessly engaged in a 5 person scene.  Nobody over-talking, everyone understanding roles and some of the best connections you’ll find anywhere on stage.

The disengaged student began to wander on the property.  My cousin in the scene yelled out “MOM!”.  The student paused.  So then I yelled “MOM!” We both began shouting “MOM!”  She came back.  We brought her into this 6 person scene and she was engaged.

I felt accomplished.  The power of improv.  These kids went from dreading this trip to craving so much more.  I could tell they wanted to be there forever!

Then the chaperone opened up the van to go to dinner and they were gone before I could say much of a goodbye 🙂  3 of them looked back and asked if we would be back to do this again.  Ok, maybe they didn’t want to do this forever, but they liked it. And yes.  Yes. We will be back.  Please stay out of trouble.  You’re all geniuses.  We need you.

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