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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Improv: the Cult

I just finished reading Tina Fey's new book Bossypants.

Fey devotes a large portion of the book to discussing improv. It wasn't until I was reading about the culture she found herself immersed in that I realized NOT EVERYONE DOES THIS. I have been taking my role in the improv cult for granted.

I don't ever assume that everyone went to nursing school. Or that everyone else grew up in West Roxbury. Yet I forget that years of rhyming drills weren't part of everyone else's college experience. I forget that not everyone spends their spare time playing make believe. It's easy I guess, because most of my friends have a unique day job that I know little to nothing about, and then at night they do what I do. Everyone I associate with has the same basic story that I do about finding and falling in love with improv. We don't have to talk about it, because although we went through it separately it was a shared experience. It's just what we all did, and what we all do. I'm not talking about being part of a show-biz social circle, although at there is certainly some overlap. I'm not even talking about belonging to the "theater kid" clique, although I have those groups of friends as well. Improv ingrains itself into you in ways you don't even consciously realize. To quote Tina Fey exactly: "studying improv literally changed my life."

I once posted a piece about what it means to apply the rules of improv in a medical workplace. This was a response piece to Liz Caradonna's blog post about the benefits of having a trainer improviser in the office workplace: Beyond the Funny.

When I joined The Yellow Submarines in high school, I had no way of knowing I was beginning a life long journey down a new way of life. I don't care that it sounds over dramatic to you. It isn't.

The Subs and I watched Whose Line is It Anyway (the British version) and thought "we can do that." So we did- learning and perfecting short form games each week. We went to see shows at Improv Boston and Improv Asylum, idolizing grown ups who had somehow made improv their livelihood.*  Still, improv was just a game to me until I auditioned into Mission:IMPROVable at UMass.

My time in Mission was the most serious I have ever been about  improv. We rehearsed three times a week. We had a show every Saturday. If you could not make all three rehearsals, you couldn't perform in the show on Saturday. If you missed too many rehearsals a semester, the director would talk with you about your commitment to the group. We hired alumni to come back and give workshops. We raised money and went to Chicago every year on Spring Break to see shows and take workshops  at iO and The Annoyance. We did corporate shows, and college road shows during the school year. In the summer time we played at birthday parties for friends, and tried to busk on the streets of Boston.

We used to do a warm up called "Yes, Let's" and the attitude behind the game permeated our performances and our friendships. Want to make up new structures on stage, with a live audience? Yes, let's. Want to try to do an entire show backwards?  Yes, let's. We failed sometimes, but that was half the game. the other half of the time we were brilliant. We were fearless in our love of the art.

By the end of sophomore year with only a handful of  exceptions, EVERYONE I interacted with on any kind of regular basis was an improviser. My friends. My roommates. The guys I dated. When I left college I was more concerned with what I was going to do for my last show with Mission than I was with any other part of graduating.

My social circles now are slightly more diverse by virtue of my job, but not by much.  My involvement in the Improv Boston community as well as my role at Improv Asylum see to that. Plus, most of my best friends from Mission are still in touch, some on a weekly basis.

So I really do forget that not everyone knows how to hold an "object work" coffee cup,  and that not everyone knows cares what a "Harold" is. Most of my coworkers during the day won't "mirror"  funny voices and don't "yes and," jokes. Instead they laugh and then ask me how my stand up is going and if this is part of my routine.

Sometimes I wonder what I'll do when I eventually move on from Improv Asylum. Until I read Bossypants it was easy to imagine that I might just retire. Try something new entirely. But now I know that even if I took a break from performing for a while (which, to quell any rumors before they start, is not my plan), I would never, ever be able to leave the cult. You take it all with you. Like a language that you never forget how to speak, like your handwriting but when you're not thinking making it neat, like the side you sleep on in your bed when no one else is there. It's just who you are.

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