How To Be Spontaneous

Interest in improv classes grows for Minneapolis theaters

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

As I hang up my coat, a dark-haired woman beside me asks if I know what I’m getting myself into. I cautiously shake my head and she laughs. “Me neither. But I figured I had to do something with my life.”

Right then, as that woman and I talk at the coat rack, I know we will be allies in this venture of a beginner improvisation class. Inside the Brave New Workshop Student Union in downtown Minneapolis, the room slowly fills with a buzz from nervous chatter and apprehensive laughter. Before class starts, the woman and I sit down near each other, a buffer seat in between, and make small talk like good Minnesotans do.

Soon our instructor, Jenni Lilledahl, comes in. She’s a bony woman who walks loosely with confidence. She also happens to be the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop. Lilledahl asks us each to explain why we’re at a Thursday night free beginner’s improvisation class.

“Try not to plan out what you’re going to say,” she says. I mentally scoff—like I’m going to speak in front of a large group without any idea of what I am going to say ahead of time.

“I want to get back into theater,” someone says and suddenly my mind flashes back to playing a maid in the Warbucks’ mansion in our seventh grade production of Annie. I remember the kids who knew how to be funny and vibrant on stage. I remember how I was not one of those kids.

“I’m here because I want to wake up,” another says. My heart begins to thump. These people all seem to have such good reasons for being here.

“I find myself leading more meetings at my job,” someone else says. “And I want to feel better about speaking at them.”

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

Soon I’m questioning everything. I think I’m pretty good at speaking in front of people. In class, I give good presentations and I have sung a solo once or twice in choir. But everyone else’s nerves seem to seep into me and my stomach tightens.

Finally, it’s my turn.

“Hi, I’m Lauren and—”

–and I can’t think of anything. For the first time in the history of my 21 years, I have nothing in my head. I begin to panic. The instructor encouraged us not to think ahead, yet here I am, doing exactly what she wants and it still feels awful.

“And I’m from Minnesota?” I finally spit out, sheepish and confused.

But suddenly, everyone cheers. I receive smattered applause and a few hoots for my silly answer. Perhaps they cheer for me just to ease my embarrassment. More than likely though, they cheer because on some level, that’s precisely why they are here too. Maybe I’m not the only Minnesotan who feels like she needs a change of pace and some new, more outgoing experiences. With the applause, I am told that I am in the right place to find that.

Our circle of 35-or-so wannabe improvisers was diverse. One makes a living selling cotton candy; one is writing a mystery novel; one is a tax attorney. But there’s a reoccurring theme. No one is here to be a professional improviser. They’re here because someone told them how learning improv would teach them to be a better listener and speaker in their everyday life.

“Thank you everyone for coming out tonight,” Lilledahl says. “You’re already braver than most.”

 

Yes, and…

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

Minneapolis, one of the country’s more vibrant and passion-filled improv communities, offers an abundance of improv classes—from Everyday Improv to Musical Improv to Advanced Performance Track Improv.

The three main improv venues in Minneapolis—The Brave New Workshop, Huge Theater, and Comedy Sportz—all offer classes to the public. Some theaters even rely on the revenue brought in from classes. The non-profit Brave New Workshop Student Union, separate from its for-profit parent, runs primarily on class revenue.

Money aside, the theaters place serious emphasis on their classes’ practicality.

“Everybody can give it a shot,” says Becky Wilkinson Hauser, the Student Union’s managing director. The classes offered all build on similar concepts of hearing out an idea, trusting it enough to accept it, and adding something of your own—also known as the theory of “Yes, and…”

While the classes themselves have long been available, they’ve become increasingly popular in the last few years. Dudley Riggs, the founder of the Brave New Workshop, compares his experiences with those of Lilledahl, who now co-owns the Workshop with her husband John Sweeney.

24 students doing improv, and she [Lilledahl] has over 200. It’s very successful,” Riggs says.

While people like Wilkinson Hauser believe in improv’s successful track record for overcoming personal fears or obstacles, Riggs takes a broader and more group-oriented approach to improv’s benefits.

“If you have a circle of people who are able to trust each other enough, you can develop something wonderful,” Riggs said. “The idea, I tell people, is you go into a scene trying to make everyone else look good. So that’s kind of selfless and Minnesota Nice—but I do think it works.”

 

Pushing positive

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

So what happens when a student who planned to take a class to improve their public speaking ends up falling in love with improvisation? The answer is more classes.

Butch Roy, executive director of Huge Theater, teaches several classes, one of which is an advanced course entirely devoted to structure.

In the basement of the building, Roy holds class, intermittently stepping into a scene when needed. The longtime improviser has a bright red Mohawk and a pensive face that contradicts his cartoonish laugh. He constantly encourages his students, yet only enters a scene when it needs saving. He affirms all suggestions with an exclamation of “Fuck yeah!” and decisions with a bright “Kickass!”

In classes like these, which lack the audience that improvisers normally use to gauge the scene’s success, feedback is essential. Yet on nights when a class performs its showcase (a class graduation of sorts), new improvisers get their first taste of an audience in the theater’s house, which has fairly limited seating despite its name. Since Huge focuses on long form improvisation—sets can be as long as 45 minutes—the depth of scenes and characters is even more important.

When creating an entire scene from scratch, Roy reminds his class that there’s a lot to do. In his class on structure, he explains the importance of going beyond just an interesting location for a scene. Instead, he says, the improvisers must try to convey what the space means for a character.

Later, Roy instructs the class to improvise a two-person scene. When two men enter acting like buddies, Roy grins.

“Awesome! People who like each other!” He says. After the scene finishes and earns a rumble of laughter, Roy launches into the idea of “pushing positive” and its effect on creativity.

“Improvisers are not nearly as unpredictable as we like to think we are,” Roy says. He encourages the students to carefully avoid stepping into a trap of conflict. People naturally look for conflict, and in doing so, they create the same scenes again and again.

When pushing positive, improvisers create a more innovative scene because it’s one the audience hasn’t heard again and again. There are new character back-stories and a different lesson to be learned.

 

 

Going pro

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

Improvisation has a strong return on investment. In a fast-paced world where efficiency squashes creativity, a single sampler class can help participants slow down and learn to be more accepting. More classes, advanced or otherwise, have proven to push boundaries of traditional thought.

It’s no surprise that “going pro” is proven to be just as beneficial. While performing as an improviser is mostly about being on stage (and being effortlessly funny), there’s also an element of education because of the classes and business workshops offered.

At Comedy Sportz, located in Calhoun Square, high school leagues compete against each other, businesses participate in workshops, the public can take an introductory class, and improv alum can take advanced classes.

Inside the angled, black-walled theater, audiences pack in for sold out weekend shows. An underwhelming stage in a corner of the room helps draw the audience in close for an intimate show of short form improv. Improvisers go around beforehand, breaking the ice the audience doesn’t have to, by auctioning off ridiculous items like tissues, hand sanitizer, and “free awkward silence.” By the time the “referee” steps on stage and explains to the audience how everything works (4 minute sets, two teams of improvisers compete against each other for points), everyone is well settled and ready to give their most creative suggestions to start the scenes.

More classes, advanced or otherwise, have proven to push boundaries of traditional thought.

Perhaps the audience involvement at Comedy Sportz is just the first step in getting new improvisers. Comedy Sportz player and improviser Casey Haeg advises everyone to take an improv class, saying that it helps people think faster and know how to react to a situation better.

More fast-paced improv like short form is what Doug Neithercott says is the “mass appeal entertainment of improv.”

Neithercott currently serves as the theater’s artistic director, having worked his way up on stages since he was just eight years old.

“We get a lot of people who will come and take our classes, who never want to be performers,” Neithercott says. “They just want to do something fun. They want to step out of their shell.”

Even for those who are outgoing, Neithercott praises improv as being a great tool for the corporate world.

“There’s a natural connection to improv and business because so much of business, you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” He says. “You have to go with the flow.”

 

Not just a means to an end

Yet improv in Minneapolis has proven itself to be different from other major metropolitan areas.

As Haeg puts it, Minneapolis isn’t quite as saturated compared to places like Chicago or New York.

“No one here thinks Lorne Michaels is in the audience. You’re not going to get discovered here. It lends to a more friendly environment.”

MJ Marsh, another local improviser agrees.

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

“I’ve been lucky, I’ve been traveling the past two, three years to a lot of cities,” Marsh says. “I’ve only seen a few that are really as tight-knit and open as this community. The people in it are just happy to be a part of it.”

Marsh calls improv “addictive” and the community “incestuous.” Marsh is one of many performers who started in college and continued to perform and teach at multiple theaters—all in addition to a day job.

The crossover of performers doesn’t add to an air of competition, but rather, one of collaboration. Since improvisers aren’t concerned with getting noticed, they dive into improv with a wholehearted passion for creativity and fun.

“No one here thinks Lorne Michaels is in the audience. You’re not going to get discovered here. It lends to a more friendly environment.”

While some may take that first improv class just to work on their public speaking skills, more often than not, people fall in love with it. As improv’s principles become more familiar, it becomes less about performance and more about everyday life. Like life, improv is always changing, Marsh says.

“Improv is not a means to an end. It’s the end. It’s all we want to do.”

At the end of our sampler class, we are asked about what we learned. One person raises a hand and says, exasperated, “It’s hard!” Almost everyone nods in agreement. Yet another person chimes in, “Yeah, but it sure is fun.”

After 90 minutes, I no longer want to nervously turn around and scurry from the room. Instead, I find myself eyeing the table with the sign up sheet for beginner classes. With immediate gratification and communication techniques, a single night of improv proved to be much more than just the sampler it was advertised as.