By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Rick Sealock|
I signed up for an improv class — as in improvisational comedy. Why? Because this is my Fear Factor. I’d rather eat slugs while jumping off a building in a Plexiglas box of water than stand on a stage and talk in front of people.
“Oh, it’ll be fun,” everybody reassures me. “You’ll learn new things about yourself.” “Your inner performer will come out!”
My inner heckler just snorts at that one.
The Improv Olympic West Training Center — the name invokes Andy Dick as an SS officer — caters mainly to actors but also to non-performers who want to “explore dangerous territory in a supportive environment.”
Let the danger begin.
Three Hundred and Fifteen Dollars Later . . .
You enter the Black Box Theater through a discreet doorway a half block down Cosmo Street. Sixteen of us sit on chairs in the square black room, leafing through Truth in Comedy, “the manual of improvisation” written by I.O. founders Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson. It’s the only required reading for the class and features testimonials from John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chris Farley, along with other famous funny people who aren’t dead. The book covers the building blocks of performing “the Harold,” a long-form improv game invented by Halpern and Close.
At this point, I’m not sure what the Harold is, but I have seen more than a few episodes of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and can throw out non sequiturs from the couch that are just as zany as Drew Carey’s.
Our teacher, Jeff (real name: Paul Vallaincourt, but let’s just call him Jeff to protect his identity), has the affable looks of a cuddlier Nicolas Cage. Tattooed up one forearm are Chinese characters that must be some Zen saying related to improv that probably means “I [Heart] Del Close” — who’s considered kind of an improv deity, by the way.
The other students in the class, mostly 20-somethings, are all actors, except for one woman who has quit her corporate job to try something new. A few have experience with Improv Olympic in Chicago and other groups in Boston, another hotbed of spontaneous theater. The magic word among them is “Emerson,” the Beantown college name they drop the way would-be novelists mention “Iowa Writers Workshop.” Jeff asks us to say our names and tell why we’re taking the class. Now, if we were any other group of strangers in a classlike setting, this would take no more than several minutes total. But this is not just any group of strangers. These handsome humans are actors. They don’t just proclaim, “My name is Sandy, and I thought it would be fun.” They share their emotional back stories: “When I was 2, I used to give soliloquies from my crib; it was then my mother knew performing was my calling.” One spritelike woman tells about her day job as manager of “one of the best restaurants in Los Angeles” and how she gave up acting but recently came to the realization that she can no longer stay away from performing, and relates a very long, very detailed story about an incident at work. Her story isn’t terribly interesting, but her delivery could make Vanessa Redgrave weep.
With introductions over, Jeff commands us to hop onstage, which is actually just a wooden floor, so at least I don’t have to worry about falling off and improvising what a broken arm feels like. I realize that the last time I was on a stage was to accept my high school diploma, which still bears the stains from my sweaty palms.
Jeff starts us off with a warm-up called “scrambling,” which is just like it sounds. The actors, who are used to — and adore — being onstage, have an advantage over me, but I scurry in random circular patterns like a pro. Next is “Pass the Clap,” an exercise where we stand in a circle and, using eye contact to determine the recipient, clap hands simultaneously with that person. It has to do with alertness, so that you know when you are being addressed in a scene, I think.
It’s Tuesday and I Suck
By the second week, the one student older than me is no longer in the class. I am now the Methuselah of Level 1.
We do several rounds of “It’s Tuesday, and . . .” This two-person scene game starts off with somebody completing the phrase, and then the partner repeats the last part of the line. The goal is to reveal the relationship between you and your partner. The goal is notto be funny. In fact, improv, I quickly learn, is not about being funny. This comes as a surprise to me. Jokes can kill a scene, Jeff tells us. Funny, he promises, is what comes out of the relationship that you develop in the scene. This is the first of many times we will be told improv’s no-no’s, which include talking about the future or past, denying what your partner says, and simply listing things.