Have I mentioned it’s been a strange month?
I’m waiting to move to Iowa. Saying goodbye to Central Pennsylvania. Happy Valley. Saying goodbye to Happy Valley Improv.
I’ve been studying, teaching, directing, and doing improv theatre for twenty years. That’s a long time to do something. To do anything.
Part of my story with improv has included Happy Valley Improv.
Over the last six years, I’ve sunk all sorts of time and energy into helping to create an improv community in State College, Pennsylvania. I started with a few others in a church basement on Thursday nights. Eventually, we were performing at The State Theatre. And then we were teaching classes, facilitating workshops, and holding auditions. And then we opened our own space. The Blue Brick Theatre is across the street from Penn State. In an alley. Talk about edgy.
I’ve put my soul into Happy Valley Improv. Into The Blue Brick Theatre is named after the blue ball of energy. What’s the blue ball of energy? An imaginary ball I’ve passed around circles n my classes since 2002. Carli was a 9th grader in my Drama Workshop in like 2009 when she earnestly told me that the ball was real. And blue. And so it’s been real and blue to me ever since. And now it is real and blue to people who show up at Happy Valley Improv. Wild.
In a few weeks, I’m walking away from Happy Valley Improv. Have I mentioned it’s been a strange month?
Improv, if it is done with care, is a fundamentally collaborative art-form. This is true of most theatre, but it is especially true of improv. This is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to improv.
I’ve watched a million improv shows. Produced a billion improv shows. Participated in or facilitated a zillion improv activities. My math might be a little off here, but stick with me. One of the things that keeps bringing me back to improv is the endless challenge of cultivating and participating in an inherently collective experience.
It seems really important to me for people to learn to be together. Improv, if it is done with care, challenges and disciplines people to practice the important work of being together. Improv, if it is approached without care, is just another excuse for people to be bad to each other. To exert power over others despite what is healthy for the group (or even themselves). People seem better at being bad to each other than being good to each other. Which is why improv ought to be approached with care, and ought to be practiced with discipline.
For me, improv has very little to do with being funny. Yes, people often laugh when people come together and enter into spontaneous moments. There’s joy in sharing consciousness with others, in coming together peacefully. And joy leads to laughter. And laughter is how improv is usually marketed in the United States. Because people market everything in the United States. Comedy shows and whatnot. But comedy is not what keeps bringing me back to improv. Improv is a practice and a theory that can allow us to form a more peaceful way of being and, in turn, help us to connect with others across difference.
God that seems important right now.
I’ve cautioned myself to work in service to the group during my time with Happy Valley Improv. To avoid imposing my ego or seeking validation. I don’t think using improv as a vehicle for your personality is a good thing. I don’t think it’s healthy. Celebrity is great, but improv can offer something different.
Of course, I’m human. So I’ve ended up imposing my ego and seeking validation countless times during my work with Happy Valley Improv. And I’m sure I’ve hurt people, even when I’m trying to practice something different. I’ve been a founder, a performer, a teacher, a facilitator, and an artistic director for the theatre company. And now I’m walking away from it. Giving it away, because that’s what improv is about.
Here’s improv. In a nutshell. Or a paragraph. You make something with others. You don’t try to control it or own it. You let it be what it can be in the moment (because that is all it can be). Then you let it go. And then move forward and do something differently next time, safe in the knowledge that whatever you made is part of you as you move into the next thing you do. Forever.
Improv provides a way to practice the endless work of becoming something else. We’re always changing, even though so many of us put so much energy into keeping things the same. Improv, for me, is about learning to give into our endless evolution into something else.
It’s been a sad, strange month. Attending shows or practices. Being a part of Happy Valley Improv’s first national festival. I will miss this improv company, yes. I’ve sunk so much time, so much energy into helping to build this community. But I also know improv is about always moving forward with faith that was has been has been and what will be will be. And I’m open to that, in part, because my experience with improv has taught me to be open to that.
What a strange moment in my life.