"Improv is a failure-based art form," says Greg Tavares, founding member of The Have Nots! and the teacher for tonight's introductory class at Theatre 99. "Because usually in life, when we don't know what we're supposed to do next, we fail."
Ah, but that's also exactly what gives spontaneous performance its undeniable kick. Tavares adds, "When you experience this, it will either create so much juice in your system that you'll never want to do it again or you'll start wanting to do it more and more."
He has a point. All our lives, we've been taught to learn the answers, repeat routines until we know them by heart, and get the daily grind down to a science. But improvisational theater, especially in its comedic aspect, just says, "Aw, isn't that sweet!" to our rote memorization, then chucks an imaginary ninja star at our heads while yelling, "Think fast!" The odd thing is, that can really make for some very funny stuff happening on stage.
The proof is in the pudding at Theatre 99. Over the last 15 years, the theater has become the comedy cornerstone of the local arts scene. They balance their annual frenzied romps through Piccolo Fringe and the Charleston Comedy Festival (co-produced with Charleston City Paper) with a steady stream of improv and stand-up comedy acts.
This is, after all, the happy hunting grounds of The Have Nots!; the shows Laugh for a Lincoln, Improv Riot, Impov Smackdown; and more wandering wits and wisecrackers than you could shake a ham bone at.
And, like any forward-thinking arts organization, Theatre 99 plays a role in education, and this is what has brought Tavares onstage with 15 neophyte merrymakers for an introductory class this fine evening.
The first lesson may even seem a bit counterintuitive: improv comedy isn't at all about getting up on stage and telling jokes. It's about cooperation and communication. The funny just happens, emerging out of that agreement between the players on the stage and even the audience members.
To give us a taste of what he means, he turns us all into ninjas. One big circle of ninjas, some of us hunkered down like sumo wrestlers, others assuming a horse stance, and still others just tightening their faces all fierce-like. There's no coaching involved. Teacher says, "Ninja!" and each one of us demonstrates whatever pose or mannerism that word happens to evoke in our imaginations at the moment.
Then we all start chucking ninja knives at one another. It is a surprisingly bloodless exercise because, yeah, we're that good. Well, that and the fact that the ninja knives are make believe, of course.
What we learn from this exercise, and others, is that the improvisational process is one of co-creation, of making and accepting basic offers about the reality of a scene.
It's a process that means if you say we met Bigfoot last weekend up in the Cherokee Foothills, I don't argue about it. Instead, I say, "Yes, and ... Bigfoot looks exceptionally fine in a little black dress." Then the ball is back in your court. Once we've accepted the reality of meeting Bigfoot and getting the beast decked out in Donna Karan, we could end up literally anywhere.
"There's only one way to do improv: fully committed to having fun," Tavares says. "You don't have to make an effort to be silly because we already understand that the silliness is going to happen anyway."
The class is 90 minutes of fun in a safe space. Tavares takes extra care to make sure that students can hang their nervousness up at the door. Actually, a goof up or slip up in improv often makes the scene funnier.
More than a few of the folks in the class sign up with a view to one day take a shot at performing. I myself signed up for the class because, hello, I write about the arts and besides, it sounded like it would be (and it was) a lot of fun. But the class has benefits extending far outside the arts.
After all, this is all about give and take, cooperation and communication, affirming and agreeing. This is the stuff of real-life interaction and trust. It's about actually listening to what the other guy or gal is saying — because you're going to have to expand upon that — instead of just mentally rehearsing your next brilliant line while waiting for him or her to finish.
Those of us who have suffered through staff meetings full of arguments would probably welcome a "Yes, and ..." tossed into the daily grind every now and then. Get the word out to enough people and this improv comedy stuff just might save the world.
Okay, maybe not. But even so, it's a whole lot of fun, and there are certainly worse ways to peck your way out of your shell. It teaches you how to play well with others, think on your feet, and, in general, just relax and roll with the group vibe.
Actually, come to think of it, improv is a whole lot like that time we saw that ninja slow-dancing with Bigfoot in the middle of King Street.
Yes, and ...