Always More Room to Improv: The Emergence of the Improv Community in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area

Feature Story By: Angelie M.

Imagine a junior high school boy trembling in front of his peers with a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms. “When it was my turn to speak, I shakily made my way up to the podium, gripped my notes as if they would fly away, stood before the microphone, and froze. I don’t know if it was the crowd size, the insecurity of fearing my peers’ opinions, or if it was the feeling that Bob’s entire campaign hinged on what I said in the next few minutes, but I froze and could not utter a word. Bob lost the campaign,” Torch Theatre performer Shane Shellenbarger said.

This story is one of many reasons that drive people to enroll in improv classes at local improv venues, and people in Phoenix are no exception.

For those unfamiliar, improv is a form of live theatre entertainment in which all characters and scenes are created in the moment without any pre-planning and are inspired by spontaneous suggestions from the audience or another source. Theatre venues devoted mainly to improv usually offer improv classes as well, such the renown Upright Citizens Brigade in both Los Angeles and New York City.

The improv community in the Phoenix metropolitan area has grown over the last two years seeing an increase in people taking classes, volunteering or performing at local improv venues. The number of improv opportunities in the Valley has increased over the past several years. National Comedy Theatre Phoenix and The Torch Theatre both established in 2007, and the Phoenix Improv Festival is now in its 12th year of existence. “The Torch Theatre alone has grown immensely since the opening of its own space at 4721 [North Central Avenue in Phoenix] in 2011. We had a small loyal community before, but within the last two years we have doubled our community – with twice as many graduating classes as we had from 2007 to 2011,” said Torch Theatre training center manager, board member and co-founder Jacqueline Arend.

Torch Theatre teacher, performer, board member and co-founder Jose Gonzalez noticed an awareness of improv growing on a national level as well. “Part of that is because of how many people in television and film have a background in improv. There have always been people in the entertainment industry, whether actors, writers, directors or producers, who had done improv as they were coming up,” Gonzalez said. Former Saturday Night Live player and Bridesmaid leading lady Kristen Wiig is an example as an alumni of the renown improv training center The Groundlings School in Los Angeles.

Arend adds, “Nationally, we have definitely seen a growth in the community, although festival travel and folks coming in for PIF [Phoenix Improv Festival]. We knew folks out there, but with the new addition of Nick Armstrong’s Camp ImprovUtopia [in Cambria, Calif.], you are now seeing communities from all around the country coming together to learn.” Nick Armstrong and Bill Binder founded and introduced their new social media platform for improvisers nationwide known as National Improv Network, or NIN, at the last Camp ImprovUtopia gathering this past May 2013, attesting to the significant presence of improvisers nationally.

The longest running improv company in the Phoenix area is Jester’Z Improv in Scottsdale that has been making people laugh and teaching students improv since 2001. “We seldom have a small crowd anymore, and more often than not our shows sell out!” according to Jester’Z actor, director and teacher Paul Green. Popular improv theatres in the Valley include The Torch Theatre in Phoenix, National Comedy Theatre in Mesa, ComedySchools.com in Tempe, Chaos Comedy Improv in Phoenix and Outliars throughout the metropolitan area, and people are not just going to these theatres to laugh.

Taking improv classes are not only useful for building skills for acting or just as a hobby; they also provide other forms of self-improvement. “You start to listen better and notice how most people really don’t listen that well to each other as much as wait for other people to stop speaking so they can speak. Lessons from the study of improv help people learn how to take bigger risks, shrink their self-judgement of ideas, which opens them up creatively, and can improve how we interact and work with others,” Gonzalez added.

Torch Theatre improviser and tech volunteer Jeff Cardello also sees the benefits of practicing improv. “I think it has definitely made me more comfortable talking in large groups of people.”

These improv communities not only breed laughter and self-improvement, but also life-long friendships and relationships. National Comedy Theatre Phoenix co-owner, co-director, teacher and producer Kristina Lenz recalls how improv shaped her social life. “Because I started at such a young age, it became the framework of my social life basically. I met my husband Dorian, who is also the other co-owner and director, at an improv show, and ever since then, we’ve done improv together, and now it’s my career.” Another National Comedy Theatre Phoenix improviser and workshop teacher Anthony Thornton attests to this common theme. “Met a lot of cool people. It kind of encompassed mine and my wife’s life because we’re here all the time. The only friends I hang out with on a consistent basis are other improvisers,” Thornton said. “I met the love of my life and future wife, Nina Miller, through improv,” Gonzalez added. Arend shared a similar story. “It led to the relationship with my husband.”

Learning about long form improvisation allowed Torch Theatre theatre manager Clifton Gray to find his purpose. “I went to a show in March of 2011, and I was hooked. I found this, and I was like, oh, this is it. This is what I am. Being here.”

“I now have no fear of speaking, singing, or performing in front of an audience, thanks to the instructors and students of The Torch Theatre,” Shellenbarger said. He is a graduate of the Torch Theatre’s long form improv training center and performs with his musical improv troupe Nerdy Virgin Birds.

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Angelie is an ASU student of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is also an improviser and volunteer of both The Torch Theater in Phoenix and National Comedy Theatre in Mesa. @AngelieMeehan

Special thanks to @JCardello, @TFG46, @KrissyLenz, @ATComedy, @Jose602, @JackersTheShoe, @WHBinder, Enrique Grove and Paul Green.

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The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Days 11 & 12

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I can’t believe how fast my six weeks in Basic of The Groundlings School came and went. I’m a little homesick and still looking forward to driving back home to Arizona, but I’m also already feeling Los Angeles withdrawal knowing that I will be soon departing the land of entertainment dreamers like myself. I want to come back. After graduation, I will definitely be looking for jobs out in L.A. to finally make the move.
I was in redemption mode during the last week of class, in delusional hopes of redeeming my gradual performance regression throughout the course. I signed up for the twice-a-week for six weeks version of Basic, where our class met up every Wednesday and Friday afternoon from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. On the second to last day of class, we began with our usual Character Walk exercise on stage and used facial expressions this time to develop original characters and monologues. Next, we did “Last Letter” scenes, in which the first letter of the first word of a character’s dialogue would be based on the last letter of the word that the other character used in their dialogue. This took a lot of concentration and brainstorming on my part, but it was also a fun challenge for me. The following bullet points are the notes our instructor gave:

  • No frequent spacing between sentences.
  • Don’t look like you’re thinking. Stay in character’s emotional state to cheat the fact that you’re still thinking of what to say next.
  • Even if scene didn’t end up taking off, maintaining the use of improv techniques makes scene forgivable.

The last new thing we did that Wednesday were “Types” scenes, in which two students were each given a specific character trait that the others in class were not used to seeing them portray. Due to my frequent unrefined character choices, the suggested trait given to me was “classy.” =P This scene was yet again another scene in which I didn’t help establish the who, what, where and why right off the bat, but at least I was able to try and exercise a character choice I’m not used to doing. We were told to work on paying off the traits given to us a little more.

Then, Friday, June 14th came along: the final day of Basic in which I would find out my fate of one of the following results: passing and moving on to Intermediate, not passing but repeating Basic, or not passing and being dismissed from The Groundlings School forever. (Although, I’m sure the last outcome is reserved for hopeless and incorrigible troublemakers.) As much as I wanted to hear that I passed Basic, I also didn’t want an undeserved pass if I didn’t meet the high expectations. We began the last day of class with another Character Walk warm up where we each started out moving on stage like real animals (panthers). Then, we took some of those movements and personified those mannerisms into human characters with original monologues along the fourth wall. Finally, we each began the two rounds of scenes leading up to our one-on-one conferences with our instructor to find out our fates. In both of my two final scenes, I was paired up with a partner chosen for me. In the first scene, I played an Asian-American mother who had just finished sewing her daughter’s wedding dress, only to end up admitting to her daughter that she was biologically her mother but was originally conceived using her egg to be the child for another couple. Due to her strong attachment to her egg, my character had stolen her biological daughter from the couple to raise on her own, and hadn’t admitted this to her daughter until now. I know, pretty crazy story, but according to our instructor, it was the best work I had ever done in class, especially with my emotional escalation and commitment throughout the scene. To hear him say that I had finally met my “rite of passage” required for class was music to my ears as this is what I had been trying to figure out how to do. Too bad I hadn’t figured this out and been consistent with it earlier in the class, but hey, we each learn at our own pace. In my second scene, I fell back into my old habits of not being believable; not establishing the who, what, where and why at the very top of the scene; and not sticking to the first main idea/game introduced in the scene. I played a friend and/or babysitter (not clearly established), and I was at F.A.O. Schwartz with my friend/babysitting client in awe of all the toys because my character was not allowed to have toys as a child. This was definitely not the stronger scene of the two, but I was glad the first scene went well. After every student did their two finals scenes, we all left the classroom and waited in the break room down the hall to find out our results one-by-one.

Finally, my turn rolled around, and I sat once again in the “hot seat” with our instructor for my final conference with him. He asked if I had anything I wanted to say before he continued. I thanked him for everything I learned in class, and that even though this was the most challenging improv class I had ever taken, I was glad that it allowed me to grow. Then, he revealed my fate: I did not pass, but I’m eligible to retake Basic. I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I was going to feel since I also wanted to pass only if I deserved it, but it made me wish I had pushed myself harder in the beginning to get these concepts down to spare having to pay for this class again in the future. I was told that I am a funny person (thank goodness), but that I need to, of course, establish the who, what, where and why quicker at the top of the scene; work on matching my emotions to what I’m saying; consider taking acting classes, work on escalating emotions to a 10, and to work on being consistent overall. Then, our one-on-one conference pleasantly ended with a warm good-bye and send off back to my school and life back home in Arizona, and a quick promotion of this blog on my whole Basic experience. 🙂

Our whole class and our instructor all ended up hanging out at a local place called The Dark Room where we conversed, ate and drank before the The Groundlings School Advanced Improv Student Showcase on the new G3 stage at 8:30 pm. It was there where I found out that I was one of two people in class who had not passed to go onto Intermediate, but it was reassuring to also find out that two of those in my class who did pass had also not passed the first time they took Basic. I’m just glad I was given a second chance to prove I can do this. I will miss everyone I met during this L.A. improv journey, and I’m grateful for the mistakes I made and the knowledge and experiences I gained from taking this risk. This “groundling” will try again to climb out of the pit and onto that stage in the future. (I know, I couldn’t think of a better way to conclude this blog entry.) Thanks for reading!

– Angelie

The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day Ten

Ten classes down, two to go. The feelings I walked away with after dismissal were enlightened, urgency (partially because I had to use the bathroom) and some discouragement, as oxymoronic as that sounds. I have maintained my enlightened feeling since starting classes at the Groundlings because the specific, detailed and demanding curriculum has influenced me to only make purposeful and detailed statements in improv scenes and has shown me how high emotional stakes really make a scene more entertaining to watch. However, I also feel a mixture of urgency and discouragement after being called out in class for not committing in certain exercises and by not paying attention to details, such as where someone left off in their space work. I feel an urgency to reach both my full potential as an improviser and to pass Basic. I feel discouragement because given the detailed negative constructive criticism of my less-than-stellar performance in class, I now feel that I have blown my shot at passing this class as there are only two classes left, and I should have instilled the philosophy of commitment in myself at this point in the course. Even if I’m granted another and only chance to retake Basic, it would be a lot more satisfying to know that a Groundlings teacher trusts my abilities as a performer to take on Intermediate, but I know I have to prove myself first. Hopefully I haven’t blown my shot at passing, but I will find out the truth and verdict on the last day of class: Friday, June 14th.

For class #10, we did the following activities: character walk (leading with body parts), cues (highlighting each performer’s idiosyncrasies in scenes), movie translating (the activity in which I crashed and burned and where two people do a scene of a foreign movie speaking in jibberish and the two other people sit down and translate for the audience in English) and finally a round of general improv scenes to close out class.

Until next time,

Angelie

The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day Nine

I really need to get started on my online course homework, so this entry will be short. Here are the notes I jotted down during Day 9 of Basic at The Groundlings School:

– CATCHPHRASE CHARACTER WALK

– BUS RIDE/FREEZE PHRASE EXERCISE (INTERMEDIATE EXERCISE)

  • Bus scene chair set up
  • Random facial expression choice by instructor
  • Talk about where we’re going, why we’re excited, and what we’re going to do there to get emotionally invested.
  • Watch out for making too much noise that drowns out partner’s gifts.
  • Don’t tear through information. Put in beats to rest and pause for audience reactions. You eventually run out of things to say and start repeating things like “You’re the best.”
  • Focus on one idea for why we’re going there and have a back story or other justification to explain why we’re going there.

– NEW CHOICE

  • Make space work matter!
  • Don’t overly justify partner’s choice.
  • Stay focused on one activity and relish in it or else you’ll end up repeating actions.
  • Match partner’s emotion in scene.
  • Don’t be presentational. Raise the emotional stakes!
  • Don’t lose track of main idea of scene.
  • Sister/lover label is too much to overcome as an audience member.

– INTERMEDIATE EMOTIONAL LETTER EXERCISE

  • Establish who/what/where off the bat. You have only 3 minutes to get out all the important establishing information about the scene.
  • Say things in context of character. Don’t say things your character wouldn’t say.
  • EMOTION + LABEL
  • When you mention something specific, have a specific reason why that choice and no other choice. Why that choice?
  • Sensing how people say things (idiosyncrasies) in improv can be worked into a character.

These cryptic descriptions probably mean more to me than to you, but I found them significant enough to write down, so here they are. Nine classes down, and three more to go. I can’t believe my first class at The Groundlings School is almost over!

– Angelie

The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day Eight

We spent the first half of class doing an exercise meant to help let us let go of the need to be perfect and prepared when it comes to initiating a scene. Our class formed a circle on stage, and we went around the circle by having each person loosen up either verbally or physically and then organically coming up with either an organic word, organic space work or an organic character. Notes I received on this exercise included play characters that are your own gender and have a “blank” brain when initiating anything on stage. Avoid pre-planning. I really enjoyed this activity because it took away the pressure of having to say the “right” thing when initiating dialogue, space work or a character.

After the break, we began a four-person exercise that involved three separate scenes on stage. I was one of the first four people to try this exercise, only to crash and burn. Our instructor was frustrated with us, especially me for not asking questions when I didn’t fully understand the exercise. Honestly, I felt embarrassed for screwing up, but I tried to bounce back by trying the exercise again in the last run, and I did okay. The following were the notes given in class:

  • One character leaves scene with same emotion, but makes sure next scene is unrelated.
  • More emotional commitment.
  • Each person is adding something by entering new scene.
  • Make sure to understand directions before we begin. Ask questions. Don’t waste time by being confused.
  • Jumping up and down to express happiness is not believable.
  • Only emotions transfer scene to scene.
  • Have a better and specific reason for leaving scene.
  • No racial stereotypes.
  • Fan the flames your partner’s emotions!
  • Find organic and realistic ways to fan partner’s emotion.

I felt a little bummed after class, but I got a confidence boost by attending a presentation at Groundlings on the following Tuesday called “Good Girls Aren’t Funny” by Holly Mandel, which basically addressed biological and historical reasons as to why women in comedy tend to hold back or react passively in improv performances. It was empowering, enlightening and motivating, and I highly recommend it to all female improvisers.

I wanted to change up how I blog here on WordPress, so I leave you with a short and sweet vlog that I shot the day of this class. Enjoy!

– Angelie

The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day Seven

Class began with a two-line exercise with one half of the class on one side of the stage and the other half on the opposite side of the stage. In this exercise, one student from one of the lines would initiate space work as well as exhibiting non-verbal character traits. Next, another student from the opposite line would come further downstage to observe the other student and proceed to name that person and describe their character’s personality and physicality. The whole exercise was a great way of demonstrating how a person moves and carries herself or himself communicates a huge amount of information about their personality, life experiences and how they see the world.
Next, we did a run of two-person scenes in which each person was given a different personality trait to continuously express throughout the scene. The first group was given the personality traits of stuck up and lewd. The following notes were given:

  • Eye contact!
  • Immediacy of why we are watching this moment.
  • Pay off the trait way more.
  • For sad characters that may be withdrawn, they have to find some way to talk.
  • Don’t forget the “who.”

Then, we did a round of two-person dramatic scenes, which was definitely different from what we’ve been working on in class so far. We were told that we were good at not portraying characters as cartoon-like or outlandish, and that we just need to work on specifics, making more vulnerable choices and raising the stakes (exploding).

Then, it was back to doing a round of comedic two-person scenes. One note given was to be aware of what our body language expresses, such as crossing arms communicates defensiveness. We were also praised for our very supportive energy in class today! Other notes during this exercise included the following:

  • Stay in character.
  • We want to see big reactions.
  • Making it matter is a choice. Most people wouldn’t overreact, so we have to find the characters who will.
  • Have a compelling reason to be there. Don’t make the audience feel like you want to leave.

Lastly, our class was introduced to long form improv. (Even though some of us are familiar with it. I’m looking at you Torch Theatre in Phoenix!) The only difference in style at the Groundlings is that loud claps are used to edit scenes besides touching another improviser to tag them out of the scene. We were told we had an entertaining run, but that we just had to be careful not to dwell on one idea in scene after scene and to not depend so much on “blue” humor, although he found it funny. After those notes, class was adjourned. Seven classes down, five more to go!

– Angelie

The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day Six

Today’s class ended up being a little more laid-back and not as scary as I thought it would be. At first, I thought today’s class would be cut short since there were only four of us at the beginning of class, but it turns out that everyone else was either on a Memorial Day vacation or running late and slowly but surely trickled in. Unbeknownst to me, today was our first one-on-one evaluation with the instructor. We are officially past the halfway point of Basic, and in about 3 more weeks we will each learn our fate in our final evaluation if we are to repeat Basic, move on to the next level or are completely dismissed from the Groundlings performance track. This notion both excites me and scares me. I later learned in class that many of the people in my Basic class are either repeat students of Basic or are in advanced classes just refreshing their skills. I honestly feel like I’ve retrograded in my performance skills as I have allowed the talented people in my class and new information to slowly intimidate me and make me feel discouraged in my abilities.

In my evaluation, Ian was super friendly, approachable and helpful, and not as scary as I thought he would be. I was the last in my class to sit in the “hot seat.” He basically told me I started out Basic strong and more at ease, but that I have regressed as far as performance goes due to panicking during scenes. I agree with this. He still had positive things to say, such as he has seen me say funny things before and earlier in class when I wasn’t so tense and “stuck in my head.” I just need to improve on listening more attentively to what my scene partners say, add more details after accepting my scene partner’s initial offer, and to not be in a state of worry so much. I was more than happy to receive all his constructive criticism, and I feel even more motivated to have fun and perform better in class.

New exercises we did in class included “Animal,” which happened to be an Intermediate level character-building exercise. We basically walked around on stage neutrally and then moved on to behaving as animals based on our instructor’s suggestion. We then would take those animal bodily movements and incorporate them into how a human would move, and then we all faced the fourth wall and began monologues as our newly formed characters. We also tried this other activity involving bodily idiosyncrasies such as hand gestures. In this activity, 4 people on stage would begin or continue a story individually and would eventually be paused by the instructor’s notes as to what notable body movement trait that student repeatedly does while telling a story. As a new student followed up a storyteller, another layer of notable body movement would be added to that person’s character until the line reached the original storyteller. I know this explanation is not so clear out of context, but the main purpose of the exercise allowed me to see how idiosyncratic body movements really give a character a distinct identity.

Before our individual evaluations, we finished class with a round of scenes. I feel like a broken record repeating notes on things we’ve already gone over in class, but basically (no pun intended), it just goes to show how important it is to remember and be consistent with following these basic rules of improv in order to build a solid and entertaining scene.

Until next class,

Angelie