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.

How I Ended Up Doing Improv and How It Has Impacted and “Improv-ed” My Life

"Improv-ing" together!

“Improv-ing” together!

I just had to use an unfunny pun in the title. I couldn’t resist.

The first official improv class I took was back when I was 18, taught by the director of a local improv troupe called The Originals. I had done improv exercises a handful of times in high school drama classes, but they were never classes fully devoted to the art of improvisation. It wasn’t until talking with people way after high school that I learned many high schools actually offer improv as a class. Had my high school offered it during my stint at North High, I would have taken it. Anyway, a lack of improv experience and the desire to become a better actress were reasons why I decided to take my first improv class right after my high school career.

As a teenager, I always had acting/singing/entertainment industry ambitions. I first showed interest in anything entertainment industry/comedy-related at 8 watching sketch comedy television shows like All That on Nickelodeon, In Living Color, and of course, Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. I wasn’t the most seasoned or talented entertainer, but I was still a little diva that looked up to the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Christina Aguilera, and I was hungry to become a singing/dancing/acting triple threat and get my perceived entitled share of the fame pie. I was somewhat naive to the logistics and statistics of showbiz, but that didn’t stop my pursuit. To some outside observers, it may have seemed like unexpected ambitions for a painfully shy, quiet, and socially awkward girl, but I had so much fun doing these activities in my classes and extracurricular activities, and it gave me an excuse to come out of my comfort zone once in awhile. It may have led to a bit of a delusion of grandeur in my head, and my life as an only child only fueled my self-centered, protagonist view of the world, but what I lacked in a social life and reality, I filled with performing arts and fantasy. When I was 13, I was determined to make my showbiz dreams a reality. With much bratty crying and screaming, I finally convinced my mother to let me join this deceptive “talent agency” that had her fork over hundreds of dollars in mediocre acting classes in order to be represented by their agency. After signing a bogus 2-year contract with them, I was never notified of any auditions or given any acting work. In other words, we were duped. I was involved in theatre all four years of high school to make up for this lack of an acting career. I never got my “big break,” and I still haven’t got my big break. It can be hard medicine to swallow when you grow up ignoring “side coaches” telling you acting is not a promising or secure career choice, (and they have proven right thus far), but acting has been and has become a fun hobby of mine that I cannot imagine not having in my life somehow. From being a cast member in a local sketch comedy variety show called First Friday Night Live to making my own sketch comedy YouTube videos to taking improv classes and being a player at both The Torch Theatre and National Comedy Theatre, I’ve been actively still pursuing acting.

So, how did the pursuit of acting lead to comedy? The year just became 2010, I was 21-going-on-22, and I missed being onstage. The year before, I dabbled in stand up comedy for the first time after hearing about and attending the annual NBC Stand Up For Diversity competition in San Diego, CA. One of my new year’s resolutions was to finally take stand up comedy classes at The Comedy Spot and get a little more serious about comedy. Being a mostly serious, moody, and child of angst, I was never considered funny ever growing up. Maybe a couple of my closest friends would actually label me funny since they’re the only ones I’m most comfortable with being absolutely myself. Most people find it hard to believe that confidential and reserved Angelie gets onstage in front of people on a regular basis, and refers to herself in the third person as she writes a blog entry about this self-indulgent lifestyle of hers. For me now, I feel there’s more comfort in risking embarrassment and rejection in front of a bunch of strangers since you’re more likely to never see any of them ever again and face/hear their criticism. However, It didn’t feel that way the first few stand up comedy classes I attended. I remember my heart racing right before my turn to go onstage, and the intense bodily shaking and fear I felt in front of these peers of all ages that I assumed were funnier and more seasoned comics than me. It turned out to be a little more comforting than performing an actual stand up comedy set in front of an audience since you get instant constructive feedback from the experienced instructor and other supportive comics of all levels. However, after submerging myself in stand comedy for a bit, I felt more improv training would help with my stiff and robotic performance skills, so I decided to take another installment of improv classes at the National Comedy Theatre in Mesa, AZ. I took Level 1 and 2 with my long lost elementary/junior high school friend Brian. The following year I started, half-assed, and was dismissed from nursing school, falling into a pretty deep depression about failing and finding my true bliss and purpose in life, and took the third final level at NCT during the summer. I felt bittersweet and torn about making a complete detour from a secure career move yet relieved to have more time for activities I missed and actually enjoyed. I also went back to First Friday Night Live (FFNL), the sketch comedy ensemble I left earlier to make more time for nursing school ironically. I felt my performance skills needed more sprucing up, so again, I decided to invest in more improv classes, this time at The Torch Theatre with the discounted hoilday gift card to myself.

I knew people through FFNL who had taken improv classes at the Torch Theatre, so that’s where I first heard of it and was first prompted to check out their shows back at their old location at Space 55. I wasn’t too fond of the class prices, but after taking a couple of the free introductory improv classes offered by the Torch and seeing the discounted holiday gift card offer, I was finally sold. January 2012 marked the beginning of my gradual addiction to long form improv at The Torch Theatre. Now it is January 2013, and so far at the Torch, I’ve completed Levels 1 through 4, been in 2 lottery (randomly assembled) improv teams, numerous Bingo Jams and Fourth Friday Flash Jams, and met many amazing and talented people I wouldn’t have been able to meet otherwise had I not become involved with this theatre.

To make a long story even longer, just how has improv impacted and “improv-ed” my life? (Call back to said unfunny pun.) I could go on in another novel-long tangent, but to keep this more simple and less painstakingly lengthy to read, here’s a list:

1. It has taught me to be more supportive. As any big-headed diva going into improv, I only did it as means of making myself look better on stage in stand up comedy or in any other stage performances, and to build more self-confidence. The bottom line is that I did it all for me. Although all performers naturally prioritize their own self-interests, improv teaches that you look better by making others look better. I didn’t understand this concept fully until I took level 3 at The Torch Theatre during the insightful yet painless individual evaluations in front of the whole class and instructor. I tend to make many of the scenes I’m in all about my character when I should be always striving to make my partners in a scene look better or at least just as important as my character. It’s all about contributing as much as you can to an ensemble whether it be sound effects, playing a prop, or acknowledging an offer made by another player to make EVERYBODY look good and utilized. Just do something, and it shouldn’t always revolve around you. Everyone is important, and it isn’t all about me unfortunately. 😉

2. It has showed me how society and people are structured in the real world. In improv, we’re taught about status, psychology, and relationship, relationship, relationship. Improv is yet another example of art imitating life. The low social status of the nerd and the high social status of the all-star athlete show the ranking systems that exist in any aspect of real life, and how those labels can affect each character/person psychologically. In a long form improv structure we learned in Level 4, we had to introduce 2 characters, remove one of those characters, and then introduce a new character from that remaining character’s past in a new scene. This new scene from the past would explain why the character from the previous scene is presently the way that they are psychologically. As confusing of an explanation as that was, I’m basically trying to say improv allows you to see how psychology shapes a character played on stage and allows us to see these relationships and psychological aspects in the real world, in our own relationships or in people we observe out in public.

3. It has taught me to be a better listener. Going back to the whole “going into improv as a diva” thing, improv gives another reality check by utilizing the importance of listening. A scene cannot move forward if a partner ignores or doesn’t acknowledge their partners offers. For example:

  • “Hey, Sally. I bought this dress for you because I know you wanted it immensely.”
  • “Thanks for the new purse, and I enjoy skiing as well!”

Completely missing, disregarding, and negating your partner’s offers not only kills the continuity of a scene, but also shows how you’re focusing on something else and not listening. I am countlessly guilty of this. I think this is very true for many beginners of improv since you’re so focused on thinking of something clever to say next that you accidentally don’t pay attention to what your scene partner is offering you on stage, and as a self-diagnosed person with adult ADD, I didn’t catch myself doing this until I watched the footage of my lack of listening skills uploaded Vimeo videos in Torch Theatre performances:

  • “Uh uh, that’s my olive oil!”
  • “Girl, if you touch my sprinkles one more time, one more time, something’s about to go down!”

Oops.

4. It has taught me to see the beauty and opportunity in everything. Improv gurus use the mantra: “There are no mistakes in improv. Only happy accidents.” This mindset allows you to see the opportunity and potential in every character, every choice, every space work, and every scene. I have trouble with adding further details on my end of the scene, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not only because I judge and filter any idea that comes to mind that prevents anything from coming out. It’s also because I’m not opening my mind to the possibilities that an offer can become. If I see a partner pantomiming using a shovel, I can label it more than just digging a hole in the dirt. They could be shoveling snow, shoveling coal into a furnace, or scooping a scoop of a Costco-sized barrel of sugar into a giant mixing bowl. The possibilities in offers are endless!

5. It has allowed me to step further out of my comfort zone. If I had stopped taking improv classes altogether in 2011, I would not be in the same mindset as I am today let alone taking the time to type up this freakishly long WordPress entry. I see the world differently, and have a better view of the potential in everything offered, including myself. When you watch seasoned performers making improv magic and gold on stage, it can be intimidating to newbies and an improbable level of skill to reach, but now I see how the time invested in anything can lead to extraordinary results. The steps one takes out of their comfort zone are proportionate to the results they gain, whether it be in audience laughter, comfort on stage, becoming a better person, or self-acceptance. Thank you, Improv. 🙂