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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

An improv piece on improv

Published: September 23, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

It’s Wednesday night, it has been a long day and I’ve still got lots to do …

It shouldn’t be this way. There’s a school holiday tomorrow, and I should be looking forward to a night of revelry or relaxation, a chance to relieve the pent-up stress of the week for a few hours. At the very least, I should be able to catch up on all the work I’ve been putting off. But instead, I’m sitting in class and writing a Hoot article because I have a deadline tonight.

Well, I’m not really in class. I’m actually slogging through my recitation for Economic Statistics, scribbling down notes that will help me finish my homework while simultaneously trying to bang out an article on the newly-formed Brandeis Improv Club. I used to skip my recitations, but I promised myself I’d start attending this year as my courses became more challenging. Of course, I’d rather be anywhere else at 7 p.m. before a holiday, but I made myself a vow, so I might as well see it through. Damn these holiday obligations.

And this article only makes things worse. I’m not going to finish it before the end of Improv Club at 9 p.m., and then I’ve got to type it up and send it in. I’m only writing it because I had too much work to complete my original project, a review of the new Of Montreal album. I should just tell my editor to buzz off—it’s a school newspaper, what could they possibly do to me? But Kayla’s a good friend, and she needs to fill a section, and I did promise her content. I’m such a pushover. Damn these holiday obligations!

Thankfully, the idea to write about Improv Club came to me during Microeconomics, or I’d still be clutching at straws, looking for a half-decent topic. I was planning on attending the meeting anyway, so I get to kill two birds with one stone. I’ve never been partial to improvisational comedy; I just can’t be clever when I’m under so much pressure to perform. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even give Improv Club a second thought. However, it was founded by Elly Kalfus, a good friend of mine and a genuinely witty person, and I’d really like to see it succeed for her sake. So I’ll give up another precious hour of freedom and give it a try. I’m such a pushover! Damn these holiday obligations!

The meeting is starting and Elly is introducing the club’s purpose and format. She’s taken improv classes before and she clearly knows her stuff.

When I’ve played improv games before, I’ve always become self-conscious and broken scene, but Elly’s explaining the mental approach to successful improvisational comedy. The performer can’t force humor; that always makes the scene appear too obvious and contrived. Rather, the goal should be to act as naturally as possible and allow the humor to develop organically from the circumstances. Fifteen minutes into the meeting and my entire approach to improv is already shifting.

The group warms up with a series of physical exercises and I quickly shake off the fatigue of a full day of class. We walk around the Castle Commons, taking on the mannerisms of a variety of people and animals, each new character chosen spontaneously by each participant. The physical activity melts away my tension and leaves me eager to stretch my creativity. I realize now that I’m happy to be here—I want to laugh and learn with my friends.

Our first major activity is a game called Freeze, in which two people act out a scene that any other participant can pause at any time. The outsider then chooses an actor to replace, and must begin a completely different scene while maintaining the original actor’s physical posture.

Two of the attendees are members of the campus group False Advertising, and they’re obviously well practiced as improv actors. Their quickness and ingenuity make the rest of us look shy and reticent, but I’m picking up ideas from them. In one scene, I play Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown; in another, I’m a diminutive football player.

At the end of the meeting, I’m much more comfortable in an improvisational setting than I’ve ever been before. I’m picking up the little tricks that create successful scenes. For instance, don’t negate another actor’s statement (it’s funnier to go with the flow), and avoid using of outside props (they just become a crutch). My responses are still somewhat leaden; I’m not at the point where I’m comfortable acting without thinking first. But I want to improve and I’ll definitely return next week.

I’m really glad I decided to go to Improv Club and I’m glad I chose to do this article as well— it’s been a blast to write.

My recitation notes are going to make my homework much easier, so it shouldn’t take as long as I thought it would. The temptation to be lazy was strong this evening, but I would have missed out if I’d allowed myself to vegetate. There’s always so many interesting events going on at Brandeis and I guess the holiday is a good excuse to take advantage of them. So step out of your comfort zones, Brandeisians! Maybe I’ll see you at Improv Club next week?

Also, be sure to read next week’s Hoot—it’ll feature a review of the new of Montreal album!