“Bee, beeeee!” screamed Sam Charney as they ran across the stage of the Randy Weeks Conservatory Theatre during one of the many games the improv class was doing.
They ducked behind the other character on stage as Teaching Artist Heather Curran gasped, “Is there really a bee here?”
“No,” said Sam, pausing the action. “I’m acting.” And with that, they got the best compliment any actor, especially a 15-year-old one, could get. Curran thought there really was a bee, and after the confusion was cleared, Sam went right back in the roll to finish the scene.
The game, as it’s called in improv training, was “Bus Stop,” and it was one of many the class of teens were practicing before their end-of-session showcase at the end of February. Though, practicing is an odd word when it comes to improv since the whole idea behind the art form is not knowing what will happen next and playing off another person.
“It’s all about spontaneity, collaborations and the power to say ‘yes,'” said Allison Watrous, DCPA’s Executive Director of Education & Community Engagement. “High school is the time when kids are taking that next step in their lives, and improv gives them the power to say their own yeses, and helps with positivity and growth.”
This teen improv class hosted 10 kids, grades 9-12, for six weeks (there are also improv classes for K-5 and middle school students). During that time the teens did exercises, or games, that involved mimicking each other, playing off a word or action, acting out a surprise scene and getting comfortable making quick decisions on the stage.
“We teach them to play what they know, and it’s great to see them being themselves and showcasing their own, unique background on the stage,” said Teaching Artist Nanna Thompson, who runs the course with Curran.
Yes, yes, yes. That’s the motto when doing improv, and while it may sound simple, saying yes isn’t always easy. A lot of the work to be a good improv artist is to trust your fellow actors who share the stage during a scene. It’s also about listening, reacting, quick thinking and letting go of control. The latter part, said Thompson, is one of the hardest parts, and for strong actors they want to be in the spotlight and direct the scene. But with improv, there’s no director, just the team.
“What I love about a good improv group is they all want you to win,” added Thompson. “There are no mistakes as long as there is someone to catch you and lift you up.”
Student Elliot Liu agreed. “There are no rules, no script and you can’t be wrong in improv,” the 16-year-old said. “It’s nice to do something and not be perfect at it since with everything else in life I feel like I have to be perfect.”
For many, improv isn’t just a fun way to pass the time or boost acting skills, it can help in day-to-day life as well. Both for adults and kids.
“Improv is a low stakes way to practice higher stakes skills, and it has all these levels of social and emotional learning,” said Curran. “It’s a great way to share space and sense the movement of the group. The students are learning how to step back in order to let someone else step forward.”
For example Sam, the teen pretending to be chased by a bee, took the class partially to further their acting skills, but also as a way to break out of their shell.
“Flexibility is something I struggle with, and perfection,” they said. “Improv has helped me in my everyday life to just let go a little. At the beginning of the school year I struggled with talking to classmates, and it’s really helped me go and talk to people more.”
Watching the showcase certainly didn’t make one feel these kids had trouble expressing themselves. As Sam and Elliot played various parts and moved through the acts, it appeared they had been doing this for years, not just six weeks. Other members of their class also took to improv well, and it was easy to spot those that really clicked together.
Whether this class was meant to further a future acting career, solidify a passion for the stage, or to help a kid step out of their norm, by the end of the showcase the teens were making the audience laugh and putting their best side forward, one yes at a time.
For information on improv classes for any age, visit denvercenter.org/education.