16 November - Improv at Second City

My friend Jean speaks in a thousand different accents, impersonations and affectations. My favorite may very well be the articulate and hostile Puerto Rican. Jean is not shy to have a full conversation with me -- with accent and attitude -- in the middle of a salon, grocery store, car....
The first time I met her was working on friend Shanel Regier's fashion show years ago. I could tell she had an impeccable work ethic, not above any menial task, nor below any strategizing. She seemed serious. And humble. Dead ringer for Rachel Weisz, if you ask me. She articulates well her ideas but is not a "theorist." She rolls up her sleeves, gets down to the nitty gritty and accomplishes what she sets out to do. She does not talk about the talk about the talk, like most; she is a do-er. And it's rarely about her.

A straight shooter, Jean keeps her balance by singing her heart out at karaoke, and takes inventory by cleansing and spending a few days in solitude. An interior designer by day; an unabashed character and smart wit otherwise. She shared with me that acting was one of the possible directions on her list when choosing what to pursue for her college career. I thought Jean might be the perfect contender to join me at Second City's Improv class.

Her spontaneity in saying 'yes' took us to my old stomping grounds - Old Town, Chicago. When I worked here many moons ago, I remember watching Kamehachi move in across the street. It took the place of the former Blue Room, where my would-be husband and I would play in a trio upstairs. I would order my edamame and unagi roll, then eat my lunch at the school I volunteered at around the corner during my lunch hour. Driving around North and Wells resurrected forgotten and priceless memories...an unexpected gift that evening.

When my husband and buddy Chris suggested we take this drop-in class, I of course thought with an amenable ease, "Improv? Hysterical. Why not?" But driving down and now a few blocks away, Jean and I started to get anxious. We parked across the street at Treasure Island and walked to Second City's Training Center in Piper's Alley. Headed to class on the 4th floor, we met up with 15 other students from all different levels in acting. Our teacher Joe had us stand in a circle for our first warmup. It was called "Shootout." We learned everyone's names. As one name was called, that person ducked. The two people on either side had to be the first to shoot the other person out of the circle. Then the gap was closed.

We did three-line exercises between two people which focused on the starts of scenes and dialogue guidelines. And everyone had to do these exercises. We formed two lines, performed our scene, then switch to the opposite line so we had turns starting and reacting to the dialogues. The rules were to avoid questions and avoid focusing on the actual activity. One person started dialogue with any topic, the second person answered, the first finished the idea, the second person closed the scene with a nonverbal reaction.

Joe then added components to develop comfort level, reacting to environment, using emotion and reacting to your partner in a follow-up exercise called "Exploring the Silence." We continued with the formula of three-line exercises but were given an environment...bank, Starbucks, zoo, etc. We acted in silence for 30 seconds, being aware of our partner's actions and expressions. We found that we fed off each other to help shape the scene before any dialogue was inserted. We then added depth to the spoken story line - all in three-lines.

Another exercise was called "What Are You Doing?" This was quick-paced and gave us practice in being physical and speaking without worrying if we made sense. First person would start with an activity -- taking a shower, sweeping, roller skating, etc. The second person would ask at any time, "What Are You Doing?" First person would call out any activity OTHER than what s/he is doing, and the partner had to act it out. The next component added was that the activity had to start with the letters of the people next in line. For example, behind me were Terry and Mike, so my partner and I would call out tasks such as, "Training Monks!" These mini skits were hilarious, as one who had S and A yelled, "Selling Armpits!" leaving his partner perplexed but comedically carrying out the scene. Another added component was the receiver had to deliver a line of dialogue to accompany the random task.

In debriefing with this room of strangers who quickly became friends, we learned that silence is golden. If we sat and listened, watched, fed off one another's energy, it can affect our reactions, thought and expression. We learned to follow our instincts, as well as step out of our comfort zone. We found people to be funny without being funny, or having a sense of humor when they are naturally serious.

Jean and I did our own debriefing afterwards, over a nice late meal at Flo. In the aftermath, Jean shared, "As we were in one of the circle formations, I felt this pit in my stomach. For me the feeling was not of nausea but of anxious excitement – the urge to be involved and to perform. I began to shift my weight from one leg to the next until I was in an all out sway. I remember catching myself doing this and thought, 'I must look like an idiot.' Then I looked around the circle and about 10 others were making similar moves. This is a feeling that I have not sensed since I was performing on stage in High School and it was great to have that feeling back again. I forgot how much I love that adrenaline rush. I think the love of performance comes from within certain people and is a difficult thing to truly teach."

Couldn't have asked for a better partner to experience this with. Thanks, Jean.

Joe teaches at Second City and Columbia College. He is currently working on a project - writing a sketch every day for one year. This is based on his belief that there is no such thing as writer's block or not enough time to write. All 365 sketches will be produced June 3 thru June 10 at Strawdog Theater, Chicago. For more information, please visit, http://www.biteandsmile.blogspot.com/.

For more information on the class, please visit http://www.secondcity.com/.