(That’s me with the Sunday Group. Sandwiched between two handsome gentlemen in the midst of growing my hair out. Please note, everyone in this photo is now wildly successful in their own right.)
If there is one piece of advice I can offer any freshman entering college or university it is this: Join an Improv Troupe.
Find one. Join one.
Improv was, for me, the most useful thing I ever did at college. Okay, okay, the theory and structure and hard work and “being on your own and taking care of yourself” stuff was good too.
But when it comes to the most useful thing I ever did for both life and my career it was joining Theatre Strike Force at the University of Florida.
I was 18. I was a musical drama nerd and certified character actress. I could do all the funny voices. I was also in a terrible state and didn’t know why, for reasons unknown, I would suddenly collapse into a tearful heap and not be able to function for days. When a loud fellow in bright purple shorts recommended I join I decided I would. Almost everyone I knew had gone to Florida State or elsewhere. I had done improv once, in a workshop, and it was fun. I went upstairs to the Constans Theatre, my poor choice of chopping off all my hair frizzing around me. I saw the guy in the bright purple shorts, I waved. He ignored me, running to greet friends. So I sat down next to an odd looking character in cords and a fedora and said hello.
It was the best day of my life.
Joining an improv troupe, especially the one I joined in 1996, was magic. We played games, yes, but the directors we had pushed constantly and neverendingly for truth. Truth was funny. Truth was the funniest thing on Earth over bad penis jokes and degrading women. When you were there in that moment it was all about building up with your partner or team. It was about saying yes to whatever reality you were creating in that moment, and whatever that reality was it was truth.
We read Truth in Comedy, a lot.
We experimented with this thing called long form, a whole play that came from a suggestion. It failed, a lot. A lot, lot. I still to this day recall a moment where it was going so well. In the scene one of the characters was dying. She was being cradled in the arms of her love, and they were saying goodbye. She started to sing, it was so beautiful… and then one of the team stepped in and shattered that reality with a bad joke. I remember seeing the notebook our director carried fly. Fly straight across the upper lobby of the Constans Theatre which was a long, long way, and hit the back of the wall where we were performing. I still remember Heather, yelling with frustration. No words, just pure frustration.
But that is life, isn’t it? Life doesn’t perform like a perfectly written play. Life doesn’t hand you the perfect ending. Sometimes people step in with a bad joke. Other times, for reasons unknown, it works perfectly. Standing onstage in Austin in front of a massive crowd and pulling off a long form based on the suggestion of “pants.” I was a minor character, but I made a suggestion that created a scene by the ones who took the lead that was so beautiful I was proud to have been part.
And that is life too, isn’t it? Sometimes you play a small part but the end result is amazing. To remember one of the people who had created the festival come find us and say, “Nobody messes with the TSF,” those words… those words meant that we… the team… the troupe… had succeeded. No matter how small the part.
Of course there is also that guy in the fedora. The one I sat down next too all those years ago. The one who, when I got to play the lead with him, created one of the funniest and most sincere long forms ever – one where two kids, so determined to not be separated by Summer holidays, packed one into a suitcase to take on a trip with them. I still remember him popping up out of his imaginary suitcase and saying, “All I had to survive on was this bottle of maple syrup.”
Close to 20 years late (eep!) it is still custom to exchange maple syrup when we realise one of us has run out.
That guy in the purple shorts proposed to me at the Main Stage in a moment that was accidentally created via a dance put together by a woman who had no idea she had created that moment. It just happened.
My last time onstage was with a group of women so talented that I’ll still to this day start laughing at some of the sketches we created as a team. I still remember after one performance one of our TSF members coming up and saying, “Wow, this was so good. I thought this would be a man bashing show.”
The idea of doing that never crossed our minds.
Joining an improv troupe, especially mine, was joining someplace safe. Someplace where we could laugh or cry as hard as we wanted, and no one would ever judge you. We had our moments, but what we also had was a lot of people hell bent on seeing everyone else succeed. What I learned in improv was not about cutting someone off, going for something cheap, or seeing how much ‘funnier’ you can be by the other guy. I learned to build people up, that the hard way is worth it, and that you can’t force funny.
A few years after one of our directors came back to visit and she talked about how improv was life. You don’t wake up and get your script and know how things are going to pan out that day. You may have had a few suggestions, but detours can happen, surprises can crop up, and how you deal with them wasn’t pre-planned by a team of writers. What you have to remember is you have a choice in how you act and react. Through three very intense years of my life I learned how to play off people with the specific goal of volleying them up, to make the “strong choice.” It has served me well in all aspects of my life.
So as the TSF celebrates 25 years of wonderful I just wanted to extend that troupe a thank you. Thank you for existing, and for continuing to exist. For being a place for people like me, for people like my husband, for people like my dearest friend. For people like my directors, Heather and Kerensa. For women who get together to just play and write and have fun. For those who want to act for a living, for those who just want to just want to live. For those out there who know that there is a story to tell, but sometimes you don’t need a script to tell it.
Join an improv troupe.