At the start of 2018, I made a resolution to live each day as uncomfortably as possible - whether it meant wrangling over a controversial point in a seminar class, or taking spontaneous trips to Center City without my wallet. In March, as part of my stint of discomfort, I signed up for an Improv 101 class on a whim at the Philadelphia Improv Theatre, or PHIT for short (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philly_Improv_Theater) - 10 minutes from Penn’s campus.
Each week, I’d spend two hours on this strip of Sansom Street. Lined with gems like the Helium Club, a world-renowned sports comedy club (ComedySportz), and the Roxy Theatre (a brainchild of the Philadelphia Film Society), this was place so packed with history, yet pulsated with a youthful creative energy that constantly renewed itself. I quickly realized that I’d stepped onto sacred dramaturgical ground.
As a Jersey broad trying to navigate the waters of a long-standing Philadelphian theatre culture, I walked into my first class, wide-eyed and without expectation. I was curious to learn more about performance art - as I’d never channeled an art form as physically and emotionally-challenging before. And each trip was one that I never took for granted.
First off - I was completely blown away by my instructor. With a stacked resume, he had a history working for NBC, teaching across acting clubs in LA and Chicago, and regularly competing with sketch comedy teams. To come into contact with a person of such high caliber a mere 10 minutes away, was a testament to just how lucrative the city’s resources were for anyone who wished to dabble in the craft. He was verbosely digressive - but all of his sentences woven with experience and packed with a lightheartedness that was perfect for a beginner like me. I soon settled into the clunky pace of the introductory class’ judge-free zone - where we would pause often, laugh and deconstruct.
Improv 101 has also allowed me to make friends who I would have never met otherwise (and we all talk in a Facebook Group now!). As the youngest and only college student, I was initially intimidated by the older adults in the room - some at least twice my age. But over time, I was able to open up and freely speak my mind. Among those - a filmmaker for Glass (directed by M. Night Shyamalan, in theatres 2019), an actor in Creed II, a former Penn grad, a budding fashion designer, a fiery political scientist, a man who commuted weekly from Delaware just for this class. These adults led real lives, but for a brief fraction of their week, they’d take the time to come together and create passion-filled, comedic, occasionally tragic dialogue - which grew into complex characters, relationships and storylines.
At the end of all of this, I was most shocked by how much I’d stopped censoring my decisions. How boldly outspoken I’d become. How I was able to think more quickly on my feet than ever before. My biggest takeaway was actually a principle that I learned on my first day of class - the golden rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy: “yes, and -.” Essentially, any thought or sentence that you construct, whether haphazardly or deliberately - will take up a space in the performance. It will add information and attach itself to a meaning that can be further developed along the way. Those who improvise after you must then follow the same train of thought, and expand your idea. They’ll add their own flair, their own humorous commentary - but the flow must be logical. In order for the show to go on, the people you are working with must agree to your decision (by metaphorically saying “yes”), and continue with decisions of their own. This, in turn, fosters acceptance and cooperation among everyone involved in the scene. Rather than putting down someone else’s suggestion, we’d always find a way to strategically work together to build it up.
It is decision after decision, layer after layer, that drives the success of a scene. Over the past 8 weeks, I have had delightful and intelligent epiphanies, coupled with visceral feelings of complete liberation. As a creative student, I’ve had moments that have inspired me to the point of curing my writer’s and artist’s block. I’ve pushed myself to dive in and commit completely to new ideas, while channeling my range of emotions into their most expressive manifestation. This limitless art form has allowed me to become more open-minded and flexible, as well be more receptive to others’ propositions. “Yes, and -” is a lesson that I learned to incorporate into my daily life. It allows me to create open lines of communication in any team that I am a part of.
My instructor once said to me during a critique: “Alina, you’re a really great student of improv. That’s what I’ve noticed about you. You recognize that you’re a student, above anything else. You listen and focus so intently.” And that has meant more to me than any other praise I’ve received for my dramatic performances and occasional witty one-liners - because although I can have notable moments, at the end of it all, I’m just here to learn and improve. In between the dynamic characters that I’ve played and all of the laughs, it’s been a wonderful ride. As someone who’d looked to break out of the Penn bubble this semester, I definitely tapped into an off-campus community that I’m now glad to call myself a part of. The Philly improv scene provided me with a low barrier to entry to learn something new, and countless opportunities to make a complete fool out of myself. These Philly natives were undyingly passionate. As someone trying to live uncomfortably in 2018, I was definitely no match for those who made a living out of improvisational art: individuals who laid shackled to their creative beds and threw themselves into situations of uncertainty everyday. They’re willing to overcome their doubts and self-restraints time and time again, for the hopes of putting on a great performance.
I just had my last class today, and I’m going to perform in my final class show next week. As a novice, it’s surreal to have accomplished so much in such a short period of time. At the end of it all, I’m honored to have been a student of improv, welcomed into the most encouraging, thought-provoking community by such open arms. Cheers!