At the Improv: laughter reigns as students 'expect the unexpected'

There is no "no" in improvisational acting. There is no "can't," "don't," isn't," or "won't," either.

It's a lesson learned quickly by high school students in the All-County Improv Troupe, said Bruce Nelson, the students' instructor.

"What propels you to the next thing on stage is the improv concept of 'yes-and,' " Nelson said. "Whatever your partner gives you, you say 'yes,' enthusiastically, and add the next piece of the puzzle."

It's a lesson students apply elsewhere in their lives.

"You always say 'yes' to your scene partner," said Rose Wallace, a senior at Centennial High School. "It's made me so much more open-minded and open to new ideas when I'm problem-solving — you take what other people give you and make it work."

Wallace is one of 24 students — two from each county high school — in the ACI troupe learning the art of improv from Nelson, a local actor and Wilde Lake High School graduate. The students took to the stage at the James Rouse Theater at Wilde Lake High School Monday, Jan. 9, to show off what they had learned over the past months. But unlike other stage performances many have taken part in, this show was more difficult to prepare for.

"You're making it up as you go along, so anything is possible," Nelson said. "It's a different kind of difficult … they're given suggestions from the audience — occupations, situations, etc., and it all builds on those suggestions. The students, like a jazz combo, riff musically — or verbally … the only thing you can prepare for, the only thing you can rehearse, is the format, but beyond that, it's a rough, gray framework. The kids get wildly different things, potentially, each time, and they have to go with it. They have to commit fully, not in a way that suggests the idea is weird or strange."

Some ideas tossed out from the audience Monday night indeed were strange, prompting students to act like morticians in one scene, and in another, rutabagas. Not knowing what the performance will be like until they field those audience suggestions is nerve-wracking for some students, and exhilarating for others.

"You don't know what they're going to say, but at the same time, you know that you have to go through with it," said Caitlin Rogers, a senior at Atholton. "Our minds are trained to expect the unexpected."

An improv performance is really one of collaboration, said Brady Richards, 18, a senior at Marriotts Ridge.

"Everyone wants it to be funny," he said. "No one wants you to fail. Everyone's encouraging you to be your best, the funniest you can possibly be. It's awesome knowing the audience is there for you."

The audience members aren't the only ones there for the students — the students support one another as well.

"Part of the reason we're good, and I don't think anyone has said this, is because we're close," said Mairin Toppo, 15, a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge. "We're family. We're not afraid to mess up in front of each other."

'It's therapy'

ACI is the brainchild of Sally Livingston and Pam Land, theater arts directors at Marriotts Ridge and River Hill, respectively, who enlisted Nelson to teach the program when it began four years ago.

"We figured, there's an all-county choir, why not an all-county improv?" Livingston said.

In the fall, two groups of students meet for two hours each on Monday nights, preparing for the annual performances at the Rouse Theater and at Howard Community College. After that, the students meet once a month. For students, the time spent with each other rehearsing is a welcome break from the demands of school and other responsibilities.

"It's a fun time to just play, especially on a Monday night," said Cecelia Holt, a junior at Long Reach. "It's just nice to be fun and laugh with people."

That fun translates into other benefits for the students.

"I come to rehearsal (in a bad mood) a lot of times after having had a rough day, and I come out of it," said Em Adler, 17, a senior at Wilde Lake. "It's therapy because we laugh all the time."

More being therapeutic, improv helps in another way: by teaching students acceptance and adaptation, said Sarika Reddy, a junior at Centennial.

"At this point, I feel I can go into any situation in my life and handle it," she said. "People talk about survival of the fittest, but it isn't about being the strongest or the smartest, it's about who can adapt."

For the students, honing their improv skills is different from honing their "regular" acting skills, Nelson said. While improv can be about anything, regular acting is about a narrow band of things — "Hamlet" is always and only about Hamlet, for example. Improv is more about flying by the seat of one's pants, Nelson said, and that's exactly what the students like about it.

"I like improv better than regular acting because with regular acting you're so limited to whatever the playwright wants you to do," said Carson Blasko, 17, a senior at Long Reach. "When you're on the improv stage, it's all you, and you get to show them exactly what's in your head. I get to express myself in a new way, every time."

A funny way, too.

"For comedy's sake, at least, that's what I like," said Ayla Roda, 16, a junior at Reservoir. "It's me, making people laugh — not what someone else wrote. It's what I created."

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