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Howard All County Improv is full of laughs

A blogging frog that is afraid of bees; a game of Michael Bolton tennis; and a fight between Mary Poppins and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

An unlikely trio, but all three were ideas from the creative minds of students involved in Howard County's All County Improv Troupe, who then reenacted these scenarios during a recent rehearsal.

"A lot of the creativity you see is based off the improv principle that you can't say no," said Jamie Driskill, the All County Improv coach. "Anything goes when everybody is saying yes."

Improv, or improvisational theater, performances are created on the spot, sometimes through audience suggestions or by the performers on stage.

The All County Improv Troupe, comprised of 24 high school students, two from each high school, has its final performance of the year Thursday, June 19 as it wraps up its sixth year.

In the performance, students will be performing long- and short-form improv at the Howard County Center for the Arts black box theatre beginning at 6:30 p.m. as part of the two-week long Columbia Festival of the Arts.

The after-school improv program has given students the opportunity to practice improv outside of their respective school's drama department.

Since its formation, Marriotts Ridge High School theater teacher Sally Livingston calls its evolution "wildly successful."

"When you start a program, you always hope that it can take on a life of its own and this has," she said.

When the improv troupe was formed years ago with the help of local actor Bruce Nelson, a Wilde Lake High School graduate, there were only small improv groups at some county schools.

But today, in addition to All County Improv, students have taken the initiative to start smaller improv groups at their school with some ranging from 10-20 students.

"They're so enthusiastic about it that they're dying to share it," Livingston said.

Nelson led the county-wide improv group for its first three years before Driskill succeeded him. The group performs between three and five shows a year with the largest being Howard County's Theater Festival at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake.

Typically, there are four or five students from each school who audition for the improv group in what is described as a competitive process with some students auditioning year after year for a spot.

For Driskill, the audition process is the worst aspect of the program.

"I loathe the auditioning process," he said. "It's rarely an easy decision because I'm rooting for all of them to do their best."

Creative outlet

At the break of a recent rehearsal, students said they enjoy the improv troupe for a few reasons — it's a stress reliever from school, their peers are wildly supportive and it allows them to be creative when performing instead of sticking to a script.

"I've never come home from ACI being like 'Oh that sucked,' " said Manny Mones, a 2014 Long Reach High School graduate. "I'm always like 'That was so awesome and I'm so excited for the next one.' "

Beginning in September, students rehearse every Monday night at Wilde Lake High School for two hours up until December. Following the Christmas break, rehearsals are once every other week through the end of the school year.

While it's a large time commitment to make, students say their colleagues and Driskill's leadership make it all worth it.

"He [Driskill] treats us as students, but also peers and it's great to see that as a performer," said Bobby Henneberg, a recent graduate of Centennial High School.

Driskill, a graduate of River Hill High School who went on to participate in the improv troupe at Howard Community College, often jumps into rehearsals with students to perform alongside them. In addition to coaching the All County Improv, Driskill works with the Howard Community College theatre department.

Although students started out not knowing each other 10 months ago, one word students commonly use to describe the troupe is family.

"As the year goes on you get to be a family. It's really nice being a part of something and being accepted," said Matt Neil, a junior at Glenelg High School.

Another aspect of the program students rave about is the support that they receive from each other and how everyone is trying to make each other look better while performing.

"That's the point of improv, you're not trying to make yourself look good, you're trying to make your scene partner look good," said Nick Carson, a 2014 Reservoir High School graduate.

Through improv, students learn how to think on their feet quickly and improve their social skills, which allow them to be better in groups and in interviews, Livingston said.

Patrick Mikulis, who recently was elected as the Student Member of the Howard County Board of Education, agreed with Livingston.

"I wouldn't be where I am today in student government without ACI," he said.

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