I used to wait tables at a Buca di Beppo in Florida a hundred years ago. I had the tomato tie, the pocket protector, the hideous sneakers that wouldn’t slip on wet tile floors, the whole nine yards. I worked there with a man named Mark, a big fella, affable, bags under his eyes, so sloppy that half his shirt was guaranteed dyed red from errant marinara by the end of every dinner shift. At a glance you’d expect Mark’s personal interests to be heavily dominated by the Miami Dolphins and beer, but instead Mark loved improv.
“Life’s hard, Dave,” he told me once. “You never know what the hell it is you’re supposed to do around people. At least when you screw up at improv, you’re not going to wind up paying alimony.”
I offered my girlfriend a slightly modified version of Mark’s explanation of improv in order to allay her anxiety that we might look silly at the class I’d signed us up for at HUGE Improv Theater. “And what,” I then asked her, “nobody else there is going to look silly, either?”
Although HUGE offers a great variety of improv classes, their single hour session looked like just the ticket for a couple of amateurs accustomed only to making up things to say as life requires of them. When we went we took an immediate liking to our instructor Jill Bernard, one of HUGE’s founding members and an accomplished comedienne. She spoke as though she were perpetually on the verge of cracking up, pausing only to crack up, and wore black Chuck Taylors and the kind of glasses you’re awarded when you get a theater degree. Jill assembled the dozen or so attendees in a circle and got us right to work.
We first played Yay, Boo, where we took turns saying something, anything, which the rest of the class would alternately yay or boo. I was yayed when I said that I laughed at the end of Old Yeller; I was booed for declaring that America had faked the moon landing. We then moved on to the Shatner Game, where partners took turns saying one word at a time to tell a story. We concocted a parable about a dog who ate spaghetti and then went insane from not looking at the moon.
We next moved on to Rhinos Are Great, where we took turns listing as many attributes as we could muster about the little rubber animals we’d been handed. The rapid fire nature of this game has you hastily saying anything you can think of so you can build up your tally, until you’re emphatically babbling reasons for rhinos’ greatness including that they wear matching socks and work at the post office. This was followed up by a game where we went around in a circle, each successor responding to the former’s proposition with a sentence beginning with “Yes, and…” The group established that we would buy 500 purses to donate to charity, but only after my girlfriend had picked the best of them out for herself.
As Jill explained to us, these games were not designed just to make us look silly. They were also meant to teach us to summon emotion and enthusiasm even under the stress of reaching frantically for something to say, to abandon rigidity in favor of intimacy, to work both halves of our brains at the same time, and to remain confident while speaking in public. The games certainly seemed suited to those ends, and indeed by the finish the whole class stood a little taller for having spoken more nonsense in an hour than polite society would have tolerated of them in a lifetime.
“I don’t think people hear ‘yes’ enough in their lives,” Jill concluded. “Instead, we are always getting beaten down by no. Just to be reassured that you can say anything, even if it is stupid, and still be met by approval is something I always find very comforting.”
My girlfriend and I are to this day weaving one word stories, and together so far have spun yarns about bears contracting the bubonic plague and Garfield the cat running for governor. I believe even a single improv class at HUGE would make for an excellent date, family bonding night, or corporate team building exercise. An entire course in improv would likely turn you into a social giant. To learn more about how HUGE can change the way you think on the spot, visit hugetheater.com.
By David Scheller