A Dispatch from Dallas Comedy House's Intro to Improv Class, Where Every Word's a Safe Word
Jane R. LeBlanc
Editor's note: We sent Jane the Intern to experience the Dallas Comedy House's Level 1 Improv class. Here's her report.
The sweaty-faced young man to my left turns to me and yells, "Tell me seven things you love about driving!"
"Aaaaaaah!" screams the entire group, scooping their voices and arms in an upward arc toward the ceiling.
"Okay," I stumble. "Running over someone."
"Yes!" screams the group, affirming that no matter what I say, no matter what any of us says, we're right.
"Driving off after hitting that guy."
"Lying to the police about hitting that guy."
It goes on until I finally reach seven and everyone claps. I turn to the guy to my right who's crouched down, arms spread out like a fucking tennis player.
"Tell me seven things you'd like to do in a hot air ballon," I serve. The group guffaws.
I'm at the Dallas Comedy House, as a student in a Level 1 Improv Class, and we're playing a warm-up game called Seven Things. The point isn't to be funny, thank god. The point is to say absolutely anything that comes to mind and know that your team's got your back. The funny will come.
Dallas Comedy House offers five levels of improv comedy classes (each level costs $230 for the semester), and each level is a pre-requisite for the next. Level 1 has no pre-requisite, and no experience is required. Good thing, or I would totally be outed.
Students are required to see at least two DCH improv shows during their Level 1 semester (seven-weeks long), but seeing more is encouraged. The shows are free for students. The classes meet once a week, and at the end of every Level 1 semester, the class puts on a show for friends and family. Best not to throw them to the sharks in the beginning.
When I first hopped on stage, I started to sweat. What should I do with my hands? Thumbs in pockets? No, I look like a cowboy. Clasped in front of me? No, too "first lady." It's one thing for your parents to tell you you're funny, or to be the office clown. It's another to have spotlights shining in your eyes and hear the creak of the stage floorboards under your feet, which are also sweating.
"Okay, so we need to learn everybody's names, right?" asks Amanda Austin, Dallas Comedy House's owner and class teacher. We're standing in a circle, looking at her expectantly. "But this is improv," she continues. "So we're not gonna do it the normal, boring way. We're gonna play a name game."
We have to come up with a word that describes us and an action to go with it. And then show the entire class. Fuck. Every word I think of is impossible to act out. Sarcastic? Lazy? Angry? Do I punch the wall? And then I remember an impression I used to do years ago for my co-workers at Sears. It was a shitty job. We needed the distraction.
When it's my turn, I silently tell myself Fuck it and then say, "Mousey Jane." I scrunch up my nose, tuck my bottom lip behind my front teeth, and make kissy noises. People laugh. Whew. Next.
We go around the circle, and there are some real winners. Fighting Katherine, who's the most timid chick there, and Choking Jacob, a truly scary martial artist who I'm not sure is kidding. But I gotta say, one stands out. Are you ready? Flaccid Kyle. Flaccid fucking Kyle. Side note -- we thought it was a joke. He later told us it wasn't. He's impotent. Fight the good fight, Kyle.
The classes are three hours long, and the first half of this class is spent on warm-up games, to loosen us up and clear our heads. As the minutes tick by and the exercises get sillier, I notice the spotlights less and less and start to forget that I'm on a stage. There's no pressure to be funny; everything you say is correct. Chairs remind you of sweatsocks? Okay. Peanuts remind you of clouds? Sweet. A banana reminds you of your boyfriend? Well, obviously. If only life were like this all the time.
We take a 10-minute break and step outside to cool off. Jumping around on stage like an ass under spotlights will make even the most proper lady sweat like a pig in a petting zoo. Some people talk about the warm-ups, some people talk about what's to come. We all talk about Flaccid Kyle.
We know when we return, we're going straight into improv scenes. Amanda talked about performing actual scenes at the beginning of class. Keep eye contact. Don't fight what your fellow performers hand you. Don't perform drunk. The last one sounds counter-intuitive. But if you really think about what you're like when you're drunk, and then ask yourself if you'd like to pay to witness that while sober, the answer is probably no.
Back inside, we climb onstage and are told to split into two groups. We're going to try two-person improv scenes. Half of us stand stage left, the other half stand stage right, each side standing in line.
Amanda calls the first person from each line to center stage. One person is to say a true statement -- not anything particularly funny, just something true. For instance, "It's really hot outside today." Then the other person responds and adds information. I'm skeptical, but I trust the pros.
I'm still not sure how we ended up where we did, but it happened. People went from the weather to sex change operations and getting arrested. One male-female pair started with the color green and ended up with the chick being a gold-digging whore. My story line? It started with my partner hammering crooked nails into a wall, complaining about how much they suck. The end? Me convincing him that beheading Chinese child laborers would be an act of mercy. Yes, you read that right. I'm a nice person, I swear.
It was addicting. Being on stage and having the freedom to say whatever the hell you want (within reason) and having the support of your fellow performers, without the pressure to be funny? It's pretty sweet. There aren't any one-liners, no punch lines. Just conversations inside of any reality you can dream up.
I started off nervous, but by the time I made it to the actual improv scenes, I was anything but. As soon as I stepped forward into the center of the stage and locked eyes with my partner, it was on. I didn't care about what I said because I knew he'd simply accept it and add to it. And Amanda was right. Without even trying, the funny did come.
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