By: Niki Fritz
Before I begin this article, I have to admit some bias. I used to hate improv; like really hate improv. I’m from Chicago, land of Second City, Tina Fey, and approximately one billion people trying to make it in the improv or comedy world. Throughout my five years in Chicago, I sat through countless improv shows of friends trying out the craft. And I can’t lie; they were painful. Eventually one day I made a rule for myself: no more improv shows.
Ironically about a year before I left Chicago, I found myself accidently taking an improv workshop where I learned the most important, foundational rule of improv was a fairly simple one: “yes, and,” which was basically the opposite of how I had been operating in Chicago. “Yes” meant saying yes to the silliness of a scene even if it is not what you expected. “And” meant, after saying yes, you had to add your own silliness to the mix. “Yes, and” as a rule means not looking for or expecting perfection but existing in the moment and then moving forward. It was deep and stuff.
Little did I know, that the “yes, and” philosophy would haunt – I mean reappear in– my life in Indiana in the form of IU Telecom’s very first, very original improv team, “The Faces of NPR.”
I asked Edo Steinberg, founder of the Telecom improv team, fearless leader of the troupe and all-around funny man, why he decided to start an improv group with a bunch of stick-in-the-mud social scientists.
Edo admitted that he actually “stole” the idea from the grad students at the University of Pennsylvania. The year before coming to IU, Edo was in Philly, helping his sister adjust to city life and getting kind of bored. He was browsing the profiles of the Comm grad students at UPenn and saw many were taking improv classes. Edo followed their lead and for the next two months, he learned the tenants of improv at the Philly Improv Theater. Edo also humbly noted that the teachers at the Philly school, were actually trained at the iO Theater in Chicago.
“In a way, I was trained at iO,” Edo explained using some shaky-at-best logic.
At this point, Josh Sites, improv team member and first lieutenant of the great beards of improv, felt the need to interject: “Tina Fey was trained at iO so basically Edo and Tina Fey are friends. So really Edo is on a first name basis with Alec Baldwin. Edo is a pretty impressive guy. I try not to boast about it though.” Clearly there is some raw talent on the team when it comes to name dropping and flexible logic.
Edo enjoyed the lessons he learned in Philly so much that he decided to bring the improv philosophy to IU. Also he just missed having an excuse to be silly.
Within two minutes of starting the improv practice, I could see what Edo meant. I had been peer pressured into joining the team in practice to get the full experience; I found myself clucking like a chicken as I walked around in a circle during the warm up activity. It felt silly but it also felt weird to be silly especially with my colleagues.
Josh explained that this feeling is why he joined improv. “I wanted some creative dissonance,” Josh said. When I gave him a look of “Really dude? Did you just say use scholarly jargon?” he restated. “I just wanted the opposite of what I do all day and all week … I get stress relief out of improv. I may just be simply because I’m out of that rut, out of those tracks. Or because it’s silly and goofy and carefree.”
The practice was definitely silly, but as we got further into practice, it also became somewhat challenging. I stepped up to participate and my mind went blank. Without a PowerPoint or lecture outline to follow, my mind was empty, unsure of how to proceed without guidelines.
After this happened a few times, all-wise, fearless leader Edo, told me about another important tenant of improv. “Don’t be afraid to fail. Just try it,” Edo encouraged me. After that, words fell out of my mouth and although they mostly were not funny, I, at least, was participating.
Nicky Lewis, another veteran member of the troupe, also gave me some much needed perspective on improv, telling me, “It’s the crazy ones that are the fun ones.” The more outlandish a scene, the more fun the team seemed to have. Practice seemed to be a safe place to joke about everything from fat babies and dead bodies to Edo’s secret life as an underground fighter and farts.
It was clear to me that this improv team is not about perfection, it is not about making it onto SNL and it is not about any seriously scholarly pursuits; it is about being silly and recognizing there is more to life than academics.
By the end of practice, I found myself succumbing to the “yes, and” philosophy I had fought so hard years ago. I realized that although I was not only feeling funnier, I also was less worried about being funny. I was more in the moment; I was feeling looser, like the muscles in my body had all just relaxed a bit.
It was then I realized what all my improv friends must have realized years ago in Chicago. Most people don’t do improv for the audience, they don’t do improv to be funny. People do improv to connect to something back inside themselves, that uninhibited part of self that is still silly and free. It is a part of ourselves that sometimes we lose when we are busy being important academics.
If being silly sounds like something you want to try, the Faces of NPR improv team will be having practices on Fridays. Feel free to contact Edo if you want more details.