by Kate Branum • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
By now, most of us have discovered that situations rarely unfold according to plan. We’re often told to “go with the flow,” a notion that forces us out of our comfort zones, leaving us paralyzed and desperate for some kind of reassurance.
You can learn to expect the unexpected and approach uncharted situations with confidence through the art of improvisation (improv). The beauty of improv is that it doesn’t demand a right answer or a perfect response; it teaches you how to react to unforeseen circumstances in a way that promotes the creation of new opportunities and dialogues.
“I think improv makes me a much more open individual,” Amy Gascon, performer for No Outlet Improv, admitted. “I think I can go with the flow a lot more and think on my feet. I’m accepting to different ideas, I’m a better presenter and I’m more dynamic than I was before improv.”
At first, Gascon wasn’t sure she was cut out for improvisation. As a self-proclaimed introvert, she preferred to observe more than she talked–a characteristic she thought might hold her back on stage. In 2012, Gascon’s views changed after reluctantly taking an improvisation class at the Civic Theater in downtown Grand Rapids.
“I found, and I think a lot of people do, that a lot of performers and artists are introverts. The stage is their opportunity to let their personality out and to really be whoever they want to be,” she said.
Improv empowered Gascon, providing a surge in adrenaline and a newfound freedom. In 2013, she took her improv career to the next level and attended Second City, a renowned comedy school in Chicago that once taught some of the biggest names in comedy, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert. Gascon focused all of her energy on boosting her improv skills and absorbing as many techniques as possible.
Gascon is now part of a couple of local improv performance groups, including Funny Girls and No Outlet Improv. When she isn’t performing, Gascon works in the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Grand Valley State University hosting workshops to teach helpful improvisation techniques to business students.
“Different businesses and companies are looking for improv training because a lot of the same principles of improv can be used in business,” Gascon explained. “During my improv workshops, I teach ideation, which means coming up with a bunch of ideas and exploring them as much as you can. I also teach presentation skills because I want to try and teach students to be comfortable in front of a group of people so they can react and feel confident when they’re up on stage.”
During her classes, Gascon puts an emphasis on exploration and collaboration. Before introducing group exercises, she reminds students to let go of their fear of looking foolish in front of others. The point of improv isn’t about generating laughs or saying the most clever thing; it’s about continuing the dialogue and showing support for fellow team members. Much like networking with strangers in an unfamiliar environment or working on a group project, improv requires listening, equal input and natural conversation flow.
“In improv, you’ll be exposed to some weird stuff. I tell my students during improv games that the stakes have never been lower, so don’t worry about whatever comes out of your mouth–it’s a time of exploration,” Gascon said. “I think people really enjoy not having to be funny. Once they learn that, people tend to enjoy improv a lot more because there’s less pressure.”
Improv coaches Lis Hatfield and Amy Gascon
Improv is driven by the “yes, and” concept–saying “yes” to new ideas and building on those thoughts until they reach their full potential. Oftentimes, we’re quick to shut down other’s ideas and we unconsciously morph them into a concept that fits our own perspective. “Yes, and” automatically allows an idea to be accepted, explored and stretched to its limit.
“We practice ‘yes, and’ on stage, and we also do that in real life,” Gascon explained. “It’s really impacted the way my world is shaped right now.”
Lis Hatfield, former Funny Girl performer, improv teacher at Grand Rapids Civic Theater and acting director at Rapid Delivery Improv, kick-started her passion for improv four years ago after taking classes at the Civic Theater.
“I tend to be a skeptical thinker,” Hatfield said. “My brain is just wired to always look for what might go wrong, what to fix and what could go better, which easily creates a person that says ‘no’ to a lot of things. I would say improv has rewired my brain. Instead of shooting something down, I’ve learned to take information or a suggestion and think of it in more of a ‘yes, and’ mentality.”
What began as a hobby quickly turned into a lifestyle and career for Hatfield. In 2015, she began teaching improv at Civic alongside former Civic Theater director Bart Sumner. This year, Hatfield is teaching a class alone for the first time, confidently sharing the helpful tips and methods she’s accumulated over the years with eager students.
“I started small–dipping my toe in for fun, and I kind of got sucked in,” Hatfield expressed. “I’m into it so much more than I thought I would be, and I love it.”
On the first day of class, Hatfield made it a point to highlight one important rule: improv isn’t about stealing the limelight.
“I tell all my students, ‘don’t try to be funny!’ and ‘don’t look for the one-liner.’ I tell them not to worry about being really quick and witty,” Hatfield said. “Our goal is to make everyone on stage look awesome, and trusting that that they’ll all do the same for you, so you don’t have to worry about defending yourself or competing. It’s a group-minded activity that calls for everyone to be on the same page.”
Mita Fitzjohn, Amelie MacDonald and Emily Gremel, students in Hatfield’s class, all stumbled upon improv in different ways, but experienced the same benefits.
MacDonald, community manager at a local co-working space, found improv by accident during a trip to Portland in 2016.
“It was a really rainy afternoon, and we stopped in a bar,” MacDonald recalled. “As we were trying to figure out what to do next, we looked around at what was near us and found there was an improv comedy show happening in about an hour. I watched some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen, and I loved how spontaneous it was.”
Soon after, MacDonald researched the classes offered at Civic Theater and decided to try it for herself.
“Practicing improv has taught me to not take things so seriously,” she concluded. “Practicing improv has helped give me confidence to try more new things and to really take ownership of some of the things I want to accomplish this year.”
Fitzjohn was itching for a new creative outlet–something that could briefly put her busy life on pause. After a close friend suggested improv, Fitzjohn received an email from the Civic Theater promoting classes. There was only one opening left–it was fate.
“Improv has given me time to play and be present in the moment for a couple hours each week,” Fitzjohn said. “I am working on launching a coaching business, and as a coach, I work with individuals and organizations to help them create positive change in their lives. It’s important to use keen listening skills and pick up on nonverbal cues–improv has helped me continue to develop those skills.”
As an experienced volunteer at Civic Theater in the wig and makeup department, Gremel was no stranger to performance art. A love for laughter drove her toward improv and she’s been reaping personal and professional benefits ever since.
“I can already notice a difference in the way I collaborate with other people,” Gremel pointed out. “Instead of mentally preparing the next point I want to make in a meeting, I am more focused on what others are contributing, and how I can build on that–just like in improv!”
Explore improvisation through different venues offered around the Grand Rapids area, including: Civic Theater, Dog Story Theater and Wealthy Theater, and be sure to mark your calendar for this year’s LaughFest beginning March 9. The annual festival features a variety of sketch shows, experimental improv performances and original stand-up routines, providing inspiration for those looking to improv(e) their life.