Some people love to paint pretty pictures while others prefer taxidermy, carpentry, or writing freelance for local magazines. As I pursue the latter option, I’ve decided to explore another passion—improv comedy. Follow me in my journey over this and future issues as I chase my dream of becoming Madison’s most adequate improvisor. To kick things off, I spoke with Daniel Row, the director of Atlas Improv Co.
Daniel Row was entrusted with enormous responsibility in the summer of 2017, when he was appointed artistic director of the Atlas Improv Co. in downtown Madison. The departing director, Kristina Martinez, who held the position for five years, left some big shoes to fill.
“I hope I can fulfill all that responsibility,” Dan starts on taking the position. “But, at the same time, it's responsibility that doesn't feel like work; it's what I'm passionate about. It's what I love doing.” Daniel enjoys organizing people and making sure the theatre has the opportunities they want, assembling indie teams, and, of course, performing improvisational comedy. “Being able to help Atlas move forward and keep progressing as a company is daunting and exciting.”
Daunting, indeed. Originally founded by Mary Parmentier and Bryan Judkins in 2004, Atlas Improv Co., or ComedySportz–Madison as it was formerly known, aimed to grant local improvisers more creative freedom. In particular, the ability to try out long-form improv as opposed to just shorter, snappier games. Currently, Atlas Improv Co. offers three levels of instructional classes in the improvisational arts spread throughout the year. The theatre also has shows every Friday at 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., alongside a long-form showcase Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. Plus, they host indie teams outside of their regular troupe. All of this happens at their theatre on East Washington, just blocks from the State Capitol.
Daniel became artistic director after he’d only been with the company for a year and a half. “I'm not the most tenured member, but it's something I love doing.” Daniel strives to make sure that the theatre has access to the opportunities they want to have.
While the work is voluntary, Daniel says, “You get things out of it that aren't monetary. It's a friend group and a community. It's enriching.” Being a big group of friends, the troupe—16 members as of this writing—definitely has perks. The transition into a position of leadership can be difficult, but has been a bit easier for Daniel because of those in the group. “It can be tough, but we're a close group, so there haven't been any squabbles. We support each other.”
Improvisational comedy is, after all, about support. “Yes, and…,” the most common phrase in improvisational philosophy, means agreeing to what your scene partner has presented and running with it. Learning to say “yes, and…” really puts you on their side. Even if they had a thought that differed vastly from yours, by saying “yes, and…” you agree and can work together. Working together and being on the same page is important in achieving Atlas' goal of creating scenes that are real, as opposed to simply funny.
“Atlas' philosophy is not ‘Hey, let's try and be funny,’” Daniel says. “It's more like ‘Let's try and play these characters and make them real’ because, in that reality, there's a lot of funny interactions that happen.” Daniel and the Atlas community know the craft goes beyond jokes. “It's telling a story over a long period of time and making it more than just a goof or a gag. Sometimes we find really poignant, interesting moments between characters surrounded by jokes and funny things, but there's also so much more there.”
At one of the Saturday Showcase shows, Daniel says, “There was a scene between two of our improvisers that almost brought me to tears. I was just running sound and I thought, ‘Oh, this is very good, and I'm very proud of them.’ It just struck a chord.” Daniel still finds new ways to appreciate the craft. “That's what I love about improv. Even though I've been doing it for a while now, there are still things that are surprising and new and beautiful. I love it.”
Improv doesn’t just teach people to say “yes, and…” in poignant scenes on stage; it also teaches people to say “yes, and…” to life! “I'm a pretty nervous person,” Daniel says. “Improv has been something that made me less nervous, less afraid to talk to people and to do things. One of the things about improv is that you have to deal with the idea of failure because it's gonna happen. But you realize, ‘Oh, if I mess up, it's not so bad, things aren't going to be wrong forever.’”
It also helps people deal with the chaos and unpredictability of everyday life. Daniel explains, “Improv really heavily emphasizes not knowing exactly what's going to happen, but being ready for it anyway.” Learning to work with other people is another benefit. “It also really helps you to become a more empathetic person. You realize ‘Oh, not everyone has the same exact thoughts as me, but their thoughts can be just as good.’”
At the end of the day, improv helps people be less afraid. Less afraid to try new things, to hop into someone else's shoes, to be vulnerable in front of friends, family, and strangers alike. Daniel urges everyone to “Just do it. Try new things. When you try new things, you grow as a person. When you grow as a person, we all grow as people, and it's better for everyone.” He wraps up by saying, “It's not as scary as you probably think it is. We're not looking to make each other fail. That's what I've learned from improv. People want to see each other succeed. If everyone's on your side, what do you have to be afraid of?”
For more information on upcoming Atlas shows, special events, and classes, visit AtlasImprov.com .
Josh Heath is a Madison-born-and-raised writer. He loves comedy, but “can be a bit much” according to strangers at parties and ex-girlfriends. Read his film work at cutprintfilm.com or his Comedy Picks in Isthmus.
Atlas Improv Co.
609 East Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703