Self-Improv-ment: Level Two

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Atlas Improv Co.’s level one improv class during the summer of 2017 was so great that it left me hungry for more. Level two picks up where level one left off with our improvisational comedy education, letting another batch of creative hopefuls practice the craft of making scenes, stories, and characters from nothing. The new focus on more advanced storytelling techniques, stronger character work, and full-fledged game creation finishes the foundation needed to have performers truly commit to their scenes.

“What, do you need me to hit you one more time, baby?” I squeak out in an awful attempt at a wiseguy detective interrogating a hapless criminal. “Is my toxic behavior disrupting you?” The name of the game, fittingly, is Interrogation, wherein a criminal is brought in and interrogated. For what? Only the detectives and audience know. Using puns, the detectives slowly reveal the crime, location, accomplices, and motivation (CLAM, for those in the know) to the criminal, who must figure out exactly what they did. If it wasn’t obvious from my line, this criminal had accomplished his crime with the help of none other than Mrs. Kevin Federline, aka Britney Spears.

It’s this kind of focused, objective-driven interplay that level two really hones in on. In level one, we learned the basics of “yes, and…”-ing our scene partners; ways to combat that stage fright and fear of the unknown; and some simple, short genre games. Level two gets more into the minutia of creation in different (even nonverbal) forms, gift giving, and more complex creativity in our storytelling tactics. While that may sound intimidating, Atlas certainly knows how to imbue us students with a solid structure that makes us nigh impervious to improv pratfalls.

Puns play an integral part of level two of Atlas Improv Co.’s improv classes. Luckily, most of my awful stand-up from back in the day focused squarely on puns, so I had a modestly confident swagger when games pertaining to these delicious vocal treats came into play. In fact, after a wonderful introduction from our co-teachers Steve and Mike, the very first game we played in level two was called Last Action Hero, named after the early 90s Arnold Schwarzenegger box office bomb. The objective of the game is to creatively dispatch your opponent and send them off with a zesty one-liner based off of a profession. Like, for doctors, we could slice them up with a pantomime scalpel and deadpan say “Time of death: now!” or “I’ve got a PhD; you’ve got a PhDead.” Imagine that in a knockoff Austrian accent, and you’re basically there in the theatre with us.

We added a handful of tools to our improv toolbox this time around. One of the more interesting ones was the introduction of pantomime. Pantomime is basically exaggerated miming sometimes combined with gibberish. For my first try, I had to portray whittling to my partner. To establish we were working with wood, I mimed chopping down a tree; chopping the log into a smaller, workable chunk; then I slowly tried to sharpen my slat of stick with a little pocketknife while sputtering gibberish. Eventually, after a half dozen guesses, like woodworking, spear crafting, and wood crafting, my partner did get whittling.

We also tried to promote adding to the scene in wholesome, organic ways by putting out all sorts of offers or gifts, such as hinting at a relationship, throwing that hook out there that your partner can latch on to. Or someone offstage can come in and accept the gift. For example, say a character mentioned their spouse earlier in a scene; another performer can come in as the aforementioned spouse, using that suggestion. At one point, we had a duo commenting on how big some pyramids were, at which point myself and another classmate came in from offstage to form two human pyramids, painting the scene.

We also learned how to make our own improv game in a matter of minutes. After learning what game elements we had to work with—genre, guessing, audience, reenactment, puns, etc.—the hardest part of making your own game was just making sure it wasn’t a game that already existed. The main one I remember from class was one another team created called Climate Control, which is where the host would sporadically yell warmer or colder, and the players in the scene would have to adjust to this new environment, eventually deteriorating into gibberish upon getting too cold.

I think the most important change in level two was the bond I felt with the class as a whole. While everyone in my level one class was kind and polite and game, there was just such a disconnect between everybody due to the totally unintentional clique nature of having an entire family thrown in with a pool of strangers. Every game would inadvertently become about that family and their dynamics and interplay. It wasn’t anybody’s fault; it’s just kind of how it shook out.

Plus, out of all the strangers from the last round, I only Facebook friended two of them, compared to almost every single one of us being friends now in level two. This enhanced degree of involvement made the experience better. Steve explains it best when he says level one has people from all walks of life who may want to take the skills and go back to their own lives bettered, whereas people in level two want to keep the skills close and develop them specifically for improv. Everyone’s in it this time around for similar reasons, and ours is a dedication to the craft. We’re so dedicated that we’ve started gathering in our free time to practice short-form game with each other and a few new friends. These last few months have kept me laughing, that’s for sure.

With a shift toward covering 15-to 20-minute, long-form narrative games, I am terrified to start level three, but with many of my classmates, now friends, coming along for the ride, perhaps my self-improv-ment journey will end on the highest note yet.

Photograph by Kelly Kittle

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 .

Atlas Improv Co.

609 East Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 259-9999
atlasimprov.com