The First Day of School is Always the Most Fun
Time finally made its way to 9:30am and I shot up and hit the shower. Aaron met me outside and we began the short walk to iO. In fact, it was so short that we ended up there 30 minutes early and killed time with coffee at a restaurant next door.
When we entered the theater it was crammed with people. We checked in and got our packets and I tried to carve out an open spot. I was doing pretty well until they pointed everybody to the workshop sign-up sheets that I happened to be leaning against, at which point I found myself at the business end of a yes-and horde of mad improvisers. Dimo’s brought a bunch of pizza over which ran some minor interference long enough for me to sign up for the workshops I wanted. I got into two with Jet Eveleth, a physical improv one and one that’s all personal feedback. I remember Shyla telling me that Susan Messing was someone she wanted to learn from more than anyone (and I’d already been pre-warned about her abrasive nature by Derek Dupuy) so I signed up for her “Group Pretty” workshop on how to create great stage pictures which promised “flying, symmetry, story theatre and the mysterious busby berkley!” I got into a crisis point after that because there was an advanced scene workshop with Greg Hess that looked wonderfully appealing but it was at the same time as Jet’s physical workshop. Prioritizing was not something I’d planned on having to do. The final one I got into was “Position Play” with Miles Stroth, a workshop about recognizing types of scenes and how to play roles in those scenes. It seems like it’ll be a new take on the concepts of TNM’s straight/absurd and Matt Donnelly’s Bull/Matador so I’m hoping to sharped my skills more in that regard. All in all, I think I made out well on the workshop end. By the time I got to the pizza, though, there was only a slice of cheese left.
It was 11:30 by this time (we started at 11) and Charna Halpern had yet to show up, so training center director Lee Brackett took the stage and introduced all of the Level 1, 2 and 3 teachers. He went into telling us the organizational things that were happening with the intensive this year and covered a fair amount of bases regarding what to do in Chicago, where and how to go see shows, etc. He recommended seeing the Armando that night but warned that it might be a little packed since we’re all students on the first day.
At noon, Charna arrived with two dogs and a ton of fanfare. It was a pretty goofy entrance, a woman who looked like she’d go on shopping dates to Talbot’s with my mom jumping on stage, kicking the teachers, flipping everybody off and saying “Fuck you, I’m extreme!” with a grin to let you know she was kidding. Speaking of which, she could really stand to update her headshots. I expected some mysterious-looking dark-with-a-streak-of-silver haired woman that would look at you with too-serious eyes. What I got was a sweet, sunburned, blonde Martha Stewart mom who claimed to be “the last living inventor of long-form improvisation.” She spoke a bit more about the nature of the curriculum, stuff I’d known already through reading Truth in Comedy, and dropped a bomb: She was late because she was negotiating getting a new space for iO to live. Apparently, they’re moving away from their location on Clark Street and into a new, bigger venue, so this will be one of the last intensives at the space that Del Close once was. Weird.
My first week of class was taking place in the “3rd Beat Room,” a practice space on the third floor of iO. I walked up the stairs from the downstairs Cabaret Theater and found myself in a place I’d only seen on YouTube: The iO Main Stage, the Del Close Theater. I tried not to nerd out like a loser, so as I walked past that stage I spun around and grabbed a picture and spun back around mid-walk like I was taking some covert spy photo of a foreign dignitary marked for assassination. By the time I hit the flight of stairs leading up to the third floor the photo was on Instagram.
My Level 1 teacher is Steve Waltien, a young guy with a reassuring personality that’s very open to anything you have to say or express. He did a roll check on everyone and we got in a circle to introduce ourselves. Two guys in my class, Javier and Chris (there would have to be another Chris in my class) were from Phoenix and knew Matt Graham from when he went to the Phoenix Improv Festival. They were really excited to see someone from The New Movement with them and I was struck by how awesome it is to have a reputation precede you. I was also surprised about how many people are doing the intensive that came from different countries. Earlier in the Cabaret Theater I found myself talking to a couple of Germans and a Polish guy and there’s a small contingent of British people here as well. Two of them, a guy named Dave and a girl named Charis (pronounced CARE-iss), are in my class and they’re both awesome. There are a couple of Canadians in my class as well, a girl named Debra and a guy named Ken who also happens to be about 4’6”. Another Canadian, a guy named Wayne Jones, was detained at the border and will be along this week; and another Brit was apparently flying in as well. Hopefully, this means I’ll have couches to crash on in London and Toronto at the end of the five weeks.
There were two things I was worried about going into this intensive: That I’d be in a class of people that weren’t on my experience or talent level and that it would take a level or two before we hit upon my current stumbling block with improv. Both of those were dispelled almost immediately. I’m not sure what everyone’s experience level is, but I’ve been saddled with people who are going in with the attitude like they’re here to become pros. Then the first scene I got up to do, a couple who’s broken up and are trying to split up the stuff, ran me right into my improv wall of getting trapped inside a singular emotion and feeling no way to heighten or change it. Even better than that, when I voiced the concern that this was my wall, Steve was supportive of that and immediately offered great advice on overcoming it.
Another thing I really like about Steve is his openness to hear new ideas. He asked the room about what we thought were some of the basic tenets of improvisation and Ciaris mentioned a saying in the UK that he’d never heard of before, “Jump then Justify,” meaning to get out there with whatever you have and then figure out how it works as you go. It seemed slightly haphazard in the way she described it, but I think it’s an active version of what TNM means when it says “Fuck your Fear,” meaning to initiate your idea without fear of it not working, that the other improvisers are going to pick up and support it. Speaking of TNM sayings, I told Steve about “Listen Your Dick Off” and he loved how the saying emphasized the importance of listening, adding that it has to be done with your eyes as well as your ears.
After class, a bunch of the students walked next door to Mullen’s Pub, essentially forcing the guy to open it. We hung out there for a few hours getting to know each other before walking back to the theater to get into the Armando, which we totally did. When the lights came up, a million people were standing on stage that blew me away. I saw Zen Lunatic Joe Bill again, the crazy drunkard who helped me break through one of my previous improv walls with some of the most mind-blowing advice I’ve ever received last January at Improv Wins. He was standing next to improv guru TJ Jagodowski, famous for his film and those ridiculous Sonic commercials, and a host of some of the bigger names in improvisation. They took to the sides in a set of chairs and the monologist came out, telling some amazing stories that led to even more amazing improv. Again I was struck by how comfortable everyone was, how connections were never dropped or callbacks never missed, how characters that were barely remembered returned during key and crucial moments. Bits flew through the air like wildfire. It’s the kind of improv I want to always be doing.
I stuck around afterward for a sketch show that was solid and wonderful, but I couldn’t take much of it in because I was physically and mentally exhausted. At that point I’d realized that I was doing improv, seeing improv and talking improv for 13 hours straight and hadn’t even noticed. I was hungry and disoriented. I grabbed some Dimo’s because that was the only food I could remember at that point and then headed back to Deena’s. I tried to bang out this post and was asleep before the first thought completed.