Make ’Em Laugh – Imrov Builds Skills for Real Life

 

By Lisa Moore
Missing her kids while they were away for the summer, Liz Doten decided to force herself to laugh and set out to try an improv class at the Charlotte Comedy Theater. She got way more than she bargained for: valuable skills to use as the owner of an ad agency, long lasting friendships and a new respect for thinking on her feet.

“I do presentations all the time and improv has helped me to speak to an audience. My kids, however, tell me I am still not any funnier than I used to be,” laughs Doten, who inspired her 16-year-old to take classes.

Doten says the relaxed atmosphere made it easier to perform. “You are told right away that even if you can’t think of something or if you mess up, it only makes the scenes funnier,” she says. “I really had a blast. I think I’ll probably do it forever.”

Improvisation is the practice of acting, talking, singing or reacting in the moment, responding to the stimulus of the environment and one’s inner feelings. The spontaneous skills of improvisation can be applied to various disciplines and professions including sales, public speaking and the performing arts.

Made popular by the television show Whose Line is it Anyway?, improv actually dates back to the mid-1500’s and was known as Commedia Dell’Arte. Popular in Europe for 200 years, troupes of comic performers traveled from town to town presenting shows on makeshift stages and public squares. They improvised their dialogue and action within a framework of scenarios, often satirizing the authority figures of the day.

Keli Semelsberger has directed, instructed, produced and performed improv comedy for 15 years and opened Charlotte Comedy Theater in 2001. She teaches various ages and backgrounds but participants are typically professionals trying to improve communication skills and quick wit, get over a fear of public speaking or social anxiety, or are realizing a dormant dream of doing comedy.

Taking a chance is an important element of improv and rehearsal games help make this easier. Semelsberger begins with warm ups that are fun and lightly physical to break people out of their ordinary world and engaged in play. She then presents exercises that allow the entire group to tell a story together, building on what the person prior has said and taking the story in another direction.

“This encourages listening and agreement as well as team focus,” says Semelsberger, who has trained under legendary instructors Del Close, Charna Halpern and Mick Napier. “We do exercises for different skill sets: some for character work, some for stage presence, many for doing basic scenes.”

Class ends with line games that allow each person to practice their quick wit on a given topic – like “foot in mouth” where students are given an event like an interview and they come up with the worst thing they could say at an interview. Students learn to listen, observe and communicate without thinking twice.

Trust is an essential factor in good improv. Improvisers must trust their partner will assist them and they also need to trust their initial response to a suggestion. It is easy to allow self-censorship – acceptable and unacceptable things taught by parents, peers and society- to get in the way of child-like spontaneity. The more an improviser trusts himself, the more amusing he can be.

With improv being based on real life, Semelsberger encourages her students to utilize all of their experiences to draw from. “I urge them to have real reactions in scenes because how we behave as humans is inherently funnier than what we can make up.  Every person we know and every experience we have is fodder for comedy.”

Semelsberger believes artists are the temperature gage for society and are responsible for being aware of and pointing out inconsistencies and patterns in society that are unjust, stupid or humorous. 
“It’s cathartic to make fun of things that may have been hurtful, frustrating or even devastating in real life,” she says. “In comedy we take the power away from these events by laughing at them and putting them in a new perspective. With humor we can embrace them as part of our collective being.”

Improv helps build confidence and can be a catalyst for transformation. “I’ve seen meek people become more assertive and persue comedy or other dreams with a newfound tenacity,” notes Semelsberger. “And I’ve seen people go from being bitter and victimized to warm and adventurous.”

She insists there is no failing in improv because any perceived “wrong” is where we get the laugh. Plus, there is a group of supportive people all there to make each other look good and appreciate anything put out there. Semelsberger feels improv offers people the opportunity to stop judging themselves and the world around them so harshly and gives them a new perspective that carries over in all aspects of their life.

Doten says if nothing else, people should add doing improv to their bucket list.

“Everyone should laugh this hard at least once in their life,” she concludes.

For more information about improv, shows and classes visit www.charlottecomedy.com.

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