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Improbably Improvisational

November 11, 2009

There is Acting for Lawyers to help in the courtroom, so why not Acting for Professors to help in the classroom? A lot of Ivory-Tower types would probably scoff but it turns out it’s not a bad idea, at least according to the well-known performance coach Kate Hays, who advises in Performance Psychology in Action that an acting or improv class can be a good way to tap into the unconscious mind, which is so important to peak performance.

All this theorizing sounded good on paper. Then, I found myself in the middle of a circle of 25 people holding a fake microphone to my face and channeling Tina Turner.

A week later, Proud Mary had morphed into Beyonce’s Single Ladies. What is that? Do I secretly want to become a leggy, African-American rock star? Heck yeah! And, I found my only ticket to getting there – improv.

The way Shawn teaches this richly historical art form is through exercises such as singing a brief solo on demand as your fellow players bounce you out of the middle of the circle while belting their own tune — thus, my Tina and Beyonce imitations. He also uses various exercises, improv games and character studies, but he is known for pounding improv theory into his disciples before unleashing them onto a stage. That means no telling jokes, no stealing the limelight, no killing scenes by asking questions that go nowhere, and it includes taking the improv pledge of “Yes, and” in trusting your fellow players and carrying the action forward no matter how ridiculous the situation.

For example, in one of my final acts at improv class I played a rich b*tch from Dallas who was married to “Tex” and entered in the world championship of check writing. I won by stabbing my opponent in slow motion with my emerald-encrusted fountain pen. I knew my fellow actors were right there with me, supporting me in the scene and picking up the action if I stared at them blankly, not knowing what to say next. In my mind, I was somewhere else while this woman on stage became her character, provoking real laughter from the audience. With the help of my classmates on stage, I found the funny, as Shawn would say.

At various times, I was a hooker, a drunk driver, a girl on a first date at the zoo, a fashionista and a neurosurgeon. Sometimes I was shaking I was so nervous, and Shawn once admonished me for hiding out and being the last to volunteer for a scene. Occasionally, I wanted to run out the door and forget I had ever had this silly improv idea. Who am I kidding? I wanted to run at least once in every class. But I hung in because I was inspired by the risks my classmates took, fully reaching the goal Shawn set for us – making a total fool of yourself for the benefit of the comedy.

When I told my friends what I had done, their eyes grew large and they said they never would have pictured it. I’ve been told more times in the past few weeks that I have huge cojones than ever before in my long existence as a rather petite, stubby-legged (if you must know) white woman.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Black permalink
    November 12, 2009 5:58 pm

    Loved your words. I feel honored to have been in the room during your perfect comedy moment. It was a great moment! I am started the next class on the 17th.

  2. Wov permalink
    November 12, 2009 7:58 pm

    You had the unusual luck of having a very, very serious and experienced improv teacher – Westfall’s a master. FYI that in addition to the DC Improv classes, there’s also a thriving program at

  3. Julie permalink
    November 13, 2009 8:22 pm

    You tended to be one of the last, and somewhat more reluctant, class members to get on stage each week, but each week you proved to be well worth the wait. You nailed your characters, from the subtle to the sublime. I totally agree, lots of good memories of working with a ecclectic hodgepodge of DC characters. I wish I was in your class this semester!

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