Suddenly your name is called; you step in front of an audience. You stand there, wondering what is about to happen. You’re given a scenario and for the next several minutes you must create something interesting and entertaining. Who in the world would choose to do this? Well, recently nine adventurous souls took the leap to do just this very thing. They came from a variety of backgrounds: one, a retired financial services executive and never-smoker lung cancer survivor and advocate; another, a retired JMU employee who loves travel, running, and time with friends; and a third, a country doctor dreaming of being in the spotlight.
For five weeks under the direction of Michael Strawderman, Artistic Director of the Off Broadway Players, these three and their six teammates learned the framework of and developed their skills in improvisational acting. Their sights were set on the Broadway Fall Festival, when they would mount a makeshift outdoor stage to display their antics in unprepared and made-on-the-spot skits based on the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Ten practice sessions later, the Fall Festival arrived. Two performances of not knowing what lay ahead loomed. Nine souls, admittedly not quite so brave now, wondered if anyone would appear. To their surprise, every seat was filled and other people stood to watch as the show began with two actors on the small stage. The audience gleefully gave the actors the challenge of putting unusual people in odd situations. The show was on! Amid gales of laughter, the actors created, developed and solved each dilemma. In rapid succession other actors appeared, the audience set up the scenes, and in the blink of an eye, the show was over. Together the actors and audience had just spent thirty minutes creating impossible challenges and enjoying the improbable results.
I asked these three actors (James Hiter, Lori Smilowitz, and Dr. David Switzer) why they decided to join the Improv Class. Lori explained, “. . . to try something new and push myself out of my comfort zone.” She wanted the experience of thinking and acting quickly. David took the class to be with his friends, and, in the process, he honed his listening and collaboration skills. James reflected that family and job responsibilities had limited his theatre work. Now, retired, and a cancer survivor, James felt the improv genre was the best opportunity to renew his passion. He opines, “If I got sick, it was OK. It’s improv. Someone else could just jump in and play my part. It was perfect.”
Would these three and the six others do all this again? Given the warm reception and enthusiastic applause, all believe that improvisation is yet another tool in the Off Broadway Players’ performance toolbox. The audience enjoyed being a part of the show. The actors also liked the creative collaboration with the audience and appreciated the life skills learned in improvisational acting: being collaborative, listening to others, building on what is unexpected or new, committing to a mission whose results may be unpredictable, and building confidence in yourself and in others.
The entire improvisation troupe shares Lori’s vision: the day when a full OBP season will include a variety of play genres and improvisation in a new Broadway Event Center. On that Fall Festival Saturday, the audience had an opportunity to see the inside of the former elementary school and, in the plans and the scale model, the possibilities of what can be. They, too, were excited about the future of the facility and the theatre company. The actors predict the center will have both an economic impact and an improvement to the local quality of life. Additionally, says James, “The renovation of this historic building will provide everyone with a fantastic sense of pride.” Everyone, actors and audience alike, cheer Dr. David Switzer’s challenge: “C’mon, Broadway, you can do it!”