By Luke Wink-Moran/El Inde
The Tucson Improv Movement’s theater is small, maybe the size of two shipping containers in a very big trench coat. The chairs, walls, and stage are all painted black, except for two walls on either side of the stage, which are made of chalky bricks.
I’m standing against one of these walls, waiting for my chance to step into the show. I’m not a part of the theater, I’m just one of the people who stopped by for the improv jam, when anyone can get on stage and pretend to be funny. Walking onto the stage only requires taking two steps up, affixing myself to a wall, and doing my best to camouflage into the bricks. It’s walking into the stage—and thereby into a scene—that’s the problem, because in improv there is no script to guide you through the story.
There is no “Enter stage right” or “Exit, pursued by bear.” Instead, the entire cast lines up against the walls of the stage, and then one member asks the audience for a suggestion—any word the audience can think of, but preferably not food. Food-based scenes get stale quick..
Once the cast has the word, whoever has an idea jumps out and initiates a scene, usually joined by one or two other people who step out from the wall and into the scene to support them. Everyone else stands back like a Greek chorus composed entirely of wallflowers, laughing, reacting and listening. I’ve been in the chorus for about ten minutes now, and I can’t seem to get out there. I have the feeling you get when you’re standing on the edge of a river. Once you leave the bank, who knows where you’ll end up?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the fourth wall. It’s the invisible barrier between the audience and the scene. But I doubt you’ve heard of the fifth wall, because I just made it up. The fifth wall, to me, is a barrier between the people standing on the sideline of an improv scene and the story. To step through that wall and into the scene, you need an idea, a character, a sense of how things will go. The wall is wafer thin and immaterial, but at the moment I’d rather try to walk through the bricks. The scene is rolling on and I’m spinning my wheels.
I was on an improv team in college, but it’s been two years and a pandemic since I performed regularly. I’ve forgotten how to take an idea and run with it. Instead, I think of an idea, and then I think about what would immediately go wrong, and then I realize that it doesn’t matter because the story has moved on without me. Then, suddenly, the stage is empty. The first story is over, and we’re starting a new one. This is my chance. Come on, nerd, we’re writing this story about improv for a grade.
I hear the word from the audience. I step forward, it feels like a tiny trust fall through the fifth wall. Damn, what was the suggestion again? Someone else has stepped onto the stage across from me, waiting for me to speak. Hat, the suggestion was hat.
“Do you think I could bring feathered hats back?” I ask. No one laughs. Ah, fantastic, I’ve made a terrible mistake. But alas, the hat is out of the bag. Fortunately, with the help of the talented improvisors around me, I went from a guy trying to bring back feathered hats to a lovelorn romantic, unable to get a date for want of appropriate headgear. Then, I find the date I’d always dreamed of, and all because of my hat. The story spins me into a scene with Sara Alcázar Silva, one of the theater’s house team members.
Sara grew up in Agua Prieta, a city in Mexico which borders Douglas, Arizona. Sara spoke Spanish at home and English at school. As a kid, she wasn’t the class clown, quite the opposite, in fact. She was a model student with a faculty for language and grammar that would lead her to study French Language, Literature, and Culture and Spanish Translation and Interpretation in college.
“My parents did not really like the mainstream comedy that was available,” Sara said. “It was all just like silly stories or dirty stories or punny stories.” She enjoyed playing a game that she and her sister invented, called Character Mix Up, in which they pretended to be their favorite anime characters and made up stories in a fictional high school. Sara didn’t know it then, but she was practicing improv.
Improv comedy began as a set of acting exercises developed by actress Viola Spolin in Chicago during the 1940s to help her students react spontaneously. Over time, it was adapted by them into an art form of its own. Spolin’s student Del Close took what he’d learned from the exercises and codified improv into a book called Truth in Comedy, where he laid out the fundamentals of improv and his theory that people laugh most when they see something true represented spontaneously, on stage. His goal was to create a style of comedy that could communicate something true—a theme, a message, a laugh—to the audience, so he developed an improv performance format called the Harold.
A Harold is essentially a sit-com that’s made up on the spot, complete with themes, recurring characters, and a cohesive plot. It’s the format that performers learn at the highest levels of the improv curriculum. Del founded the Improv Olympic (iO) an improv theater based in Chicago, where he taught the Harold to alumni like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and many more. More improv theaters sprang up in cities across the country. From Chicago to New York, from New York to LA, and, eventually, to Tucson.
Justin Lukasewicz founded Tucson Improv Movement (TIM) in 2012. Back then, it was just Justin running introductory improv classes out of a rented yoga studio. Eventually, the theater gained traction and Justin and the first generation of performers started to perform at a local music theater.
“As our community grew,” says Daniel Kirby, a TIM performer who’s been with the theater since the beginning, “We rented out a garage and then the people with the skills to do it built us a stage.” Which was where Sara found them.
By then, she was no longer the nerd who pretended to be healthy even when she was sick so that she would not miss class—mostly due to a trip to France in her junior year of college.
“Before that, I was an uptight square,” said Sara. “And in France I was able to become and be more who I am, which includes lots of jokes and being really silly. So in my masters program, I was the class clown.”
Maybe that’s why one of her friends recommended that she try improv.
“And I was like, No,” said Sara. “Like, No, I can’t do that. I can’t get up on stage and make stuff up and be funny. But then there came a point during the first year of my PhD. I was extremely depressed, miserable, working every single day, twelve hours a day. And I was like, I need to have some kind of creative outlet.”
So she took her first class at TIM, which was terrifying but exhilarating. It’s perhaps not surprising that as an academic she moved quickly through the curriculum. And improv theaters are, at their cores, comedy schools. Books like Truth in Comedy and the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual lay out the steps that anyone can take to learn to be funny, and form the backbone of a series of classes offered by most improv theaters. As students progress through the classes, they’re invited to audition for the house teams and put on shows for paying audiences.
People love to call improv a cult, and none more so than the improvisers themselves. The very jam I attended—that I promise we’ll get back to—started with some, “Culty warm ups,” that were really just a few rounds of mental games. But it’s true: Improvisors do tend to proselytize the good word of comedy to everyone they know. Tina Fey once said, “All of those classes were like church to me. The training had seeped into me and changed who I am.” You’ll see that semi-religious fervor in improvisors who invite their friends and family, repeatedly, to see their shows and take classes. That kind of word-of-mouth marketing is how the theaters sustain themselves while charging $10 for admission to most of their shows and keeping some events completely free, like the jam that I attended. See? Seamless segue.
Sara is standing across from me. She’s wearing glasses with black frames and bright red lipstick. She looks at me, and I ready myself for another volley of compliments directed at my hat, but instead she says, “Why are you wearing all that Velcro?”
I now have two options, only one of which Del Close would approve of. This choice turns on the core tenet of improv—the law of comedy that makes it possible to build an entire story off of a single word—the concept of “Yes and,” which is exactly what it sounds like. If someone offers you an idea on stage, you accept it and add to it. It doesn’t matter if that idea is, “We’re standing on Mars” or, “You’re a frog” or, “Let’s jump off the stage.” You go with it, because if you don’t, the story dies. So, yes and . . .
“I don’t know,” I say, ripping the Velcro straps off of my imaginary Velcro cardigan, my imaginary velcro slacks, and a stylish pair of imaginary Velcro loafers. “But this might explain why I was having trouble finding a date.”
Success. The story has legs and I have not swept them. In fact, it progresses so fast that a few minutes later I am a happily married man, with two lovely children and a wife who sees through my hard Velcro exterior to the sick lid underneath—which I am about to take off.
“Come on, William,” I say, looking in an imaginary bathroom mirror. (I know, I know, I wanted to come up with a funnier name for myself too). “You don’t need a hat, your family loves you for who you are.”
“No!” says a voice from behind me. An improviser named Kyle has decided to give my hat a voice. “Don’t take me off. I’ll die.”
“Hatatouille?” I ask.
This gets a laugh. It is good and I like it. This is one of the moments that I find enchanting about improv. The moments when you say something without thinking, draw on a forgotten experience, or use diction you didn’t know you had. In improv, they call it getting out of your head—just living in that one moment and not trying to control what’s going on. You walk away thinking “Well, well, who knew I could tell a joke like that?” I’m not saying Hatatouille was comedy gold (I leave that for any awards committees who might find this story) but I surprised myself, took a risk, and made some people laugh.
I understood how this feeling lifted Sara out of a dark time in her life. Many of us play pretend when we’re younger, just like Sara and her sister did with their Character Mix Ups, but how many of us rediscover that joy as adults? How many of us think our talent for imagining and acting out stories is gone, even if it’s just dormant, waiting for a time to remerge? Earlier I said that many comedians launched their careers at improv theaters, and it’s true that many people look at improv as a way to break into show business. But at the Tucson Improv Movement, most of the people on stage are just doing it for fun, or to learn how to interact with others after a very long pandemic, or to get comfortable giving presentations at work, or to find friends who share their sense of humor. How wonderful.
Anyways, at the end of the day my imaginary family actually did only love me for my hat, which was a bummer, but when the story ended I felt satisfied and relieved because the jam was over, and now I could watch the professionals put on the real show in ten minutes. I stepped off the stage and out into the lobby where a crowd of people were already lining up to steal my seat. I bought a ticket, placing heavy emphasis on the fact that I was in the jam and therefore had to pay half price. I ducked back into the theater. It was dark, the only light coming from a ring of LED spotlights above the stage that glowed like Technicolor insect eyes, green, blue, red, violet. I looked at one for too long and threw off my own vision’s color grading. I took a seat in the back row next to the improvisor who gave my hat a voice: Kyle. He was wearing a floral shirt, and he had a tattoo of a snake eating its own head, Ouroboros. We didn’t talk, but there was a sort of camaraderie in our row—at least on my end of it. Then the real performers took the stage.
I walked out of the theater an hour later, the jokes were already fading and blurring like a dream upon waking. I got into my car and drove home, trying to fix the best jokes in my mind. Then I slipped into an instant replay of my own time on stage. I thought about all the things I should have said that would have been better than the things I did say. Then I landed on that one moment when people laughed. I replayed it over and over again. Hatatouille, Hatatouille, Hatatouille. I felt a warm glow coupled with a powerful motivation to go back and try to get that laugh again. Hatatouille. Maybe I’d go back next week. Maybe I’d sign up for a class. Before I had time to shoot the idea down, I focused on it and thought, Yes, and . . .