by David Rosen
I am writing, sadly, on the day after my last improv class at the HB Studio Theater on Bank St in the West Village. At the confluence of my own desire to meet new people and do new stuff, and the prodding of my business coach, I absentmindedly wrote down at the beginning of the year that I wanted to take a theater class. It ended with Leo, Demetrious and I arguing over whether my Mother had been turned into a potato.
Improv is something I first did as a camper at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, and then continued in some capacity at Edward R. Murrow High School, known for its world class theater program. In most improv, like the type you may have seen performed, the actors take suggestions from the audience and just go crazy and run with it. Picture two people on stage. Someone yells out escaped sex offender, someone else yells out Brad Pitt, and a third exclamation is spaceship to Pluto, and a scene is born. There are rules to this level of absurdity. The main rule is that you have to maintain the reality of the scene. Some people will recognize the maxim, “Yes, and…” alluding to the precept that you can’t disagree with the action on the stage.
Anyway, my class at the HB was not that much like that.
I had a wonderful 10 weeks and it flew by. I had no idea what to expect when signing up for a course. I chose the HB because I know the school and the class was starting the next week. It was reasonably priced so I pulled the trigger. I looked at other theaters too. It was kind of an impulse decision.
My first class was a little more free form. We played games that were very quick and conceptual, which then developed into acting as characters growing scenes. The three main elements of the experience that were unique and special were:
1. The School & Professor
My instructor was Rasa Allan Kazlas, a lovely, tough, focused and driven woman. She was able to marry the precepts of using improv to grow one’s skills as an actor (or, ahem, a salesman) to the ideas of scene study in general. She did not let anything go. She corrected form and function like a personal trainer. Rooted in principles, some of my takeaways were that you have to buy into the reality of the scene wholly. Another important one was the concept of not always talking, but going through the time and active choices of experiencing information. Most importantly, Rasa encouraged me to be a clown. I was to be myself making personal choices as the character I was playing.
OK, in my own mind, do you think I didn’t ask myself if I was crazy taking a class when I am usually showing properties in the middle of the week? Of course I did. Here was my rationale, I know that the only people who have this type of time are either poor or rich. Shoot me. I am shallow.
But you know what? It’s true. Half of the 18 person class was under 22. Wonderful young people learning acting, taking many classes. If you want to go back to college for 3 hours a week, there you have it. And the other half, present writer excluded, wonderful people over 22. Some of them were well over 22. And all of them had compelling and interesting personas. I won’t violate their privacy by dishing on them, but the class was filled with a wealth of knowledge, substance, and attitudes None of them were overbearing, and all of them were as NYC as an everything bagel, or more like a 5 star restaurant. Creativity was bottled up in each one.
3. Shutting off my damn phone and listening
No phones in class. Nowadays people pay for the digital detox alone. That was nice.
Learning to listen, that was the real win. Listening to my body, the scene work, other players. Listening to nature. Listening to instructions. Listening to criticism. Listening to myself. All of this is a transferable skill, and I found it had immediate impact in my life. My teacher thought I made powerful choices on stage. It’s hard to do when you are having more than one conversation at a time.