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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Improv Lessons
April 14, 2013 - 2:35pm
For obvious reasons, it is not possible to rehearse an improv show. However, my class had the equivalent of the dress rehearsal for our 4-show musical improv run last night, racing through three back-to-back 25-minute improvised musical comedies.

It was horrible, and not in the usual "bad dress rehearsal=great performance" sense. For one thing, our teacher was absent. We love our sub, who taught many of us as beginners, but this was a last-minute, emergency fill-in, and so he was not up to speed on what we have been working on. For another, our cast had suddenly shrunk from 12 to 8, as classmates have fielded family crises and work demands.

And then, each of us is dealing with his or her individual issues, which is of course true in any group, but this has been an usually difficult winter for many of us. I, for example, have been taking medication that is probably saving my life, but that also functions as an immunosuppressant, making me vulnerable to every bug that is floating around—and there are a lot of bugs out there, believe me. My current symptom is a wheeze ending in a prolonged cough when I breathe deeply, which, as you can imagine, makes singing complicated. And my problem is not the worst, just the only one I feel comfortable writing about.

For an improv group to function well, its members need to be closely attuned to each other, almost to the point of ESP. This can be a beautiful thing—two of my teachers once improvised a duet in which they sang all the words of a chorus-verse song in unison, while facing away from each other. Our group has shared less dramatic experiences that are nonetheless qualitatively similar.

But when things go south, panic can be communicated as efficiently as lyrical and melodic intent, and that's what happened last night.

There is no one in the class for whom this is merely a lark. We attend a professional training school, with fairly exacting standards for promotion and the assumption that everyone enrolled is actively pursuing a performing career of some sort. I am probably the least invested person in our class (I have a profession I enjoy, and at my age the chances of "making it" are slender to the point of nonexistence) and I take this all very, very seriously.

So when our scenes fell flat; when I introduced a chorus and then, after the verse, couldn't remember how it went; when we realized that we were 3 minutes before blackout and only halfway through the story; and once when we had trouble figuring out who the protagonist was, things got tense quickly.

"What made us think we could pull this off?" one classmate demanded, and no one had an answer. Another declared that she was dropping out; it would be pointless to go on at this point. Unusually for this group, there was even some (muted, apologetic) interpersonal griping.

I had no intention of dropping out. I need performance experience, even bad performance, to help inoculate me against the stress of auditions and future performances. But when I got home, I did write to supportive family and friends, warning them away from what promised to be a complete disaster.

I woke up this morning feeling differently. Yes, this a professional school, but we are students. We are now 3/4 through the training program, but we haven't completed it, and even after we "graduate" we won't be experienced pros. Making up an entire musical with a coherent plot is really hard, and if we stumble, that is part of the learning process. And finally, even in the unlikely event that we put on the worst show in the history of the school, the consequences are fairly tame—our friends will suffer momentary discomfort, and some of us may need to repeat this class before going on to the next level. I've enjoyed this class; how much of a hardship would it be to have to take it again?

The only thing that is really at stake is the possible embarrassment of being "left back," of being singled out as the slow kid in class. I am a 61-year-old professional, and I'm done with that. Maybe I will have a different attitude after the show, but at this moment I feel ready for whatever comes,


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