Improv classes borrow from Chicago tradition and alumni success
Chicago may be famous for improv stages like Second City and ImprovOlympic, but the new breeding ground for the next big Saturday Night Live star might just be Northwestern.
With a host of famous alums like Seth Meyers (C96), Stephen Colbert (C86), Ana Gasteyer (C89), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (C83), Brad Hall (C80) and many more, the “purple mafia” seems poised for a take-over of improvisational comedy. And now, two courses in the School of Communication’s Department of Radio/Television/Film are helping other potential stars follow in their footsteps.
“I noticed that a lot of our MFA students were coming out of the improv world and going back to the improv world,” said David Tolchinsky, chair of the department. “But when [Lost writer and 1987 School of Communication alum] Jeff Pinkner came to talk to our program and said every writer should be studying improv, it made me think we should be offering improv to grad and undergrad writers but also to production students since a lot of what we do here in RTF involves creative decisions made collaboratively and quickly.”
And so came the idea for two classes: one a general improv course and one aimed particularly at writers.
“For writers, the questions are how do you use improv to create and then develop characters?” Tolchinsky said. “For performers, it’s about how you can stay positive and how you can react on the fly. But it also goes beyond that. The classes explore how you can use improv to feel more comfortable when taking meetings and speaking about your work.”
From pitch meetings to writing authentic dialogue, adjunct professor Dee Ryan, who teaches the improv course for writers, said there are many things writers can learn from improv.
“Improvisers learn on their feet and they also understand dialogue better than most,” said Ryan, who wrote and performed as an ensemble member of The Second City, ETC. She also taught at The Second City Conservatory in Los Angeles, and, as a writer, worked at Disney Animated Features. “Improvisers have to get up in front of people and fail, and that can really help a writer understand what is successful and what isn’t in terms of reaching an audience. They get instant feedback in a way they can’t sitting at their computers.”
In Ryan’s class, students learn the mechanics of improv through games designed to build scenes, then complete writing assignments where they try to apply some of the same skills they learned in a particular week. Ryan said there’s quite a lot of common ground between television and film writing and improv.
“If you’re working in television and film, you often start in the middle of a scene,” Ryan said. “And that’s what improvisers do every time they’re on stage. Not to mention, improvisers learn to work together. Improv is a collaborative art form and so is film and television."
One of Ryan’s students, RTVF junior Lindsay Barnett (C14), said she loves the class because it gets her out of her comfort zone.
“Improv is amazing because it really changes the way you think,” Barnett said. “As a result of this quick thinking, our minds create wild and entertaining stories, which serve as fantastic places to come up with writing ideas. As someone who has taken a variety of writing courses at Northwestern, I can’t compare the story inspiration that I get from improv to any other experience.”
Charlie McCrackin, an improv instructor and writer in Chicago who teaches the second improv class, said his class is designed as an initiation course for students who have no previous experience with improv. He said anyone looking to build a career in radio or television should know improv basics.
“Obviously, improv training is wonderful for anyone looking to perform live on radio or television when the unexpected must be managed,” McCrackin said. “Improv students quickly learn how to work in groups, how to support each other’s ideas and how anything can be made into something important.”
McCrackin said in his class students learn the fundamentals of improv: listening, agreement, heightening, and support. They spend a few weeks working on building scenes, and eventually work up to playing short games, in a Who’s Line is it Anyway? format. By the end of the course, students work on generating an entire sketch comedy revue.
Daniel DeSalva (C13), an RTVF senior in McCrackin’s class, and said he thinks the class should be offered every year.
“In improvisation, you're allowing yourself to be vulnerable on stage,” he said. “There are no scripts or costumes or sets—just yourself. As a result, you end up learning a lot about who you are as a performer and as a person. You begin to recognize how energy, tone, and body language shape our relationships with one another.”
DeSalva said he can see how improv skills can apply to just about any job.
“I can honestly say that the communication skills I've picked up in this improv class will help me in whatever field I pursue,” he said.
The classes have already proven popular, as there were more students who wanted in than spots available, and both teachers and students say they’d love to see the improv classes become a recurring offering.
“Just talking to the students you can see how passionate they are about improv,” Ryan said. “I’m amazed at how well-informed and committed they are to improv, and I have to say, that for many of them it will be a great way to start out in the business.”
They have famous alumni footsteps to follow, which Ryan said isn’t surprising.
“In my opinion, the funniest people I know are the smartest people I know,” she said. “And the students at Northwestern are incredibly bright and incredibly diverse and enthusiastic.”
McCrackin said the students and their proximity to Chicago’s impressive improv institutions like Second City and the Annoyance mean they have more exposure and more opportunity to perform. “Plus, the Midwest in general is a great place to hone a comedic persona,” he said. “Audiences here have naturally minimalist sensibilities, which helps a performer know what parts of their work are potent and what is fluff.”
He said he’d love to see even more courses, such as an advanced improv course some day.
“I really am thankful to have this opportunity to spread improv to new brains,” McCrackin said. “It’s really more than an alternative way to approach performing or writing. It’s an alternative way to think about the world.”
Story by Cara Lockwood