how improv found me again on the other side of the world

Improv comedy was a huge part of my life for many years. It started my third year of college when my roommates and I became fans of ComedySportz Madison (RIP—that branch is now defunct). I knew that people could take improv workshops, but it took several months before I made the mental leap that I could take them, too.

I had flirted with performing before. I did a lot of Forensics (public speaking, not CSI stuff). I had small roles in two middle school plays. Our high school drama department was spotty, but I wanted to be involved. I was mainly doing front of house, and that was fine, but I felt a little shunted to the side. I didn’t know how to act or sing, and I would have been scared to do it. I wanted to try it, but I hadn’t the first idea how to begin. I didn’t fully admit that to myself at the time. I was not the most self-actualized teenager, and in fact I was quite possibly the least.

So improv wasn’t the most natural leap for me, but I was starting to get a little antsy as the end of my college time approached. It was time to branch out a little and see what else was out in the world. And I was fine as a performer. I made friends. And when I moved to Minneapolis, I started classes there to continue having fun and meet some new people.

I wish I could say I learned a lot and was totally cool. Honestly, I did learn a lot, but it was frustrating. I knew I could do better, and I wanted to do better, but I didn’t do better. It took me a long time to get to a level where I was in a regular troupe that did maybe 10 shows a year. I wanted more, and I didn’t know how to get myself there. That manifested in a lot of frustrated and bitchy behavior that likely stemmed from envy and confusion. I didn’t like how I was acting when I was in the improv world. And I was busy and needed to focus on other aspects of life, so I stopped. I promised my friends that I would never do it again. I was out for good.

Then I moved to China. I learned that my contract required a certain number of teaching hours, and two of those hours would have to be made up by leading a student activity. I for some reason (and in my defense, there was A LOT of information being thrown at me when I arrived) thought I had to teach one two-hour workshop. I thought, I can throw together two hours on improv, speaking skills, saying yes, etc. Then I found out it was two hours every week. Ah. I guess I’m back in, Michael Corleone style.

First term I mainly worked with the students in the English Drama Club. Yes, there are Chinese students who perform drama entirely in English. Most of them are English majors, but this year the group became open to all students. One student knew about improv from a British drama teacher she had as an exchange student in Taiwan; everyone else was a complete tabula rasa.

One of my proudest moments came at our first rehearsal. We were outside of the Foreign Languages building and I was starting them with some three-line scene starters. The vice dean saw us as she was leaving the building and stopped to watch. The next day I emailed her about another topic, and she mentioned how intriguing our activity was and how it would help the students’ language and creativity.

I like to joke that teaching is easy; all you have to do is stay one lesson ahead of your students. I didn’t exactly do that, but there were a lot of weeks when I remembered a game or scene structure or concept as I was writing up my lesson plan. And I never, ever stuck 100% to my lesson plan. Any given week was likely to be a surprise. In part, this is because I was never quite sure who would show up to rehearsals. Chinese college students work very hard. I know there are a lot of times my performers would want to attend but would have to take an exam or study. They weren’t just avoiding rehearsals. They did their best. But it was difficult to get any momentum going in the group.

Second term I thought I should try to recruit some of my former students. They were in level 2 English and some of them had fairly low spoken English skills. In other words, a very different group than the English majors in English Drama Club. But why not try?

And a few of them did show up. And a few kept coming back. And a few brought friends. At the same time, the drama club students attended less and less as they had more academic commitments. So we had two different cliques for a time. I regret not managing to meld the groups sooner, but once they began attending rehearsals together more regularly as the show approached, they became good friends.

Photo taken after our first performance. The man in yellow was the teacher who hosted.
Photo taken after our first performance. The man in yellow was the teacher who hosted.

How did I teach this ragtag bunch of Bad News Bears? I really emphasized the ideas of saying yes and trusting your partners (and director). I had a number of moments when I had to stop the scene and say, “Wait a minute. If she says you’re Justin Bieber, then you’re Justin Bieber. Continue.” Of course we worked on other things, but if they only learned one thing, I wanted them to learn to say yes.

This became particularly important as we started to prepare for a show in earnest. The non-drama club students were especially anxious. I knew I had to devise a showcase that would put them in the best light. I wanted them to stretch, but I knew they had to succeed. I had a vague idea of doing a hip long-form show structure, but I had to admit they needed more framework than that. So I stuck to some simple short-form games.

Unlike my ComedySportz experience, we couldn’t rely on cleverness and cultural references for easy laughs. Side note: I also learned that Chinese comedy culture is very different than Western comedy. Even the New York Times says so. Knowing this helped me communicate what I wanted better, although I am still struggling with this aspect of Chinese culture.

We ended up performing twice. One of my fellow teachers had a charity show to benefit victims of the Nepal earthquake, and I volunteered our group. I’m really glad that we had that performance two weeks before our actual show. I was nervous and had a hard time believing my performers wouldn’t crash and burn. I was afraid I’d put them in a situation where they couldn’t succeed. I chose a Le Ronde, which turned out to be weaker than I thought, so 30 minutes before showtime we changed to Freeze Tag.

They nailed it. I had told them that being in front of an audience would add an extra spark. Like magic, it did. Performers who often hung back were willing to jump out and participate. Performers were silly and surprising and said yes. Another teacher told me afterward that he assumed we had prepared, which is high praise for an improvised show. It was also nice to see the dean and vice dean in the audience to witness what we built.

Sadly, some of my students had to drop out of the group before our real show. They were busy with exams and interviews and studying. The main thing I regret is not having the show a few weeks earlier. Now I know. At least they had one opportunity to shine. Nine students ended up in the show.

Telling a conducted story during our second show.
Telling a conducted story during our second show.

And oh, they were so good. Some of the performers spoke too quietly, and I had to gently push a student into a Freeze Tag scene when nobody else volunteered to enter. But honestly, for a beginner improv show, it was great. The students and teachers in the audience were impressed. And most importantly, the students had a great time.

What’s the next step? I don’t know. I am not sure if I’ll be able to teach improv in Nanchang due to my expected course schedule and grad school work. As for the Chongqing students, they might switch to improv in Chinese. I guess that’s fine, but I don’t know who will direct them, and I don’t think they are ready to direct themselves.

One of the performers told me, “Sarah, this is a wonderful memory, and I will remember this for the rest of my life.” I hope I get to work in such a fun and supportive group again, but I don’t want to be greedy. We caught lightning in a bottle. I’m grateful.