Improvisational theatre has been getting a lot of attention over the last decade. Shows like the British and American versions of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and spin-off’s like “Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show” have introduced the world to the unique experience of improv, a theatre style in which the actors perform spontaneously, without a script. Improv is a lot more than theatre and television shows, however. The skills that it provides have a broad spectrum of application.
It is with this thought that I find myself on a Sunday night at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center, attending a beginner’s class on improv taught by Sheila Goldsmith. Being naturally shy and having absolutely no theatre or acting experience made me worry that the class was going to be a little awkward, but at the moment that the class started my fears were dispelled. As we all went around and introduced ourselves, I realized that many of the students were in the same place as me; levels of experience varied greatly.
While the diversity in the class brought up my comfort levels, a key element of Goldsmith’s ideology made me feel right at home. “It’s okay to make mistakes,” said Goldsmith. This is further illustrated by an exercise she has us do where we walk around, throwing our hands up at everyone we come across and loudly saying, “I screwed up!”
The class seems like an instant safe zone. It feels comfortable to be there. Bill Steele, a fourth grade teacher from Sunnyland elementary, says that some nights it’s hard to come in. Once he gets in class, however, it all gets turned around. “When I leave,” Bill said, “I’m so glad I came.” This is a common comment, Goldsmith says.
Almost instantly a bond forms between classmates. It is silently understood that we are all there to do the same thing, and no amount of silliness or playfulness will be criticized. My new found comfort is helpful, because I also feel like I am learning some new and important skills.
While I felt some newly formed skills starting to bud deep inside of me, I could also see those skills shoot from the soil and into the sky at the intermediate class. The intermediate class is held at Mindport, in downtown Bellingham. It is here, in the midst of the more experienced, that I begin to see applications beyond the group of students laughing and having what might be the best time of their lives.
Goldsmith, a veteran of San Francisco’s Bay Area Theatre Sports, and co-founder of the Upfront Theatre, is a firm believer in improv as a way of improving the quality of life for everyone. “I use [improv] to broaden and deepen the range of who I am,” Goldsmith stated.
In addition to improving yourself, improv has practical applications in everything from business all the way to the general creative arts. “I love that improv brings a perfect balance between focus and spontaneity,” said Steph Donovan, an assistant to Goldsmith in both her beginner and intermediate classes.
This is seen in many of the students of Goldsmith. Like the beginner class, the intermediate offers a sampling of quite a broad spectrum, from grade school teachers, to children’s book illustrators, to one particularly talented high school student named Emma Cohn.
Cohn, who is almost sixteen, is a great example of improv helping people in the real world. For Cohn, the improv classes help her bond with adults, a skill she uses outside of the classes.
Goldsmith is the director of Improv Playworks, and offers classes on improv at both the Firehouse, at 1314 Harris Street, and Mindport, at 210 W. Holly Street, where she also offers a free drop-in class. Stop in for the drop-in classes on Wednesday, October 12, from 7-9 p.m., or Saturday, November 5, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. For more information, call 756-0756.