Making up answers on the fly isn’t a good classroom strategy, but for a group of Farragut students the ability to wing it is crucial for success on the stage.
For more than 20 years Farragut High School has hosted an Improv Club, a student group that is devoted to the craft of improvisational comedy. The club sponsors three improv shows a semester and gives students experience in an art form made famous by groups such as Chicago-based Second City and New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade.
The club is sponsored by Farragut film teacher Lea McMahan and coached by Dillon Lambert, a substitute teacher and former Farragut student who was in McMahan’s first class at the school 17 years ago.
McMahan attended the University of Tennessee on an acting scholarship and performed briefly in a Knoxville improv troupe after college. She said that the FHS club attracts a wide variety of students and that the skills they develop aren’t just for fun.
In the corporate world, improv experts are sometimes hired to train employees about listening and collaboration, and McMahan said the skill can open doors after high school.
“I’ve had former students come back and say they’ve been on a job interview and they mentioned their improv experience, and it always creates conversation,” she said.
At a recent audition, Lambert led students through a variety of drills that followed a similar pattern: the outline of a scene, unscripted interactions between the performers and then a curveball that forced a change of direction.
In one, the performers were told they were on a football field at night. The audience counted down from five, and as the scene began, the actors quickly started riffing on the stars above the football field.
As the conversation gained speed, a voice interrupted with new instructions – “Freeze! Political debate” – and the actors had to quickly shift into a debate-style argument about which cluster of stars was better.
Lambert, who did an improv writing program with Second City after high school and has a degree in radio and TV broadcasting, said the thing he enjoys about the form is that anyone can do it. He said that in an improv scene, the best moments are often about watching performers react to each other – “it doesn’t matter if it’s funny or not, it’s seeing everybody on the same page,” he added.
Asked what he emphasizes to students, Lambert said that for a high school club, the first key is to keep it clean.
After that, he wants students to be willing to try out new characters while they’re on stage, rather than falling back on a character like themselves: “It’s so boring to watch a high school student be a high school student, when you can be anything.”
Given the high-wire nature of improv, it also puts a premium on teamwork and the ability to trust your fellow performers. McMahan, the film teacher, said the secret to success is going with the scene, adding to it and “never denying your partners.”
“If they say you’re a cat, then yeah, you’re a cat. And you don’t say, ‘No, I’m a dog.’”
Not surprisingly, that unpredictability can lead to all manner of surreal situations. At the FHS audition, one sketch centered on a batch of rampaging peanuts at a peanut factory, while another sketch featured a Kazakh man who was married to Snooki, star of the 2009-12 reality-TV show “Jersey Shore” and its currently airing sequel, “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation.”
One student who auditioned was Will Stevens, a Farragut senior who joined the Improv Club last year and has also performed at birthday parties and an open mic night.
Stevens said improv gives him the chance “to express my emotions through comedy and make someone else laugh – bringing joy to other people.”
And what’s the hardest thing about comedy? Stevens said it’s finding humor in the sad parts of life – “but if you can do it, you have a very, very good gift.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.