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When Andrea McCloskey, an associate professor of education at Penn State, achieved tenure she wondered, “What’s next?”
McCloskey thought, “I want to do something new, I want to be creative, I want to try something scary. I’m always telling my students to do scary things, go toward the fear.”
She’d always liked watching improv comedy, so she thought she’d give it a try. She found an improv camp through a Google search and took the plunge in 2016.
By August, she’d founded Happy Valley Improv, joined by Penn State faculty members James Tierney and Sam Tanner to begin practicing in the basement of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in State College. Nathan Rufo, another Penn State staffer, rounded out the company in January 2017.
A year later, even the group’s members seem a bit amazed by Happy Valley Improv’s rapid success. The company is selling out shows in the State Theatre Attic, leading popular workshops, and getting ready to grow.
“I’m shocked by how fast this is moving and how well it’s going,” says Tanner, an assistant professor of education at Penn State Altoona. “Usually things in my life are much more difficult,” he says with a laugh.
Why’s it going so well? Attend a show and it’s obvious how talented these four are, how much work they’ve put in together to get here, and how much trust they have in each other.
They also found a niche that wasn’t being filled locally.
“It’s very humbling,” Tierney, a PSU economics lecturer, says of the positive reaction the group gets.
“We also view our role here in State College, Happy Valley, to be kind of educators about what improv is, because there is no improv,” other than a couple of student-run groups on campus, he says.
“We want to be the town improv, even though there is some gown improv,” Rufo, who works in the Office of Global Programs, says with a laugh.
Rufo says a teacher once likened improv to “acting, writing, and directing, all at the same time, in real time. You have to be making all of those decisions at once up on stage.”
One reason for the art form’s popularity is that the skills required translate to everyday life.
“All of the skills of improv, may it be listening, storytelling, creativity, getting out of your box, knowing how to respond on your feet, making eye contact,” relate to other walks of life, Tierney says.
The group performs long-form improv, with segments lasting about 20 minutes. At a recent State Theatre show in front of a packed house, they improvised three such skits based on suggestions shouted out by audience members. In one segment, the company members transformed into an Iowa farm family that encountered a wealthy philanthropist with a gold cane. Many twists, turns, and euphemisms ensued, as surprising to the cast as to the audience. There were no props other than a couple of chairs.
While they shows are unscripted, it’s a mistake to think the performers are simply winging it.
“It’s a year, if not years, of working with the same group,” Tierney says, noting that three of Happy Valley Improv’s members started working together in August 2016 (with Rufo joining in January) and didn’t perform their first show until September 2017.
Before going onstage, the group practiced at least two hours each week, a routine that continues.
“I’m glad we waited, and that we were ready,” Teirney says.
So how does the group prepare for a show that is improvised?
“We’re not rehearsing something, we’re practicing an art form,” Tierney says.
He likens it to basketball practice.
“You have certain plays you might run, but you’re always improv-ing,” he says. “But you’re using these skills. You have to practice free throws, you have to practice three-point shots, so when it comes up in a game you know what to do.”
The main rule in improv is agreement, supporting each other’s characters, he says.
It’s a key theme of improv, known as “yes, and…”
“‘Yes, and…’sounds so simple and yet it is the hardest thing,” Rufo says. “All you have to do is say yes, and add something, and it’s so difficult for people to break through their mindset of every day protecting themselves or saying no and asking questions. It’s really hard to change your disposition.”
Tanner, who taught things like Hamlet in high school for 15 years before moving to Penn State, says “teaching kids to say ‘yes, and…’ in drama workshop one was hands-down the most difficult thing. I think that’s harder to teach then physics.”
That, Tanner says, helps illustrate that improv “is a really disruptive art form.”
Rufo calls improv a “failure-based art form” because even seasoned improvisers will have scenes that don’t go well.”
The group members laugh when asked if they know in the moment that a scene is flopping.
“Are you kidding me? Absolutely we notice,” Rufo says.
McCloskey recalls thinking at times, “I’m dying up here.”
When that happens, they’ll “clap it dead,” a signal for a new scene to start, Rufo says.
Trust in each other plays a big part in improv. Returning to the basketball analogy, Tanner says, “You have to have faith that it’s not up to you to take 50 shots a game. You have to share the game with people.”
“I need to know that if I go out on stage and start doing pushups, someone’s going to come out and do pushups with me,” Tierney adds.
While they trust that their show is going to be entertaining, improv performers don’t have to be funny, company members say.
“It’s better if you’re not,” Tierney says. “The humor in improv comes out of reality.”
Rufo says he’s “found that a lot of the comedy comes from discovery. If you go up there with a pre-loaded joke, for whatever reason the audience feels that. They’re not here to see a standup show. They want to see you up there making it up as you go. That’s what improv is.”
McCloskey offers a theory to the group that improv “is a fundamentally comic form, because the central drama that we’re all engaged in is, the audience is wondering ‘can they do it?’… And we do something, so it always ends up being a comic trajectory as opposed to a tragedy where we could not do it.”
The company members seem to thrive on that connection with the audience, and each other.
Rufo began taking improv classes when he lived in Charleston, S.C. After attending a session with a practice group of performers outside of class, he went home and told his wife, “I’ve found my people. It was one of those things like you’ve been holding your breath your whole life and then you finally breathe. The community of improvisers teaches you to interact differently with people.”
“I really believe improv teaches us how to be better people,” he says. “Improv is an art that teaches you how to be productive and peaceful with other people, and explore and accept difference.”
The company members are now taking major steps to further share their passion.
They’ll be performing on the first Thursday of each month at the State Theatre, beginning Feb. 1.
They’re also launching a beginner-level “intro to improv” class in February. The class will meet for two hours each Tuesday night for six weeks starting Feb. 13.
And the company is looking to grow. They’ll hold a workshop for those interested in joining on Jan. 18, with a group-based audition on the 25th.
“We want to expand the company,” Tierney says. “Four of us doing long-form improv for an hour-and-a-half is exhausting.”
“That’s a lot of us,” Tanner says with a laugh.
It’s an art form company members hope more people will experience.
“For me improv is a different way of being in the world,” Tanner says. “It is a way of being that is the opposite of violent, individual, isolated living. It is collaborative, connected, and … if you do improv for a while you change in some ways, and the way you move through the world changes.”
For more information on Happy Valley Improv performances, classes, or auditions, visit happyvalleyimprov.com, or facebook.com/happyvalleyimprov. Mark Brackenbury is editorial director of Town&Gown.