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IMPROVISATION: SMILING IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
STANFORD - Public speaking ranks right up there with undergoing root canal work on most people's lists of least-favorite activities.
Imagine, then, a scenario in which the speaker is not allowed to prepare any material in advance. Instead, the audience not only suggests the topic, but also adds a few wrinkles, such as demanding that the speaker use blank verse, or begin each sentence with a different letter of the alphabet, working backward from Z.
That is exactly the situation faced by the Stanford Improvisers, or SIMPS, a hardy band of students who are willing to entertain an audience at the risk of making fools of themselves.
The Stanford Improvisers was formed two years ago by Patricia Ryan, Stanford University senior lecturer in drama, who has been teaching improvisation for about 10 years. She selected the 17 original members from among 60 student applicants, all of whom had taken her beginning class in improvisation.
In founding the group, Ryan said, she wanted to share the vision of Keith Johnstone, University of Calgary theater professor and creator of an improvisational form known as Theatresports. In his book Impro, Johnstone writes that drama does not have to be based on conflict, but can instead use a model of cooperation.
Johnstone has created a form that gives the theater to the actors, Ryan said.
"The Stanford Improvisers don't need a playwright, a script, sets or costumes," she said. "They show up with only their imagination and ideas. That's pretty radical."
The Improvisers have taken part in Theatresports tournaments, most recently at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. There, competing groups had to improvise on suggestions from the judges and audience, ranging from a scene depicting two sixth-graders out on their first date, done in the style of a Shakespearean play, to a scene in which the characters sing their inner thoughts.
The most important thing the Improvisers learn, Ryan said, is "to cope with the experience of the unexpected and with failure."
Since "everything is created in the moment," she said, much of the Improvisers' work won't turn out to be appealing, funny, or even sensible.
"There's going to be a lot of chaff among the wheat," Ryan said. "Even advanced improvisers live with the reality that a lot of what they do isn't satisfying in some ultimate theatrical sense."
Because mistakes and failure come with the territory, Improvisers must learn "how to develop affirmative behavior in the face of adversity," Ryan said.
One technique the Improvisers have adopted is the "circus bow."
"When circus performers, high-wire artists for example, slip and fall off into the net," Ryan said, "they jump up and face the crowd with outstretched arms and big smiles, even though they may feel defeated and deflated. That response to failure is something we practice until it becomes a reflex, because falling down is part of life.
"You can learn to pick yourself up and move forward and not wallow in 'Why did this happen?'"
Members of the Stanford Improvisers have used their theatrical experience in a variety of situations.
Rob Baedeker, a senior majoring in modern thought and literature, taught improvisation to university students in Indonesia last year as a Volunteer in Asia. The language barrier loomed large, he said, "but non- verbal communication got across."
Adam Tobin, a senior in English, got into the theatrical scene at Oxford University, where he studied last winter, by joining a beginning improvisation group and teaching members some of the techniques he had learned. Also, he said, when he worked as a summer camp counselor, improvisational games "kept the staff from killing each other."
As part of his honors thesis in English, Tobin produced and directed a staging of The Canterbury Tales that mixed script and improvisation.
Jason Dell, a senior in human biology, said he has used improvisational techniques and games to facilitate student interaction in Cardenal House, where he is a resident assistant.
Dell is also a member of another student improvisation group, Spontaneous Generation, or SponGe, sponsored by Ram's Head Theatrical Society. Unlike SIMPS, in which members have to be chosen, SponGe workshops are open to all students.
Jen Kramer, a junior English major who is active in SponGe, said improvisation has allowed her to be comfortable in stressful situations. At a student "roast" for then-Stanford President Donald Kennedy, Kramer played an improvisational game with Kennedy and his wife, Robin. "I wasn't nervous," Kramer recalled.
Many of the Stanford Improvisers said the work had taught them not to "block."
"Blocking" - rejecting a story line and thus blocking its development - is a major offense in improvisation.
Baedeker said his work with the group has helped him recognize "how often in life you block and close yourself to offers. I now appreciate the value of accepting other people's ideas."
"Saying yes instead of blocking" has applications off the stage as well as on, said Christina Milano, a junior in human biology. For example, she said, "If someone is teasing you, it's a different situation if you agree with them instead of being defensive."
Improvisation, said Milano, means letting her mind "work on its feet."
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