“It’s very much like everyday life, except it’s completely made-up.”
Eve Carlson, a resident of the Patterson Park neighborhood and a member of the Baltimore Improv Group, has found a succinct way to describe her favorite activity.
Improv, technically called “improvisational theater,” is a form of performance art in which the actors make up the story—and the dialog and the action and maybe some invisible props—as they go along. Unlike a traditional play, there is no script or pre-determined cast of characters.
“The only rule is ‘yes,’” says Carlson. “That means that whatever the person coming on the scene with you says, you go with it.”
Sound intriguing? The Baltimore Improv Festival starts next Wednesday, July 31, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 4, at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., at East Ave. The festival features evening performances and, on Saturday and Sunday, morning and afternoon workshops. Workshops run the gamut from introductory and kids’ courses to seminars on musical improv, improving physical improv skills and more. Troupes from across the country will be putting on performances. See www.baltimoreimprovfestival.org for a full listing of festival activities.
Carlson came to improv from a theater background, but she says that anyone could enjoy learning the activity.
“I think improv can really be a way to bring people out of their shells,” she says. “It can be empowering to come up and say whatever you want.”
BIG member Katie Long calls improv “a thrill” and “very challenging” activity, though the premise is simple enough.
“A lot of improv is just allowing yourself to be a kid again,” she says, “to let go and get out of your head for some real organic fun.”
A mind-to-mouth filter, in fact, can be detrimental to improv, Carlson adds.
“The more improv you do, the more confident you get, and the more you think your ideas will be good ones,” she says. “You need to learn to trust your gut and not filter yourself.”
When that filter shuts off, Carlson says, improv performers may find themselves totally present in the scene which they have invented with the other performers, or “scene partners,” acting smoothly and seamlessly as if the spontaneous events depicted were truly happening in real life.
This phenomenon, Carlson says, is known among improv enthusiasts as “group think.”
As a group, BIG currently has about 40 performing members, according to Bridget Cavaiola, who is director of this years’ festival. Cavaiola is also getting ready to be BIG’s second paid employee as education director.
“We’re a functioning nonprofit arts organization,” she says. “It’s really cool.”
With five nights of performances, Cavaiola said that the Baltimore Improv Festival is returning bigger and better this year, the seventh for the festival. There are workshops for folks brand new to improv on both Saturday, Aug. 3, 2 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 4, 10 a.m.
Another highlight is a crash course in musical improv, taught by Travis Ploeger of iMusical, a Washington, D.C., troupe. If making up dialogue and action on the spot is difficult, then making up songs and musical accompaniments must be incredibly demanding. Ploeger’s workshop is Saturday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m.
iMusical will perform on Friday, Aug. 2, at 8:30 p.m.
For something else completely different, the Baltimore troupe Tigerhead will be performing improv with puppets on Wednesday, July 31, at 7:30 p.m.
Generally, improv performances run from short-form styles—similar to the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”—to long form, with highly developed characters and storyline.
Carlson notes that watching a performance is an “active viewing” experience. The audience is often called upon to throw out suggestions to fuel the skits.
Though the Improv Festival brings out the bells and whistles, Cavaiola stresses that simplicity is at the core.
“What I like about teaching improv, and what I like about doing improv, is that it’s something that requires nothing,” she says.
by Erik Zygmont