Just a few days after my spring semester wrapped up at Chapman University, Dale and I embarked on a 24-day driving adventure and impro workshop tour up the west coast! It was the most fun “working vacation” I’ve ever had!
My first out of five scheduled workshops was at STANFORD UNIVERSITY, on May 2, working with the Impro System-trained, Theatresports-licensed SImps (Stanford Improvisers)! Megan Calfas, an alumna of my former youth theatre company in Manhattan Beach, initiated the invitation. With my old company, I often used improvisation as part of the rehearsal/devising process but also in performances. I’d like to think that maybe that initial introduction to impro was what inspired Megan to join the SImps! Whatever planted the seed, she is where she belongs! Megan and her fellow troupe members are terrific improvisers! They are benevolent, present, and curious. They asked so many good questions that really challenged my own understanding of impro. They were particularly skilled at moving from the “Blind Offers” warm-up to scenes using blind offers, even though this is something they haven’t specifically worked on before. I also taught them Fast-Food Stanislavsky, the Hat Game, and we finished with “Scenes with Ernie.” In this, and in the other workshops, I stressed the importance of understanding the theories underpinning the exercises, so its not just about having an experience but understanding why the experience matters.
The next day I had lunch with the lovely Patricia Ryan Madson (author of Improv Wisdom, professor emerita, and SImps founder) just outside of Stanford’s Green Library where the “Keith Johnstone Papers” are now housed. Two years ago, as Johnstone’s Literary Executor, I made arrangements to ship a large portion of Keith’s personal archive to Stanford University Libraries, per Keith’s wishes. After lunch, I was reunited with the collection! Patricia joined me as we explored several of the archived boxes in the gorgeous, old Field Reading Room. I was happy to discover the collection being handled with the utmost care, thanks to Daniel Hartwig, University Archivist, who I got to finally meet in person! I will continue to work with Daniel, to get more of Johnstone’s collection digitized. Meanwhile, go visit the archive! Here’s a link to schedule a visit and to request materials:https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/10575734
Next workshop destination, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON, my alma mater! On Wednesday, June 1, it was a surreal experience walking into my old theatre department in Villard Hall and seeing posters everywhere advertising this “master class with a master impro trainer” with my photo! And after planting myself in the acting classroom I knew so well, where I taught acting classes for 4 years while earning my doctorate, I felt immediately at home, present, and in the flow with a lovely group of 25 graduate and undergraduate students (11 from Dr. Theresa May’s Theatre for Social Change class). The 2 hours flew by. Everyone was so engaged and enthusiastic from beginning to end, with fertile dialogue generated about how we might apply impro tools beyond the theatre for social change. Unfortunately, because of a UO policy, I have no photos of this workshop to share with you. At the end of the day, Dale and I had a delicious vegan dinner at Theresa and Larry’s home. While in Eugene, we also got to spend time with my aunt and uncle and old friends, and buy some updated Duck gear at the UO Bookstore! Go Ducks!
Next stop, OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON, for a Mask & Character Workshop, organized by Daniel Knutson-Bradac and his YesAnd Conspiracy organization. The all-day workshop took place on Saturday, June 4, at the Olympia Center. Everyone in the group was a part of Daniel’s current or former impro troupes, so they were ready to be challenged and absolutely joyful to work with! Before lunch, we explored character building exercises like Fast Food Stanislavsky; placing the mind in different parts of the body (a technique Johnstone adopted from Michael Chekhov); and Spolin’s Who Game/Body Attitude with Johnstone’s suggestion of evolving this exercise into scene work. During the lunch break, we all headed over to the fabulous farmers’ market. What a beautiful day it was in Olympia! When we returned, we launched into beginning Mask work with my 9 extraordinary character Masks, created by master Mask maker Steve Jarand. Although I teach Mask work to my impro students at Chapman, this was the first time I spent almost 3 hours, nonstop, just on Masks, and it was exhausting! Daniel, who has studied with both Johnstone and Jarand, capably assisted me. Without him, I would’ve collapsed! But what a great day, and what a wonderful stay we had with our hosts Daniel and Kari. The following morning, our hosts sent us off to stay at their cabin on beautiful Guemes Island for 3 nights. This idyllic place allowed me to relax, reflect, and get re-energized for my last two workshops.
Next up, SKAGIT VALLEY COLLEGE in Mount Vernon, Washington. This workshop on June 9 was coordinated by our dear friend and fellow UO alum, Damond Morris, who is chair of the theatre department at Skagit. The focus was on using impro to lead, create, and collaborate better for a diverse group of 16 administrators (including the Dean!), faculty (from business, health sciences, etc.), local artists, and a few theatre students. I connected Daniel Pink’s ideas on “Attunement” (in To Sell is Human) to the impro work we did. For example, we worked on lowering status to increase power and “matching status” to achieve what Pink calls “strategic mimicry” (important for achieving William Condon’s “interactional synchrony” or what Johnstone calls the “kinetic dance). The workshop was 3 hours but we could’ve gone on for 3 more! There was endless positive energy and a wealth of collective knowledge in the space! And how great it was to spend time with Damond and his family!
Finally, I taught my last all-day workshop at UNEXPECTED PRODUCTIONS in Seattle on Saturday, June 11. Randy Dixon, artistic director of Unexpected Productions (the home of the first Theatresports league in the U.S.) invited me up. Again, in this workshop, I really delved into theoretical underpinnings, so after each activity, we’d discuss why the activity existed. This was a perceptive group of improvisers who had taken other classes at Unexpected Productions. Two of the veterans in the group, Sheila Goldsmith and Rich Hawkins, had trained with Johnstone. Rich actually took my Mask workshop in Olympia! Such a nice surprise to see him again in Seattle. And Sheila brought two of her own students to the workshop from her studio Improv Playworks based in Bellingham. Sheila was also instrumental in bringing Keith down to teach in the Pacific Northwest on several occasions. After the workshop, Dale and I had a yummy dinner with Randy Dixon at El Borracho’s (best vegan nachos I’ve ever had!) around the corner from the theatre. We conversed about Avery Schreiber (my first teacher!), Del Close, Paul Sills, Keith, the history and evolution of impro, etc. Randy has worked with all of these pioneers over the years. He also has an exceptional memory and keen knowledge of impro, so I couldn’t help but ask him a million questions before he headed off to improvise in an 11pm Theatresports competition!
And so my Pacific Northwest Impro Workshop Tour had come to an end. After teaching five challenging workshops with a total of 67 inspiring, generous students, Dale and I were ready to head home to Orange County. Dale, my hard working photographer, was looking forward to just sitting and driving for a week. On the way down, we stopped to see friends and family (in Tacoma, Olympia, Eugene, and San Franciso), the redwoods, wineries (Sonoma and Paso Robles), and other beautiful towns and sites along the PCH. We had a blast on this unforgettable “working” trip, and hope to do it again next year.
Thank you for reading my long, much overdue blog post!