SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A group of teens here at the Contemporary Theater Company found that off-the-cuff comments to engage an audience — so much a part of teenage rite of passage — are not as easy during professional improvisational acting.
Ollie Pezone, 12, taking his first improv class, said, “Don’t over think. If you over think, it just ruins the whole improv.” He along with other area teens recently spent a week at CTC’s improv camp.
Improv has no script and keeping people’s attention is harder than they thought, said many teens, adding that it’s also a bit scary when the lines don’t work, other performers don’t respond in a predicted way and the audience stares are you with no strong emotion.
Improvisation, or improv, is created in the moment in live theater with the dialogue, characters and even plot developing in an unscripted fashion. The actors will take cues either from other actors playing the role of cue-givers or from the audience. No two shows are exactly the same because there is no script and the design comes from reaction and whimsy.
This is one of several youth camps CTC offers during the summer. In this one, theater staff teach the art of acting naturally to adolescents — in their own personal journey of development — discovering new interests in being on stage or refining skills and performance under the bright lights.
“Your job is to try to keep the person engaged, to keep them on the stage and to have them want to be on the stage,” actor and teacher Riley Cash told a group of students gathered to learn the basics and art of improv theater.
One by one each walked across CTC’s main stage as another student tried to engage them. All done without scripts.
“Miss, would you like some flowers, some beautiful flowers for someone you care about,” said one student attempting to stop another as he walked by. “I don’t care about anyone,” came the curt reply as he walked off without stopping.
“How was that experience,” Cash asked. “It was scary,” replied several students. “It is a scary place because you don’t have anything to say,” he added.
Another teacher, Ashley Macamaux, said, “The person on the stage is supposed to come up with the ideas to keep the other person there.” Heads nodded as she gave this tip among many to her eager young performers.
In this camp, the students also learn how to discover other people’s interests, a skill necessary to maintain momentum in improv acting. This ties into adolescence and teens becoming more aware of the importance of understanding shared needs rather than just their own, said Cash and Macamaux.
Through the camp teens come to better understand themselves, influences they have on each other, the forcefulness or lack of it in their personalities and how all of this helps — or hurts — in daily communication habits and relationships, Macamaux said.
The supportive feelings created by the instructors help them to push forward when a scene doesn’t work well or words don’t come immediately to mind, several students commented during a break in their tutorials.
“They also learn that failure is good. You learn from it and discover how to overcome it when something doesn’t go right on stage — or even in real life,” explained both instructors who themselves have been involved with improv performances for many years.
Much agreement on that point came from Chloe Person-Hoffer, 15, who said, “If you mess up in a scene, you just keep going. It can be very tough. You don’t know what you going to be saying beforehand.”
Lisa Hennessy, 12, noted, “There’s no body telling you what to do. Everybody comes up with something on the spot.”
The improv part — an on-the-spot decision — has its own techniques that Janelle Sherman, 13, said she finds helpful.
“It’s more showing and less telling and then being obvious so people get it,” she remarked. In one scene spontaneity required her to react to smelly body odor. “I had to look away, cover my nose, but keep things going in the scene,” she said.
Collaboration in improv also taps into teen desires to be part of a social network. “You learn to work together, combine ideas and learn to make ideas,” said Ruby Sigman Gunning, 13.
In addition, acting can bring recognition that helps to feed, what experts say, is an often-seen desire in teens to show they can make a difference. For Sydney Cagnetta, also 13 and in her first improv class, that is true.
“It allows me to use my imagination and think of things on the spot. It lets me put my ideas out there,” she said.