What do a predilection for kissing lizards, a magic IT-working stool named Francis, a great-great grandfather turned starfish, and dancing cacti have in common?
Nothing — nothing at all.
Well, not literally, perhaps, but the decidedly non-literal fantastical creations of the young mind represent just a few of the laughter-inducing utterances fostered in Red Deer’s two high school improvisational theatre (improv) clubs.
Back in 2000, Tara Koett was an eager drama student at Hunting Hills High School with a desire for less scripted performance opportunities. She approached drama teacher Sue Merry with that desire, and soon after an improv club was born at the school.
Today, Koett too is a drama teacher, at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. One of her courses is Advanced Acting 15, in which she teaches the lessons of improvisation to the 20 students who had to try out to enrol in the class.
And at Hunting Hills, Merry still leads teens through the broad world of improv, coaching an extracurricular team.
The 2012-13 school year marked the first time improv students could obtain credits for the class at Lindsay Thurber; in earlier years it was merely an extracurricular pursuit. It is a popular class where creativity flourishes, energy is high, and long lectures and note-taking are practically non-existent.
At practices and seasonal performances, the young thespians play a series of games, often soliciting ideas from audience members and incorporating them into the scenes. Their greenness is evident in the occasional slowness, but so is their quick wit and developing adaptability and relatability skills.
The free-wheeling atmosphere of the class allows students to take risks and grow in confidence, says Koett. And the support among competing troupes, even the two traditional rival Red Deer schools, engenders even more flourishing of young talent.
“The spirit of improv is so positive,” raves Koett, “It’s one of the only places where I feel like when you’re competing, you want the teams you’re competing against to be good.”
The two local squads take part in the Northern Alberta Improv League (NAIL) in Edmonton every month. Last year, the Hunting Hills team won the league based on their performances throughout the year.
NAIL is hosted by RapidFire Theatre, which in February also puts on a improv festival that includes the Nosebowl Theatresports Tournament. This year, for the first time, four Thurber students took home the top prize at the competition.
The team of Brad Burega, Isiah Williams, Britt Cupples and Matthew Pierik beat out 20 other Alberta high school teams for the gold. Burega also landed on the tournament all-star team, a distinction that earned him a scholarship to an improv camp in B.C. this summer.
The Grade 12 student first learned of improv in middle school, and was happy to be able to join the class come 10th grade.
“It’s a nice complement to the other things I do in my life. It’s a nice creative outlet. … It’s a great way for me to get to perform and be spontaneous and be creative where sometimes I don’t always find I get to do that,” says Burega.
He says it is best to be spontaneous, to not over-analyze, and to avoid recurring characters or themes. And although the more conventional acting he has done in scripted school productions does not allow much space for spontaneity, Burega says he still finds his improv lessons helpful.
“It keeps the idea in your mind that each time you’re performing it should be fresh. You can change the way you’re enunciating, change the way you’re saying the lines to find something entirely new and just reinvigorate the scenes.”
Like Burega, Hunting Hills improviser Breanna Stutheit is hoping to continue with improv after her graduation this summer. In her high school experience, Stutheit says she has laughed so much on stage that it hurt, cried on stage, and consistently surprised herself with the words coming from her mouth.
“It doesn’t always have to be funny,” she says, “but it has to be touching, whether that is joy in the heart and laughing, or some other way.”
While Stutheit and Burega will need to find new improv avenues as they move on, the two high schools have no shortage of creative youth eager to take up the art.
A rookie this year, Grade 10 student Melissa Hernandez joined to get out of her comfort zone. Her experience has made her more open to other’s ideas, and she has often surprised herself.
“At the moment, the energy is so high that you don’t realize what you’re doing, but after, you’re like, ‘I did that!’ ” says Hernandez.
Fellow rookie Elena Stalwick says she has thrived off of the energy so omnipresent in the improv class. She has learned it is futile to plan scenes mentally in advance.
“You just kind of have to go up there and feed off of the energy and everything that people are giving you because no one else on stage is going to do what you are thinking in your head,” she explains.
The goal of improv, says Merry, is not to be funny, but to create meaningful scenes and “good art” where humour can play a role. A teacher for 20 years, Merry says coaching improv is the best thing she has ever done with students.
“On the surface it may appear to be somewhat frivolous, because it looks like all we’re doing is having a good time, but it builds so many skills and so many kids gain such great confidence from improvising that they go on to use in all sorts of venues,” she says.