Improvising

I taught improvisational acting for a few years at our local community college. It’s simple to learn the basic concepts of improv, but much harder to actually master it. I’m certain I never did, but I could improvise well enough to be able to teach others how to do it.

The main rule of improv can be stated in two words: “Yes, and…“. This simple idea means that when your partner says something to you, the scene can only be moved ahead if your response is in the general form of “Yes, and…”. You don’t have to literally say, “yes, and…”, but you must agree with what your partner said and then add something that keeps the scene going. If you disagree, you’ve probably killed the scene.

It sounds simple, but in practice it’s quite difficult to do well. You have to overcome the urge to throw in a punch line, or take the scene over to move it to where you want it to go. Impatience is your enemy; you need to relax and trust that you’ll get an opportunity to use your great idea, if not in that scene, perhaps sometime later.

Improvising can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. The risks of looking stupid in front of your peers (or even worse, a live audience) are real. Many actors never get comfortable with improv. They go through the motions in their classes when they’re required to, but never really dedicate themselves to it.

Most actors have traits that interfere with performing improv well. A big one is that we don’t listen well, or perhaps it’s better to say that we don’t listen completely. We’re used to jumping in with our idea as soon as we have it, rather than letting the person we’re talking to finish their thought first. So much context is lost in that kind of interrupted conversation.

Another common issue, which I mentioned earlier, is impatience. We want to get to the funny part (or the “big moment” if the scene is dramatic instead of comedic) right away. Selfishness is a problem, too; we often have a hard time letting someone else get the big moment or laugh. Improv also requires a lot of trust between scene partners, and that can take time to build, just as in other types of relationships.

Improv is helpful even when you’re doing something familiar, including acting in a scripted play. What happens when someone forgets a line, or a light or sound cue doesn’t happen, or another actor misses their entrance entirely? The ability to gracefully improvise in those situations has saved many a scene, sometimes so well that the audience is unaware that anything went wrong.

Most of us improvise every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a script lying next to their bed. Every interaction we have is unscripted, though certainly some situations are more common or familiar than others and end up playing the same way as dozens or hundreds that came before. Each of us has a level of tolerance for improvisation. Some prefer to only engage in situations that are predictable, while others relish the chance to experience something new.

The ability to improvise well can make the difference between a career that requires only repetitive tasks and one that allows you to be creative and effect change. How comfortable are you with improvisation?

It was 20 years ago today

and it wasn’t Sgt. Pepper teaching the band to play, but Prof. Harold Hill.

Sometime during the week before February 27, 2001, I was leafing through the Port Huron Times Herald and saw that a local community theater group was going to hold auditions for The Music Man, one of my favorite musicals.

I did a little bit of theater in high school, then took a few classes in college as I considered possibly majoring in theater at Central Michigan University. I worked on set construction for one production and helped with the front of house (tickets, ushering, etc.) for another before moving on to my next possible major (I signed up for seven majors, which is a story of its own, I suppose).

So I hadn’t really acted on stage ever. I thought it would be fun to just be in the chorus, or maybe part of the barbershop quartet. I figured if you were going to do a play, you probably already had people in mind for the major parts. That turned out to be both true (directors almost always have some idea who they’d like to cast, assuming they come out to audition) and false (sometimes the preconceived actors don’t show or, even better, someone else does who changes the director’s mind).

I had mentioned auditioning for shows before, several times, in fact. My wife, Doreen, had had enough. “If you don’t audition for The Music Man,” she said, “I don’t want to ever hear you say you ‘oughta’ audition for another show, ever.” The gauntlet had been laid down. It was time to put up or shut up.

Even then, I enlisted my 11-year-old daughter, Erin, to come along with me. Sort of a human shield, I guess. Maybe if they liked the cute kid they’d put her old man in the show, too. She was a good sport and agreed to audition with me.

We did the typical community theater audition things: a little reading, a little dancing, and a lot of singing. The director, Sue Daniels, had years of experience directing musicals and swiftly moved everyone through the paces. Not knowing what to expect, I was pretty impressed with how she handled everyone. There was no awkwardness for being “new,” and Erin and I were greeted warmly by everyone. It was fun.

I noticed after about an hour that there weren’t any men who would of a typical age for Harold Hill. I was 38 at the time and wondered if I was too old to play the part, but every other guy there was either a teenager or at least 15 years older than me. I began to let myself think I might have a shot at the lead, but again reminded myself that surely they had someone in mind and perhaps he’d been at the auditions on the previous night.

When we got to the singing part of the auditions, I thought I did pretty well. I knew the music already so I was confident. “Ya Got Trouble” is a tough piece and we didn’t sing much of it, but I felt good about how I did. We also did Harold’s reprise of “Til There Was You,” which gave me a chance to show my full range.

Erin and I went home and we both thought we’d done well enough to be cast in the chorus and even discussed how much fun it would be to get to do that together. I got home at about 9 p.m. and was reading a book in my home office when the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.

“Can I speak to Tom Kephart,” the caller replied. “This is Russell Kaleikilo, president of the St. Clair Theatre Guild.”

“This is Tom,” I answered.

“Ah, Tom, good,” Russell went on. He’d been one of the members of the audition panel. “We enjoyed your work tonight and wondered if you’d be interested in playing Professor Harold Hill.”

I dropped the telephone.

Picking it up and doing the classic tangled-cord-trying-to-talk-in-the-wrong-end routine, I finally got it straightened out and apologized to Russell for dropping him on the floor.

“Yes, I’d love to,” I said.

Russell laughed and told me when the read-through would be. Then he asked if Erin was available. She had come into the office so I handed the phone to her. Russell asked if she’d like to be a “Town Kid” in the show, and she also answered yes.

And that’s how I ended up playing Prof. Harold Hill in the first show I ever auditioned for. It was a life-changing moment, one I’ve relived over and over because it set the stage (pun intended) for the best twenty years of my life. That opportunity led to 57 more shows since The Music Man, both as an actor and as a director. My experience allowed me to teach acting and improvisation at a community college for eight years and direct four shows a year there. I met almost all of my close friends through theater. It gave me a purpose I didn’t really have before.

And it all started twenty years ago tonight. Thanks to Sue Daniels, Jean Bastian, the late Russell Kaleikilo, and the entire cast and crew of SCTG’s 2001 production of The Music Man for believing in me that night in February.

Open to interpretation

I used to teach acting at a community college. The department where I taught was called “visual and performing arts.” The performing arts were vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theater.

While “performing arts” is no doubt an accurate description of what happens when the artist is in front of an audience, I prefer to think of them as “interpretive arts.” I like that term because music and theater performances require a two-step creative process. This is different from photography, illustration, painting, sculpture, and other visual arts, which involve a single artist producing a finished work based on a concept or idea they have devised themselves. There’s seldom a team involved in creating a work of visual art.

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Going back to a (virtual) stage

Nearly all live theater companies and groups have been idle since the world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, like everything else, theater artists assumed they would have to postpone or cancel a production or two, but then things would slowly get back to normal.

Eight months later, many groups are still wondering when, if ever, that “normal” is coming. Restrictions on the number of people who can attend a public event are very low in most states, making the economics of a full-blown stage production difficult.

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Leaving Anatevka

The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)
The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)

Fiddler on the Roof closed last night after a three night run. It was community theatre at its best. Everything came together beautifully: the acting, the singing, the orchestra, the tech. Around 900 people saw the show and were generous in their praise of the production.

For me, it was a dream come true. Finding myself in Tevye’s boots on stage was as wonderful as I imagined it would be. So many moments will last in my memory: the opening number, “Tradition”; talking to Lazar Wolf (John Klecha) about selling my “new milk cow” and then launching into “To Life”; allowing Tzeitel (Elizabeth Wentzel) to talk me out of my agreement with Lazar so she can marry Motel; “Do You Love Me” with Golde (Christy Kreidler); listening to Hodel (Ciara Adams) sing my favorite song in the show, “Far From The Home I Love,” to me and then both of us crying real tears as the scene ends; denying Chava (Tyler Nevison) after she marries outside of the faith (more tears); and, of course, “If I Were I Rich Man,” a show-stopping solo number if there ever was one.

Obviously, I’m leaving plenty of names out here. Our entire cast and crew worked very hard, for nothing but the love of theatre, to make Fiddler a success. Thank you to all of you for your dedication. It was a privilege to be your Tevye. And special thanks to Sue Daniels, who directed me in my first show in 2001 (The Music Man as Harold Hill) and launched my life in a different direction, one that has provided years of fun, laughs and challenges.

I know some professional actors and directors who make fun of community groups for “trying to do theatre” (despite many of them getting their start with similar groups). I reject that type of snobbery. Every community deserves art, including theatre art, and everyone should be encouraged to participate. Acting jobs that actually pay a living wage are rarer than hen’s teeth. So bravo to those community theatre groups like the St. Clair Theatre Guild that work diligently to bring art to their communities and provide the opportunity for their members to express themselves artistically (while also having a lot of fun!).

As the good book says: “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people to do in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

L’chaim!