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.

“Do not go naked into that good night”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday at the age of 101. He was a wonderful poet in his own right, but was probably better known as the long-time proprietor of City Lights, a bookstore located in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco that was the heart of the Beat Generation’s writers and thinkers in the fifties and sixties and has endured the rise of chain bookstores in the eighties and Amazon in the 21st century.

I was introduced to his work in college, when my girlfriend, who had read some of his poems in high school, lent me Endless Life: Selected Poems, a compendium of his work through 1981. I was taking one of the best courses I took at Central Michigan University, TAI 270 Oral Interpretation of Literature, with professor Jill Taft-Kaufman. It was an alternative to the standard speech class needed to complete a graduation requirement, and since I was also considering majoring in Theater and Interpretation, it would work for that as well.

After doing some unmemorable prose piece for my first performance assignment, I pulled Ferlinghetti’s book out to find a poem for the second reading. I considered several poems as possibilities. It was difficult, because I loved so many of them, then and now, and what I really wanted to do was read the entire collection aloud, but I was pretty sure that would exceed my classmates’ reservoir of patience.

After trying out “Dog” (“The dog trots freely in the street, past puddles and babies, cats and cigars, poolrooms and policemen He doesn’t hate cops He merely has no use for them”), “Underwear” (“Underwear with spots very suspicious Underwear with bulges very shocking Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom Someone has escaped his Underwear May be naked somewhere Help! But don’t worry Everybody’s still hung up in it”), and “Autobiography” (“I have read the Reader’s Digest from cover to cover and noted the close identification of the United States and the Promised Land where every coin is marked In God We Trust but the dollar bills do not have it being gods unto themselves.”), I chose “I Am Waiting.”

“I Am Waiting” was from his 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind, which was intended to be performed with a jazz background and became one of the best-selling books of poetry in American history. The poem was inspired by his impending trial on obscenity charges that had been leveled against him after City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s poem/manifesto “Howl.”

I have nothing against Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allan Poe, but let’s say my presentation of Ferlinghetti surprised the class a bit. My girlfriend also chose to present some of Ferlinghetti’s work when she took the same class and got an even stronger reaction, perhaps because it was even stranger for a female student to be reading such unexpected words. (For this and many other reasons, I married her!)

Years later, when I was teaching theater arts at St. Clair County Community College, I had the chance to revive the dormant Oral Interpretation of Literature course there. I modeled the course after Dr. Taft-Kaufman’s, which I still had my notes and syllabus from. I began each semester with a performance of Ferlinghetti’s poetry, to set the bar a bit beyond the usual choices from the start.

Thanks, Lawrence, for the words and the courage and the inspiration. You not only moved me forward when I was younger but were the connection between now and then for me. I suspected you might live forever and am more than a bit disappointed to discover that you didn’t.

Here’s “I Am Waiting” read by author Abu B. Rafique:

David Korff, 1942-2021

Sometimes we work toward a goal, knowing what we want and devoting our efforts toward achieving it.

Other times opportunities are presented unexpectedly, and if we take the chance it might change the course of your life.

David Korff

David Korff, who died on January 20, provided that opportunity to me in late 2008. David was the chair of the department of visual and performing arts at St. Clair County Community College, and late in the fall semester of that year, he had a problem: The department had an upcoming theater production in less than a month and he’d just lost the director, who’d left to take another opportunity. He asked the technical director, Roger Hansel, if he knew someone who might be able to come in and take over the production. Roger, a friend of mine from community theater, suggested me.

David asked Roger to give me a call and find out if I’d be interested. In other circumstances, I might have hesitated a bit, but late 2008 was near the start of the Great Recession; both my wife and I had lost our jobs, so any income was going to be welcome, and the idea of actually getting paid to do something I loved was an added incentive. I accepted and somehow we put together the production – Christmas Belles by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – in about three weeks.

David and his wife, Katherine, came to see the play (they came to all of the plays and other arts events on campus) and she was very complimentary. David was more reserved, so I wasn’t immediately sure he’d liked the job I did. Plus I figured it was a one-off gig.

So when I stopped by the Fine Arts Building the following Monday to finish the cleanup and collect my things from the office I’d used for my brief time as a professional director, David stopped me in the hallway.

“You’re doing the next show, too, right?” he said.

“Uh, yeah,” I cleverly replied. Both Christmas Belles and the first show of the winter semester, two one-acts by Edward Albee (The American Dream and The Zoo Story) had already been selected by my predecessor, and Albee’s works are not easy to stage. But I had the feeling that if we could do Albee justice, this could turn into something greater.

The American Dream/The Zoo Story was well-received. My small troupe of actors, soon to be renamed The SC4 Players, rose to the occasion. As the semester ended, and I was again preparing to clear out my office, David stopped me in the hall again.

“What shows are we doing next year?” he asked.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I replied, not-nearly-as-cleverly.

“Well, the director picks them, and you are directing for us next year, correct?” he said.

“Of course, David,” I said, feeling a smile overtake my entire face. A full-year gig directing sounded pretty good, even if still part-time. Then he dropped the other surprise.

“And you’re going to teach acting for us, too, right?”

“Yes, sir,” was all I could think to say.

Eventually, I taught acting, improvisation, and oral interpretation of literature for eight years at the college. My colleagues and students and I built a small program into a much larger one, with as many as fifty students involved in our productions over the course of an academic year.

And it all started with a phone call, and someone who could see beyond the usual constraints, who wanted results, and who had the imagination to let those things happen. David Korff was that person.

One day, during the rehearsals for the Albee one-acts, I stopped by David’s office as I often did to give him an update. He patiently listened to my report, which I assumed he would want because every boss I’d had up to that point in my various careers always expected status reports. When I finished, he asked me why I kept telling him all of this information. I said I thought he expected regular updates.

“I don’t know much about theater,” he said, “except that I like it. I hired you to do that job for me. If I’m unhappy with what you’re doing, I’ll let you know.”

That was an incredibly freeing moment. I’m not sure I’d ever felt so trusted, and I’m not sure I’ve had that feeling since David retired a few years later. I’ve never forgotten it.

I got to work with David on the first grants committee devoted to the arts at our local community foundation, and got to appreciate his overall knowledge of arts and how they worked, including the value of art. Groups would come to us asking for funding for upcoming projects, and most of the time they would say that they intended to have no admission fee for their event. David would push back, suggesting they place at least a nominal price on admission, even 50 cents or a dollar, simply so people would understand that arts had value, that they weren’t trivial or throwaway parts of our society. Not everyone accepted his advice, but I did, and that advice continues to inform my decisions as an artist.

Honestly, I didn’t know David that well. We didn’t socialize outside of work. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but certainly respectful colleagues. In the fall of 2011, we produced a collaborative celebration of all of our arts disciplines, including theater, music, dance, and visual arts. Afterwards, David wrote me a short note:

I did get to tell David on several occasions how much the opportunity he gave me changed my life. He would smile and tell me that I’d helped him as much as he helped me, but I’m not sure it’s even close to equal.

David Korff’s obituary closes with the following suggestion:

As a Living Memorial for David and those you love, take your family to a concert. Picnic along the River Walk. Acclaim the blue of Lake Huron. Visit Museums and Galleries. Buy a piece of Art. Eat more pie!

Thanks, David, for taking a chance on me.

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.