Ben Notes: What Improv Teaches us about Community

Bright Invention ensemble members Shea Sonsky and Kiersten Adams at the Steel City Improv Theater getting ready for the post-show jam with amazing Pittsburgh improvisors!

Bright Invention ensemble members Shea Sonsky and Kiersten Adams at the Steel City Improv Theater getting ready for the post-show jam with amazing Pittsburgh improvisors!

Off we go!

Off we go!

It’s Saturday morning and I’m recovering from driving 10 hours over the past 24. Members of my ensemble Bright Invention and I went to perform at the Steel City Improv Festival in Pittsburgh PA. The four of us tumbled into my cranky Subaru Outback Thursday bright and early and enjoyed the middle of the Keystone State as we passed through farmland, exits to the state capital, and finally, five hours later, the rolling hills approaching Pittsburgh. We napped (well, some did - I was driving), told stories and bad jokes, played I Spy and Would You Rather. We stopped at a couple of the fine rest stops along the way and indulged in bad food.

Kiersten and Shea chillin’ pre-show.

Kiersten and Shea chillin’ pre-show.

Our hotel was a corporate behemoth in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh - an art deco relic that had once been a Federal Reserve branch. In the basement, next to the fitness center, giant safes with lapped plates of thick steel stood open and empty. Our rooms were bland but we felt like Important People. We were staying in hotel! And - the festival organizers had left us bags of SWAG at the front desk! The Steel City Improv Festival is a CLASS ACT.

At six on Thursday we Ubered to the Steel City Improv Theatre, and each of us fell in love with Pittsburgh a little. The gorgeous pre-fall weather helped, and the slanting warm sunlight. But I was captivated by the swelling hills on all sides and the blend of mid-century rust belt grandeur with multi-cultural hipness. At the theatre we were met by shiny, happy Pittburghians in Steel City Improv yellow tees, who showed us around the very cool, funky yet well-appointed theater and green room where there was - yes - more SWAG. We hung out in the green room, took selfies, warmed up a bit, felt giddy, tried to calm down, met other improvisers, drank soda and water, ate more bad food, watched the theater fill up, and - before we knew it, the act before us was coming off stage.

The green room was actually . . . GREEN!

The green room was actually . . . GREEN!

Our set was a 30 minute '“mono scene”, which means we picked a location from an audience suggestion and the the entire scene occurred in that location in near continuous time, with the the same characters coming and going, and new ones popping up now and then. We used “pop-out monologues” to introduce new characters by speaking in character directly to the audience then entering. The word our audience gave us was “haberdashery”, so our set took place . . . in a haberdashery. There were two generations of hat makers, new ideas competing with old ideas, visitors from Minnesota, neighbors from the Caribbean, and laughter and enjoyment from the audience. It was that particular improv blend of thrilling and terrifying. Afterward, we had a group hug and agreed that we had done well.

Over the course of the next 2 - 3 hours, we went and got some good food, were interviewed by a local journalist, watched the other teams perform, and then, in what might have been the coolest part of the evening, we hung out with improvisers from Pittsburgh and Detroit, ate pizza, drink libations and participated in an improv jam with them in which this cheerful group of 47 (we counted) were divided into three teams, and each team took a turn delighting the others with 20 minutes of montage improv.

During this heady time people we didn’t know came up to us and told us how much they liked our set. We sat with improvisers from Pittsburgh and chatted, laughed, and connected. We discovered that we do indeed know what we’re doing, that we’re actually good at it, and that we are part of a tribe much bigger than our little ensemble, filled with others who also good at it, who love to share, say yes, and build stories together.

It was close to 1 AM when we all collapsed in our beds back in the hotel, tired, happy, and full.

We call this one, taken at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike, the “Album Cover.”

We call this one, taken at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike, the “Album Cover.”

When I created the organization now called Bright Invention I knew two things needed to be a part of it: improvisation and ensemble. As much as I loved being a scripted actor, I was keenly sensitive to the way I made these deep bonds with the casts I was in, and then those casts evaporated when the show closed, and I was left feeling bereft and lonely. I have been on a lifetime search for long-term, reliable human connection (aren’t we all, really?) Being in plays was in some ways an exercise in repetitive heartbreak, so I was determined to create an ensemble which was together over time, regardless of the vicissitudes of each person’s professional life, through the personal ups and downs we all navigate. In this way, our commitment to each other went beyond each individual’s “talent” or creative achievement. The economics of our work are irrelevant to our connection to each other. We are invested in each other’s complete wellbeing, and our rehearsals are sometimes group support for one or another’s trouble. In Bright Invention, we have helped each other with mental health resources, housing leads, creative dilemmas with outside projects, relationship woes, parenting challenges, and the list goes on. Some of us refer to us as “family” and mean it. For others, we are dependable group of talented collaborators. Each of us makes the bond to the group that is right for us. We come and go, and the ensemble changes its configuration each year.

I believe we come together for live performance for several reasons, but one we don’t talk about enough and lift up for celebration is the mere fact of being in a room together with people we haven’t met before and sharing an experience. Improv capitalizes on this aspect of live performance in that it relies on audience participation and is spontaneously created. Community is created at improv shows through the immediacy of the performance. Knowing we are making it up right in front of you pulls you into the shared present moment more (I submit) than if you were watching us present something we had carefully rehearsed over weeks.

Happy improvisers after a good set . . .

Happy improvisers after a good set . . .

So now I’ll really go out on a limb. I believe that this spontaneous connecting through shared, safe and joyful experience is an essential requirement for our human wellbeing. I believe that if we don’t get it, we get sick. And yes, I mean that literally. And I believe that we now live in The Age of Isolation, making our efforts to create opportunities for this kind of connecting urgent and acute.

Most improv groups exist over time, as ensembles. They are usually called “teams” or “groups” but I like “ensemble”. To me, it emphasizes the togetherness. And not just improv groups. Many young performing artists are forming collectives of various kinds through which they devise all kinds of new and exciting shows. My Advanced Improv class has a core group of students that have been meeting with me to study improv for over two years. They have created their own ensemble and it is vital and important to them. Ensembles recognize that the performing artist seeks compensation in a variety of ways - not just money. We seek the compensation of dependable, safe and creative community. For that, many of us will make the time to connect each week, work on projects, or drive out and back to Pittsburgh for 30 minutes on stage.

For us, community isn’t a nice abstract concept to cultivate through neighborhood associations and alumni groups. It is at the center of our creative process and a pillar of our emotional and psychological wellbeing. We learn not to take it for granted, and that it only gives as good as it gets. My community shows up for me when I show up for them. The inevitable comings and goings help keep us fresh, welcoming and inclusive. The creative life can be so lonely, and it’s full of rejection, uncertainty, and hardship. But when we share it with each other, indeed, when we create joyfully out of it, our journey through this creative life ceases to be a desperate solo, and instead becomes an extraordinary chorus sung among friends.


Short videos of Bright Invention members playing in the improv jam post show at the Steel City Improv Festival, including Ben walking a murderous platypus and getting busted, Kiersten and her artist lover, Shea telling her son to stop eating other people’s dandruff, and Eric working on someone’s teeth . . .