By John McNeilly
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were active in it. Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, too.
What unites these uber-successful comedy stars? All devoted years, long before their public fame, to training in the art of comedic improvisation.
Improv, which was publicly popularized by hit television shows such as “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and the “Upright Citizens Brigade,” is live theater where actors react to made-up scenarios and respond with spontaneous actions and dialogue. Their success—which is driven by audience reaction, laughter being the gold standard—depends on the chemistry and skill of each artist.
Now a team of 11 students from Loudoun County High School are actively seeking their own improv stardom in a relatively new program sponsored by Loudoun County’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Community
Services department. Managed by Alex Beard, who is the youth initiative specialist for the county, the students meet one day each week before school to rehearse and receive direction and improv coaching from Beard.
Beard, who’s appropriately hipster bearded but doesn’t look much older than a high school student himself, evokes an academic demeanor. But he’s also quick to crack jokes and laugh maniacally at his students’ on-stage wit. He trained deeply in theater and improvisation, earning a theater degree from Virginia Tech, after which he moved to Chicago to take improv classes at the famed Second City Conservatory (which spawned numerous comedy legends, including Mike Meyers, Chris Farley, Poehler and Fey).
A serious bout with Lyme’s disease brought him back to Loudoun to recover. Today, 11 years later, in addition to his professional duties for the county parks and recreation department, he continues to perform and teach classes at the Washington Improv Theater in Washington, DC, and elsewhere.
Two years ago, Beard pitched an improv program to the county
because he believes it’s a fantastic academic tool for teaching young students. He says improv’s nature demands on-your-feet problem solving, creativity, active listening and digging deep for solutions that require innovative thinking.
He also wanted the community to benefit from family-oriented improv shows that display the depth of talent of area students. He crunched the numbers, figured out how to make it cost-efficient, and the county approved.
“Teaching improv is not different from a football player learning his playbook. He learns the plays on paper first, but then has to figure out how to adjust to unscripted moments on the field,” Beard said. “Improv students are like that too. They’re learning the basic structure of improv so their creativity can lead them onstage.”
Beard says improv students tend to make better grades, are intellectually curious and willing to look at problems and issues differently. Most move on to pursue those interests in college.
“These students have confidence and clarity and are willing to take direction. I often tell them, ‘be the smartest person in the room and you’ll likely also be the funniest person in the room.’ That resonates with them,” he said.
A handful of high schools in the country have active improv groups. But Loudoun County High School’s is one of the most sought-after. More than 75 students auditioned for a position on the improv team, and only 11 made the cut.
And they’re good, too.
The team is only one of a handful of high schools in the nation to participate in the 72-hour improv extravaganza that’s held each summer at Upright Citizens Brigade theaters, honoring Second City’s legendary improv teacher Del Close. The Loudoun County team has performed in New York City two years running, an extraordinary achievement for such a young group, Beard said.
And the program has already produced a star.
Millicent Phillips, a LCHS senior, recently became a viral video sensation. Beard calls her a leader of the improv group. Her brothers captured her improv-like reactions to the made-up notion that a zombie apocalypse was underway as she returned from having her wisdom teeth removed. Still woozy from anesthesia, her hilarious interactions with her brothers created a YouTube sensation, which currently has more than 17 million views.
That public adoration led to guest appearances on the “Ellen Show” in Los Angeles (where DeGeneres gave the family an all-expenses paid trip to Mexico, the fake post-zombie destination in the video), as well on “Good Morning America.”
Beard says her ability to be funny, even under the influence of meds, about the impending threat of a zombie apocalypse is the result of her extensive improv training.
“Her brain’s been melded by improv,” he said. “Her ability to respond to such a crazy scenario, even under the influence of anesthesia, comes from her improv mindset. It’s what makes the video, and her, so funny.”
Phillips said being a part of the theater group, and specifically training in improv, has built her confidence. “Being able to walk into any situation with an open mind taught me how to move forward and be creative,” she said. “What I’ll miss most is the people I’ve met in high school improv. They’re family to me.”
Beard believes adults would also benefit from improv training. He says many Fortune 500 companies are regularly hiring improv groups to lighten up workforces and to teach creative thinking. Beard is also exploring ways to bring that creativity and adrenaline to the broader Loudoun community. This Friday, April 29 he will bring in top teams from throughout the region to perform long-form improv at the Chris Cooley Gallery, at 9 N. King St. in Leesburg. The show is for audience members 18 and older. Tickets are $15 in advance (buy at http://the-cooley-gallery.myshopify.com/products/dc-improv-night) or $20 at the door.
“When improv truly works, it’s like, ‘what kind of crazy voodoo witchcraft magic is this?’ And for that reason, it works on so many levels regardless of age or experience,” he says. “I think everyone can learn and benefit from it.”
The Loudoun County High School improv team will hold a family-friendly public performance at the high school auditorium at 7 p.m. Friday, May 6. Tickets are $5.