–by Mark MacDonald–
As Artistic Director of Second City Toronto, Kevin Frank is keenly aware of improv’s popularity. With upwards of 1200 students walking through the doors every week, the company employs a faculty of 60 teachers and offers everything from introductory improv classes to intermediate level courses, as well as a Conservatory program for those with more experience in the art form.
But it isn’t all about being funny, explains Kevin: “I firmly believe that the skills we teach in improv are actually life skills. Tapping into our own imagination by removing barriers to creativity, collaborating with others as a team, listening to them, empathizing with them and supporting their ideas, these are skills that are useful everywhere in life.”
Indeed, not everyone enrolled in improv classes are actors. Accountants and lawyers alike are signing up, each with their own purpose and the potential for a surprising result. “I studied economics at University and took improv to make myself a better salesmen,” Kevin recalls, “I fell in love with improv so much that I left sales and became a comedic actor.”
As an actor, a background in improv was a great benefit, he explains:
“A great improviser is open to suggestions. On stage, they come from your scene partner, on set, it’s a director making suggestions. If you can instantly accept that idea, that offer, and incorporate it, you will add layers of creativity to your performance. When you make choices as an actor, like being in love with your scene partner or resenting them, there are things you do, whether it’s your body language or tone of voice, that indicate your emotion and will resonate with the audience.”
Clearly it works. Over the past number of years, Second City has become a landmark, and with stars like John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley and Mike Myers among their alumni, it’s no wonder the company is so well-known and successful. One of the results of this is a growing community full of support and potential, says Kevin Frank: “At the core of being a good improviser is making sure your scene partner is taken care of. That kind of consideration expands outward to your cast, and the ensemble becomes more than the sum of the individuals involved. The power of that community is infinite, and can do a great deal more to influence society.”
Indeed, improv has had a positive affect on a variety of people, something Josh Murray has seen first hand. Josh is an instructor at Second City and is Technical Director at Bad Dog Theater. He believes taking improv can help people reduce their anxiety:
“Improvization often mimics personal interactions of everyday life, without the consequences associated with them. By allowing any and all mistakes to be made without repercussions in a supportive environment, you can help reduce social anxiety and foster confidence. In essence, every time you ‘fail’, it provides an opportunity to show you how little it matters what you said wasn’t funny.”
As a part of the Education Company at Second City, Josh uses improv as a tool to build teens’ confidence and promote positive interactions. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed someone who is shy or on the spectrum step forward when given the chance and deliver the funniest line of the day or else completely come out of their shell”, says Murray. “Once upon a time, I was that kid, so I know how much it means and how positive that can be.”
Josh has also found a home in the community, something he never expected when he began. “For me, I went from, 5 years ago, having no idea there was an improv community at large to being right in the middle of it. The opportunities and experiences it has created for me have been unbelievable.”
Whether you’re in acting or sales, an introvert looking to let loose or an extrovert looking to express yourself, improv has plenty to offer you-on top of a good laugh.
-Mark MacDonald is an actor and graduate of Second City’s Conservatory Program.