I'm standing out front of the Torch Theatre — an improv space in downtown Phoenix — on a recent Saturday night, asking the performers how improv has impacted their lives. I feel like I'm getting two shows for the price of one. The first was the one I just watched inside the theater, where a single audience suggestion — "George Michael" — resulted in an entire show about a man too fearful of change to throw away his M.C. Hammer pants.
The second show is this one. All around me, improv teams are gathered, some riding a high from the show they just finished, and others playing a game in the alley in which they chant "Bunny Bunny."
The funny thing is, while longform improv requires performers to fearlessly go on stage before a live audience and spontaneously create multiple characters in a variety of scenarios, these people look and act nothing like stars.
The Torch Theatre Is all About Community -- and Fun
For one thing, this is not a bunch of good-looking show-offs. Most of them are regular people, with real-world jobs, who step onto the stage each week and pretend to be petulant teenagers and Supreme Court justices and gator wrestlers. Very few of them could be described as seriously attractive — this is a motley crew of balding heads, eyeglasses, and bulging bellies — and yet after a full night of watching them drag compelling characters up from their subconscious, I'll have a performer crush on more than one of them.
The founders of the Torch Theatre are adamant: The Torch Theatre is not a place, it's people. To be clear, it is a place, a tiny storefront with "Welcome Home" in foot-high black letters in the front window at 4721 North Central Avenue, half a block south of Camelback, along the light-rail line, in the shadow of Saint Frances Xavier's dome, and downstairs from the A Tender Touch massage parlor.
But it's mainly the people.
Shane Carey is one of those people. Tonight, he's volunteering to run the lights. Last week, we met to discuss how his improv practice has impacted his life. His face splits with an enormous smile that never reaches his eyes when he tells me, "I was very depressed. I had been for 25 years. A few years back, I began isolating myself, becoming more critical of myself every day. I quit doing improv. And this one bad weekend in May of last year I thought, 'I can't be me anymore. I hate this guy. I want to be dead.' I immediately checked myself into the hospital. When the admissions person asked me if I had a friend or family member they could contact, Bill Binder's name sprang to mind and I burst into tears trying to speak it."
Bill Binder is another one of those people. Binder, who always manages to look like he just pulled an all-nighter at Mission Control successfully landing a rover on Mars, has been improvising since 1994, when a woman came out of the woods "like a witch," as he describes it, and lured him and his engineering classmates to improv. Binder — along with Jacque Arend, Mack Duncan, Jose Gonzalez, Stacey Hanlon, Tommy Schaeffer, and Shane Shannon — is one of the founders of the Torch Theatre.
The Torch Theatre has been doing its thing since 2007 when a group of like-minded improvisers came together to form the improv collective and training center. Along the way, they have been instrumental in the success of the long-running Phoenix Improv Festival; they've managed to lease and remodel their very own venue, which they opened in 2011; and they've taught hundreds of people how to improvise. I am one of those people.
I've been a playwright and performer for more than 20 years, but until very recently, I had never seriously tried improv. I was attracted to longform improv because I was certain I would be able to deepen my understanding of story structure by looking at it from a different perspective. Also, writing a play takes years, and I was hoping to enjoy a little immediate gratification for a change. Plus, as a writing teacher, I was hoping to steal some ideas that I could share with my really resistant students.
My classes at the Torch delivered all that plus some unexpected lessons on the way I relate to the world in my day-to-day life. It occurred to me that if improv changed me like that, perhaps it changes everyone. Curious, I decided to find out.
Most of the Torch's success comes from its enormous community of volunteers, teachers, and students. Jose Gonzales, an exceptionally intuitive person (and — full disclosure — a New Times contributor) who mumbles endearingly and strokes his unruly beard, tells me there are "about 25 to 35 people that are heavily involved in running The Torch, plus, there are around 200 people that self-identify as members of the community. We've probably taught way more people than that, altogether."
The Torch's training program is at the heart of the community. There are six eight-week sessions designed to teach every aspect of longform improv, from the most basic elements of listening and saying "yes" to "the gifts" your scene partner gives to the wildly complex art of editing and structure. Plus, there are breakout classes on musical improv and character development. There's even a free drop-in class on the first Saturday of every month for people who want to try improv before they commit to a full course.
Unlike the short-form improvisations you see on TV or in comedy clubs, long-form improv is not about being funny, although it usually is funny. The shows run between 25 and 60 minutes in length and are a collection of characters and scenes created spontaneously from a single suggestion. Along the way, ideas are synthesized and themes are expanded, and hopefully characters and plots are reincorporated.
To do it well you have to stay in the moment and go where the show takes you. You have to make strong choices that get straight to the heart of the matter, and you must support your teammates and trust that they will support you. When you are doing it well, it's empowering and fun. When you are doing it badly, it's still instructive, like a cryptic dream that lingers with you all day and makes you say, "Huh, what was that about?"
I'm in level five, and it's kicking my ass. It brought me to tears a couple of weeks back when I made the realization that my tendency to play bossy and controlling characters is a microcosm for my real life in which my codependency makes me struggle to let other people make their own mistakes. As an exercise to help me break my bad improv habit, my instructor, Gonzalez, made me do 16 back-to-back scenes in which I had to play only supportive or submissive characters. It was exhausting and freeing. During a break in class, I asked my classmate Corina Smith, one of the driest people I have ever met, what brought her to improv. She says that after a year of debilitating illness and the sudden loss of her mother, she made the conscious decision to stop letting fear dictate her choices. "I never thought I would be able to overcome my fear of being on stage enough to do improv. The experience overall has been life-changing."
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Overcoming fear is a common theme for a lot of improvisers I talked to.
Chris Hooper, whose carefully shaped black facial hair and arched brows make him look like a handsome devil from a 1950s-era B-movie, tells me.
"Improv takes away fear like you wouldn't believe. I was ready for some new challenges — I moved cross-country to Phoenix [and] I cleared away all the excuses standing between me and a new life — but there I was, just sitting in my apartment doing nothing, thinking, 'Now what, fucker?'" Hooper says, laughing. "I got into my car and I drove down Central. Then I saw the sign for the Torch and I went straight home and signed up for classes. By the end of the first class, I knew that I would finish this."
And you need more fun.