Tucked away in the basement of a theater on Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue, a group of kids are taking turns shouting out the names of countries, animals in the jungle, and what might have happened to a broken down car. To an uninformed observer, this might seem like complete nonsense, but it’s actually an orchestrated drill. The exercise is teaching the group to think on their feet by declaring ideas for new scenes, as part of comedy theater Brave New Workshop’s youth summer camp.
The weeklong camp provides an introduction to improvisational acting and comedy, teaching kids the skills and methods of the craft, and gives them a chance to practice with fellow actors and comedians in all sorts of situations.
“We base the camp on the philosophy that improvisation is great for adults, but that it can do absolutely wonderful things for kids,” says Joe Bozic, one of the program’s directors. “They have to work together, it taps into their creativity and builds confidence, all in a genuinely encouraging environment.”
“It’s fun to see the kids at a place in their lives where they’re willing to take more risks and jump right into improvisation,” says co-director Mike Fotis. “Because of that, you see them really grow quickly as actors. There’s a creativity there that you can’t find elsewhere.”
The kids take turns brainstorming ideas, playing out new situations, and honing their acting chops. They practice scenes ranging from a slideshow of a recent vacation, to surviving an awkward family dinner, and everyone gets their chance to throw out a new character, setting, or conflict.
“Every idea you come up with, or anything you say can work,” says Josh, age 14, who has come to the camp for multiple summers. “The great thing about improv is, even if you mess up, it’s still funny.”
“You can try out or say just about everything you’re thinking of,” says Nico, age 15. “Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense, but that still doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying. You don’t have to hold back with improv.”
Skills for life
At times, it might seem as if improvisational comedy is guided only by the whims of the actors, but there are actually a fairly complicated set of cues, signals, and boundaries that keep scenes moving. An important element of the camp is instructing the kids how to both recognize and respond to those signals.
One exercise teaches the students how to “sweep edit” a scene, a way to change the setting, switch characters, or save a struggling scene by walking from behind the action across the front of the stage. Another exercise works on finding the right time to “blackout,” or end the scene.
“You can’t just sit back and wait for the perfect line or situation,” explains instructor Jenn Scott, pushing the kids to get involved in the scenes. “You have to be ready to jump in. You might feel super awkward, but dig into that. Awkward can be really good for comedy.”
The kids pick up the lessons quickly, and soon they’re shifting scenes from Antarctic explorations, to a series of uncomfortable Kung Fu lessons, to a disastrous dinner date, all without missing a beat.
At its core, the camp is about more than just teaching the skills and the lingo, it’s about inspiring confidence. The camp’s goal is to encourage kids to be both creative and bold; to find new ways to open up and express themselves. These skills aren’t important only for acting, but for life in general.
“It’s all about listening; it’s all about working together, and learning to defer judgment. We sort of get to teach them how to be really good people, without them even knowing,” says Bozic. “It gives them a chance to be in an environment where everything they say can be right, which can do great things for confidence. You don’t get that in schools, so it gives them a chance to build confidence without always hearing ‘no.’”
Says Taylor, age 14, who discovered the camp after he saw a show at the theater with his dad, “You don’t have to worry about what you’re doing because everyone else doesn’t care if you make a mistake. It’s not like you’re with everyone you’re with at school, or with teachers, so you’re not self conscious.”
Of course, improvisation doesn’t come easy for every student. The instructors often have to find ways to make the kids comfortable and willing to open up.
The week culminates with a final performance on Friday afternoon, where the students put on a show for their family and friends on Brave New Workshop’s Hennepin Avenue stage.
One scene puts the control in the hands of the audience, who get to pick fields of expertise for the kids (such as guinea pigs and English punctuation), then ask questions to this “expert panel.” The questions are nothing the kids could prepare for, but they never lose their composure or wit.
The audience is howling. The kids look like they are having a blast. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone in the theater. For some of the kids, it may be the only time they get up on stage. For others, it might be only the beginning. “I like seeing the light come on in kids’ eyes during that performance,” says Fotis. “It’s then you realize they really got something out of it, that they’re going to stick around.”