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“Make things that you love, not things that you like.” That was the advice Mike Birbiglia gave to D.C.’s improv community recently during a workshop and Q&A with the Washington Improv Theater.
Birbiglia offered the workshop as part of a multi-city tour for his new movie Don’t Think Twice, which follows a New York City improv comedy troupe balancing their friendship with the prospect of success. Improv comedy is when performers make a show up on the spot, usually a sketch or series of sketches based on an audience member’s suggestion. He calls it “a love letter to the art form” and wanted to use the premiere as an opportunity to connect with local improv communities.
Birbiglia, who’s more widely known for his success as a comedian and storyteller, began his comedy career doing improv in D.C. at Georgetown University. “I was lonesome for my first few months of college,” Birbiglia remembers. “But when I got cast in [Georgetown’s] improv group, I was just like, these are my people. I just love these, weird, weird people.”
To lead the workshop, Birbiglia brought veteran improviser Liz Allen, who not only coached the actors in Don’t Think Twice but also coached Birbiglia when he was still at Georgetown. She worked directly with two of WIT’s house ensemble teams: iMusical, which improvises entire musicals for their shows, and Nox!, who experiments with a range of formats.
The workshop gave the groups a combination of practical advice and what one participant lovingly referred to as “hippie improv shit.” Allen dove into the mechanics of how to build characters and the best way to link themes and ideas across multiple scenes. She also forced participants to wrestle with the idea of releasing their egos to what improvisers call “group mind,” or the wisdom of the ensemble over the individual.
Throughout, her advice always came back to two words: Say yes. The rule is one of the core tenets of improv and refers to how performers need to always accept whatever they’re given in a scene. But for Allen the rule goes beyond mere agreement. Saying yes is more of a philosophy, a way of erasing your sense of self in a scene and fully yielding to “group mind.” She also insisted that in every scene, performers should remember: “If it feels weird do it more.”
For participants, the workshop offered a new take on familiar concepts. Elaine Colwell, a member of iMusical, said “it’s great to be brought back to the basics. Our group does lots of technical things so we’re usually thinking so much that it’s hard to let that go and be present. [The workshop] taught us to just let things happen and not worry about how they should happen.”
The workshop comes at a time when D.C. is seeing a new growth in its improv scene. The city now boasts three standing theaters (WIT, Dojo Comedy, and the Unified Scene Theater) along with production groups like the Laugh Index Theater and a growing number of comedy venues.
As John Heiser, a member of Nox!, said, “I started doing improv in D.C. five years ago. At that time, if you were starting out, you couldn’t get on stage. But now if you want a show you can go and get it.”
Teammate Alex Beard added, “I only see it becoming stronger, larger, and more dynamic in the next few years. I also love the diversity of the scene, you can work with just about anyone. It’s certainly breaking the traditional mold of improv being a privileged white man’s sport.”
So where does D.C. go from here? Allen urged the city’s improvisers to not see themselves in relation to bigger comedy cities like New York and Los Angeles. “You don’t need more people to make improv better. You don’t need a more complicated subway system to make improv better. You just need a willing group who are able to commit.” She added that performers need to always bring the mentality that they are exactly where they are supposed to be.
Birbiglia agreed and suggested performers lean on each other to learn, expand into new formats, and collaborate. “When you’re in D.C., you may be off the grid but you’re playing for really smart audiences,” he said. “You have a chance to create something really unique and special. On any given night in you can create the best written, best performed, most topical improvised play in the world.”