I have gotten to work with some pretty incredible people over the years in improv, as a performer, a teacher and a director. And I will tell you this in all sincerity: The best part of improvising has been the people.
This is an art form based in community, and I think one of my strongest assets as a teacher and director is to help build that community. In fact, nothing makes me more proud than when a class I teach or a group I direct becomes good friends.
Years ago I worked with an improv group in Chicago that was made of people who had originally met eat other in my Art of Slow Comedy Class. It was one of those classes where they had chemistry and talent, and it came together organically. After studying with me for two levels, they formed their own independent group called My Naked Friends.
Since they enjoyed working with me so much, they brought me in to direct. They did some great work, as ensembles do when they commit to the process, the director, and themselves. We put up several runs of several different shows at different theaters in the city and we were successful.
But after a while, the group disbanded. There came a point when we all knew the group had run its course; it didn’t need to be spoken. The last run of shows was rough. I was burned out and the cast had gotten a little crispy around the edges. It’s like having a tire with a slow leak, except instead of leaking air, we were leaking creative energy. And then one day you get up to drive to the grocery store and your tire is flat, and you’d rather get a new car instead of fixing the tire. When a group is over, it’s over.
When groups break up, there are so many mixed feelings. There is sadness, fear and a sense of relief. Sadness because you will miss the people. Fear because you don’t know what is next. And a sense of relief that you got out safely.
It turns out, though, that even though the group disbanded, the friendships didn’t end.
As some of the members of My Naked Friends moved out to L.A. to pursue solo projects, I kept in contact with one of the members, Mike Perri, and he happily he told me that a core of them had stayed close and supportive of each other, which is tough to do in a town that has a shortage of support. They had created something bigger than a group, they had created friendships.
A couple of years ago, I went to L.A. for a vacation. Usually, L.A. scares me. I have had bad experiences in that town, and going back there is like going back to a fancy restaurant where you got food poisoning.
This time was different. To my surprise, the community we had all built with My Naked Friends had included me. They didn’t see me as just their teacher, but they saw me as a friend. Mike took me out to lunch and showed me around, Julia Saboda put me up in her spare bedroom and Gerry Christoff met me for breakfast.
I also got together with other people who were peers – people who I started out with in Chicago, who have gone on to fame and fortune. And even though we’ve all moved on to different things in different parts of the country, there is a bond with those people that will always make them feel like family.
I felt gratitude that people took time out to see me on that trip. I felt loved, I felt like a rock star, even though it had been years since I had performed with them or had them in my classroom. We tell ourselves we are creating shows, but really we are creating something more lasting and that is friendships. And for me, that is the most rewarding part of improv: the people.