Last week the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University hosted Making it Up as You Go: The Importance of Improv. The event featured a happy hour, moderated discussion, and performance by TU’s improvisational comedy troupe, ImprompTU. The event was part of Osher’s Spark program, which brings together different generations for programs that take place after typical working hours.

Osher at Towson University has offered academic and social opportunities for over twenty years to adults 50+ throughout greater Baltimore. Osher’s semester-long academic courses and other lecture series are taught by local subject matter experts that include current and retired TU faculty.

However, most take place during daytime hours.

“This event is really intended as an evening program that brings together people of different ages who might like to take our classes. But you’re maybe working during the day when our classes are offered. So, it’s nice to see people here who recognize the value of our program,” said Tracy Jacobs, Osher executive director, who emceed the night.

Osher chose the broad topic of humor first before narrowing it down to improv and how it applies to comedy and life in general.

Jacobs collaborated with Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, and Michelle Faulkner-Forson, managing director of Baltimore Improv Group, to bring the topic to life.

“When we were putting this together, we were thinking about how improv affects our lives. We all do improv. Whether it’s cooking or say navigating a worldwide pandemic. We’ve all had to improvise,” said Jacobs. “We do it all the time, but maybe we just don’t call it that.”

Osher at Towson University Executive Director Tracy Jacobs (right) points to the audience while panelists Steven Gimbel, Ph.D. (left), and Michelle Faulkner-Forson (center) share a laugh at TU University Union on Thursday, April 11.

A brief history of improv

Steven Gimbel provided historical context. He noted that although the roots of improv could be traced to commedia dell’arte during the Italian Renaissance, modern American improv got its start in Chicago.

During the 1940s–60s, theater professor Viola Spolan was holding theater classes for working class adults and students. She noticed the actors could memorize and present their lines, but they were having difficulties relating to each other on stage. To help the actors better connect with each other and the audience, she developed improvisational exercises.

Spolan’s work influenced the creation of the Compass Players in Chicago, which later became Second City, one of the most influential comedy theaters in the world.

Yes, and…

One common improv theme that’s still used by comedians on stage and in acting schools around the globe today is ”Yes, and…”. The theme helps actors be present in the moment and allows them to build on each other’s actions to move a scene forward.

“When we’re on stage, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. So when people say something, you have to agree with it. You can pivot a bit, you can re-frame it a bit. But you’re trying to not negate someone else’s perspective,” said Faulkner-Forson. “Even if it’s out of your realm of comfort, because that happens.”

Gimbel noted that the biggest thing you learn in being in an improv troupe is that it’s a troupe. “You don’t hog. You listen and you connect. And what comes out, comes out of minds. It’s intentional, but it doesn’t come out of any one mind.”

At its core, improv and its tenets teaches the value of accepting each others ideas and cooperating with one another in the real world, not just on the stage.

“Improv helps us to be present in our bodies, with what we’re feeling, and with other people. It’s a very special experience that I don’t think a lot of us get the opportunity to do on a regular basis,” added Faulkner-Forson.

A member of TU’s improvisational comedy troupe, ImprompTU, interacts with an audience member before acting out an improv exercise during the Osher at Towson University SPARK evening programming on Thursday, April 11.

About the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Towson University provides learning opportunities to expand knowledge, gain insights into current events, and access social and cultural activities in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Faculty are made up of current and retired educators and subject matter experts and deliver a variety of university-quality, non-credit courses and lectures for curious adults.

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