This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.
As soon as the word “morph” came up, I knew I was going to be in trouble.
My improv workshop with Dylan Rohde, the founder and co-owner of Backline Comedy Club, began with an innocent enough warm-up exercise. Rohde made me, and the rest of the workshop participants, toss an imaginary red ball around in a circle.
Every time one of us caught or threw the ball, we had to yell “red ball.” Eventually, Rohde added more items into the mix—a blue square, an orange cat, and a white diamond. But Rohde’s next instructions made me break into a sweat.
“Ok, next you’re going to morph the object as you catch it in the air. Your object has to be the same color as the object you originally caught, but a new item.”
My mind raced as I tried to think of what item to come up with next—red bowl? Red shoes? No, another person just used shoes for their turn. What about a red coat?
I laughed to myself as I remembered the instructions Rohde gave us at the beginning of the workshop—“Try to think as very little as possible.” I had to constantly come up with new objects on the fly—how could I do that and still think as little as possible? And I worried that as the workshop continued, I wouldn’t be able to shake this feeling.
Rohde first began leading improv classes in 2011, before moving Backline Comedy Club into its current Harney Street location in 2013. Classes through Backline cost $125 for seven sessions. Though he sees people from a wide variety of backgrounds take his classes—aspiring actors, doctors, and even one politician—he says the lessons learned during improv classes are applicable to any walk of life.
“The two biggest things that we teach during improv are to trust and to listen,” Rohde says. “It’s being able to listen to what someone else is saying, so you’re not thinking while they’re talking. Not only trusting your teammates to help you, but also trusting in yourself and being able to make something out of nothing.”
I knew that was exactly what I needed to do—trust myself. But it was easier said than done. I looked around in awe at my fellow performers, most of whom seemed to be improv naturals. Eventually I discovered that, of the 11 of us who were in the workshop, only myself and another woman were improv newbies.
“Ok,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I’m not as bad at this as I thought I was—these guys have all done this before.”
Things took a turn for the better after some moonshine—well, after improvising a routine based around moonshine. One of my lines got a few chuckles from my fellow improvers, and I started to relax.
Gradually, the exercises started getting more complicated—but once I relaxed, I actually found them pretty easy. When two people had to take the lead on a five-person routine, I eagerly volunteered. Five minutes, a plane crash, a breakup with my “fiancé,” and a conversation with an island innkeeper later, I survived.
After the two hours were up, I didn’t want to leave Backline’s workshop. Who doesn’t want to live in a world where you are told to think as little as possible and say yes to everything?
I did strive to keep Rohde’s mantra in mind for the next week. But as I slugged through a busy week, my positivity started to wane. Still, I don’t want to just toss aside the lessons I learned during Backline’s workshop. After all, I did survive a plane crash—can’t I survive anything the world outside of improv throws at me?