For the Stanford Improvisors, or SImps, there’s more to improv than just getting laughs.
Founded in 1991 by Patricia Ryan, a lecturer in Stanford’s Drama Department, the SImps are a group of students who practice and perform this unscripted, lesser-known area of theater under the tutelage of Stanford drama lecturer Dan Klein ’91. Klein teaches improv theory in TAPS 103: Beginning Improvising (the class is a requirement to try out for the SImps).
Improvisation, or improv for short, is an unscripted theatrical form in which improvisors make up scenes, characters and scenarios on the spot while performing for an audience. Typically these improvisations take the shape of long-form narrative, short-form narrative or theatrical games, and are often humorous and absurd.
Intermission sat down with Alexis Luscutoff ’12 M. A. ’13, Sophie Carter-Kahn ’13 and Lindsey Toiaivao ’13, who explained some of the “culty rules” that the SImps follow. These tenets are taught in TAPS 103 and follow the Johnstone school of improv:
Say yes. Accept the reality another improvisor proposes, and then add another detail to the scene. In improv, selfishness manifests in questioning yourself and not embracing the world the improvisors create together.
Mistakes are gifts. Even if you didn’t mean for something to happen, embrace it. Luscutoff put this in terms of committing to uncertainty: “Mistakes are going to happen and I’m going to own them.”
Just show up. Toiaivao explained that “you just have to be willing to open your mouth.” For Luscutoff, this is a larger life lesson. “Improv teaches you to just go and be there.”
Get into trouble. Even when improvisors have the impulse to take the easy way out of a scene, “What you need to do is commit and push through it. If another character says, ‘If you go over that cliff … no one knows what might happen. And you might say, ‘I can’t,’ but you have to do it and find out what happens,” explained Carter-Kahn.
Improv differs greatly from more traditional theater because the improvisors aim to create a unique world and live in it. While improv might be used in other contexts to develop material, explore a character or to make scripted lines feel more honest, the SImps practice improv for its experimental qualities. Plus, they all agree it’s fun.
For Carter-Kahn, improv is “a study of human interaction. [It’s about] exploring what comes when people are together and what happens when bodies are in space.” Ultimately, “We’re not trying to make a play. It’s exploration and play, in the other sense of the word,” Carter-Kahn said.
And boy, do they play. At their Winter Wonderland fall improv shows last Thursday and Saturday, the SImps performed their art for an engaged audience. Thursday featured two rounds of TheatreSports, where the SImps played improv games in teams. The winners faced each other on Saturday, and then the group played a super-scene, in which multiple scenes are extended based on the audience’s preferences. The shows were intimate and funny, and one couldn’t help but leave feeling warm and lighthearted.
The group is joyful, crazy, and intellectual about their craft.
“The people in the SImps are my best friends. It really helps that we trust each other in real life. I can do anything on stage and these people will catch me,” Carter-Kahn said.
Both Toiaivao and Luscutoff explained their love of improv in terms of safety, vulnerability and trust. In a highly competitive academic environment where many students face uncertainty and anxiety, the SImps are “a safe space to be scared and take risks.”
“It wholly changed my approach to life,” Luscutoff said, noting the group’s impact on her time at Stanford. “It changed everything.”