Samuel J. Tanner 5 minute read

Camp Improv Utopia East

I'm not a summer camp guy.

Extended time in the wilderness with strangers? That doesn't sound too bad. Sleeping on the top bunk in a claustrophic cabin with eleven potential snorers? Yeesh. Take my introversion. Please!

To clarify, that previous line was a play on the take my wife joke. Why make a joke? Because, my friend, despite my introverted nature, I spent last weekend near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania at an improv camp. I don't think improv is an inherently comedic artform. Still, I concede that improv, more often than not, leads to jokes.

A fellow founder of Happy Valley Improv, one James Tierney, has a history with the Camp Improv Utopia people. Who are the Camp Improv Utopia people? Check out for information. James attended these camps on the West Coast before moving to Pennsylvania to teach capitalism to the students at The Pennsylvania State University. Mercantilism, too. In fact, Camp Improv Utopia East is where another of our founders, one Dr. Andrea McCloskey, first practiced the art of improvisation. Andrea connected with James and me after she returned from Camp Improv Utopia East nearly two years ago. Two years later, we have a pretty robust improv theatre company on our hands. Camp Improv Utopia East is part of Happy Valley Improv's story. My story too, I guess. So, when James suggested that the founders of Happy Valley Improv attend the summer camp this year, I begrudgingly said yes.

Why begrudgingly?

Traveling is part of my job. I'm faculty in higher education now. It's expected that I go to conferences. I've been all over the country during the past three years. I've given talks, listened to talks, and drank beer with some really cool people. I've also learned that, in fact, I hate traveling. Flying is bad enough. But leaving my wife alone with our two toddlers is misery. The parent guilt is crippling. And the anxiety. What, me worry? Yes, me worry. My worry lots. I'm getting better, but a history of trial and tribulation (both experiential and genetic) leaves a man with some apprehension. Travel makes me jittery, but adding Camp Improv Utopia East to my itinerary proved a smart move.

Yes, sleeping (or not sleeping) in the top bunk was unpleasant. And the mosquitoes swarmed me like a flock of locusts. But I also met some great improvisers, bonded with our Happy Valley Improv cohort, and attended some kickass sessions.

Wendy Penrod, founder and artistic director of Off the Cuff comedy in Utah led a workshop about listening that blew my mind. Yes, her facilitation of mindfulness helped me as an improvisor. More importantly, it was transformative to me as an educator and a teacher educator. It's rare that I participate in a session where the facilitator so absolutely provokes a group to hear and be heard by each other. Those of us in education could benefit from looking to improv, especially as Wendy conceives it, to learn different ways to more deeply engage people.

Louis Kornfield is with Magnet Theatre in New York. I left his nuanced workshop reminded that an improv scene is an experience to be lived rather than a problem to solve. Andrea and I later talked about imagining that the same is true of teaching over lunch. Encounters with students are experiences to be lived rather than problems to solve. Damn, son.

For the last fifteen years, I've been teaching and directing improvisation on something of an island. Yes, my understanding of improvisation comes from Brave New Workshop theatre in Minneapolis. Still, my improv troupes and classes, as I created them when I was a high school teacher, were isolated. Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of the pedagogy I've developed. And I think there's value in the unique ways I've learned to imagine and refine an improvisational ethos of teaching. Still, it was delicious to participate in masterfully imagined, improvisational ecounters with adept educators. There were many times that I thought to myself, during the weekend, that my experience at Camp Improv Utopia East was as intellectually (and practically and emotionally and spiritually) challenging as any of my trips to an academic conference.

I won't say that my trip to Camp Improv Utopia East was the most transformational thing I've ever done. I can't pretend that it was only joy incarnate. At the end of the day, I'm not a summer camp guy. I'm an introvert and I missed my family. Still, I was reminded about how beautiful it can be to improvise with strangers, share experiences of an artform with other practitioners, and be moved by great teachers. And I got to hang out with my Happy Valley Improv friends James, Nate, Dawn, and Jackie. I was able to make obnoxious jokes all weekend with people who accept, affirm, and add onto my obnoxious jokes. That is always fun. And I learned about how other people across the country make a career out of doing, teaching, and producing improv.

To quote the Bible: It was good.