Samuel J. Tanner 4 minute read

Happy Valley Improv (and me)

I think I know something about improv.

I've been learning about (and teaching about) improv for fifteen years now. That's a long time. You'd have to be stupid not to pick up some tricks. Still, this fall has challenged me to wonder how much I know, or how much we can ever know.

I'm helping to found an improv company in State College this fall. Happy Valley Improv is a labor of love, forged out of weekly rehearsals in a church basement. There are three other founding members. All of us come from widely disparate experiences with improv (and life). Despite our differences, we have remarkable chemistry. I can be a confident guy, but even I can't explain how smoothly our group came together.

We put on four successful shows this fall. How do I measure success? We sold out and, other than a few ornery (and elderly) audience members, people seemed to have fun. They laughed loudly. Our success has reached beyond our performances. We ran a workshop sequence for Penn State faculty this fall. The response from our participants (and the folks who funded us) was overwhelming: They loved it. We ran a workshop for an entreprenuerial group in November, and have another paying gig set up in a high school in December. Moreover, we are offering our first series of level 1 classes in the spring. We rented studio space.

I can't believe how quickly things are moving. I also can't believe how well things are going. I'm far more accostumed to things being difficult. This has been easy. Kind of.

The easy part? People seem to love us, and I'm having a blast working with Nate, James, and Andrea. I enjoy them, and I think we are building a community that will take root in State College. Also, our troupe is killing it. I love performing with these people.

The hard part? Real collaboration with people on a project such as this - building an improv company - requires real trust. I love Nate, James, and Andrea. I love lots of people. Trusting people? That comes harder for me. Maybe because I'm used to things being difficult? I've had my share of difficulties. Who hasn't?

I've really been challenged to give up my preconcieved notions of improv - ironic, right? - this fall. It's one thing to say that I'm collaborative. It's another to give up my own thinking, and let go to the will of a group. This is especially true when things you care about are on the line. Improv (and teaching) are things I care about, and I'm learning to let go of my view of these things as I participate in Happy Valley Improv. Does this mean I don't have thoughts or opinions? No. But it means I need to see that others have thoughts and opinions too. My job is to blend what I bring with what others brings and, ultimately, serve the group. I'll be served in this way too, to be sure. But the group is more important than me.

This is a lesson I tried to share with high school students in any number of ways over the last fifteen years. I was pretty good, if I do say so myself, at getting students to experience the art of participating in a group through my teaching. It's one thing to teach this to high school students. It's another to make sure I'm adhering to this lesson in my own life.

I'm learning. And it's joyful learning. And it's important learning. And it's hard learning.

I'm 37. I guess you never really figure things out. You just keep trying? Well, I don't know about you. I do.