Crossing the Improv Threshold

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My first step into the magical world of improv comedy was a result of pure peer pressure.

I was walking through the atrium entryway of my high school in late April, on my way out to the parking lot where my black Cutlass Ciera was waiting in all her high-school-hand-me-down-automobile glory, when Clay Ingram grabbed me and said, “You’re gonna come audition.”

It was a statement. Not a question. Not a request.

Clay was in my high school’s improv troupe, Exit 16 (pronounced “Exit One-Six’), and I’d seen their shows a few times in my first year as a new student in the strange, strange land of Liberty, Missouri, USA. We were in photography class together and spent most of our time in that class riffing on whatever topics seemed appropriate (or inappropriate, as it were).

I don’t remember what exactly we talked about, but I remember the conversations as fun, intelligent, and refreshingly organic for a kid who was trying to figure out where he fit in as a Junior in a new school, state, and culture.

I hadn’t considered auditioning for Exit 16, so when Clay intercepted me I don’t know if I said anything back, just nodded, or stared vacantly into space while he pulled me through the auditorium doors.

In the audition, I sat in the blue foldy theater chairs until my name was called. Then I jumped on stage and did a scene in which I awkwardly failed at hitting on my female scene partner in our improvised car parked at an improvised make-out point. I wasn’t playing a character so much as I was naturally being afraid of girls, in front of people.

Then those people laughed. I didn’t know why, but they laughed. I was just doing the thing that felt the most honest, and they thought it was funny.

I wasn’t trying to make a joke. I was trying to tap into that organic riffing feeling from photography class. This was one of the few times that year I remember feeling comfortable.

That feeling of comfort and belonging would stay with me through my Senior year playing with Exit 16, and the thirteen years I’ve spent improvising beyond that point.  

But it never would have happened if one guy didn’t get in my way and drag me into something that would become an entire sprawling world in my life.

If you haven’t gathered already that the dude writing about what is essentially playing make-believe on stage is a nerd, let me remove all doubt: I feel like I got pushed into the world beyond the wardrobe, pulled through platform nine and three-quarters, I got my ass kicked out of the Shire and into the never-ending adventure that is greater Middle Earth.

As Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

This was definitely the case for me. I needed a push out the door, but improv has swept me off to places I’d never expect, with people I’m glad to know, and experiences I never could have planned.

At its core, finding the joy in this unplanned, unexpected, and unpredictable journey is exactly what improvisation is all about.

- By James Buscher