The MC of the show had instilled these concepts long before the show that night. His name was Paul50 incidentally, and he walked up dressed entirely in black, with a long mane of even more black hair and cultivated beard. He looked like a mix between Rasputin and Kevin Smith with Seth Rogen’s raspy laugh added in for likability. Paul would direct the games and prepare the audience for what each game entailed.
The crowd and I watched around a dozen of the improvisational-based games, many of which were the kind where the audience is polled with their preferred topic, called “get-fors.” The get-for, say cooking tapioca pudding at a fancy museum, is worked into the framework of a usually two-to-three person “scene” governed by the rules of the specific game being played. The rules included those which required the improvisers to: suddenly reverse, fast-forward, or even translate the scene into a foreign language like Spanish. One game required four constantly revolving scenes to be mentally separated by four improvisers on the fly, while also referring back to the last line spoken of the previous scene. Another required the players to act out a scene while one must stand, one must sit, and one must lay, and another scene required the player to read out lines extemporaneously from a supplied and absurdly titled book.
My favorite performer that night was named Jillian. One game, influenced by Paul’s shouted instructions, forced her to forward and reverse the delivery of her ear-drum shattering, shrill-voiced phrase: “Billy you cheated!” Its repetition and sheer audacity made the exclamation and scene impossible for me to forget. The interesting scenes and their hilarity, as well as the obvious camaraderie between the performers, convinced me to attend one of their improvisational classes, which had been a long time goal of mine. It would take three months.
Hosted at the initially baffling, though later sensibly placed, locale of the Maitland Wellness center, improv was also reassuringly situated across from a line of outpatient surgical centers. I went up the stairs of the center, past framed pictures of Buddhas and laid amidst scents of new age canola candles was the meeting room. Its protector was a shrine with a five dollar “suggested donation” sign. I took this to be the tithe box to the God of comedy, and gladly dropped my fiver in as money very well spent. Entering the small meeting room, I was somewhat shocked to see nearly all of the people who had performed on stage several months ago. I had walked into the black belt class on my first day.
I sat quietly amongst the fourteen other “seasoned” people to chat for a few minutes. After a very cheery announcement, Paul, the shadowy MC, emerged from a back room to resounding applause, like a cult leader or maybe just charismatic motivational speaker. This made sense because I would later learn that Paul had held a long career in sales and real estate and had attended seminars by motivational speakers including Tony Robbins.
From the subsequent announcements, I found out that Iam50Million was not only an improv group, but was more broadly termed a “social group that does charity work and personal development.” They regularly participate in activities like food drives, wellness walks, movie nights, kickball games, and one member named Jason even put together his own volunteer event to assist a big cat animal sanctuary.
After the announcements, we did not head straight into the fun and games I had come for, instead we were grouped up with a stranger and I learned what the personal development part of their mission statement was about. Our task was to simply chat with that person, not through banal small talk about work or the news, but by talking to each other about something we were individually passionate about. During this somewhat incongruous conversation, It occurred to me that small talk does often make meeting a new person a boring, awkward affair. So asking about my partner’s passion was not only a great strategy for networking, but made small talk significantly more palatable and meaningful as well.
After I had a couple personal development conversations, we finally got to the games. We started with warm ups to build connections. This was accomplished through a clapping game in which everyone in the room got together in a huge circle and made eye contact with the people on either side of them. Several claps came around the circle like in a Mexican crowd wave, and two people clapped together in unison while making eye contact when it came to them. Then, one connected with the next person, depending if the claps were being sent in a clockwise or counter clockwise movement. It was kooky to clap with someone like this, but I was learning that improv was more about making a connection with your scene partner through sharing, even something silly on a stage.
Improv exercises like these were tantamount to building that connection and also training oneself to listen before speaking. Scenes, like conversations, won’t function if both participants fail to connect and listen to one another’s offerings. Paul followed up that most conversations involve people who only listen to talk, instead of listening to listen. So waiting for an offering from my clapping partner, “receiving” their clap, and then relaying it, was exactly the same as being a receptive and unselfish conversation partner. In my mind, a good conversationalist will wait to speak and keep the thread going for both participant's benefit. I would come to be surprised at how often my conversation topic would be ignored by close friends, in lieu of their own need to talk.
Next came the more intensive scene work. The type of scene most used in classes was a sort of spoken line roulette made of three verbal contributions. Two queues of people would form, and the first person from longer line on the left would start with an opening line that could be be anything. Like “Where are the TPS reports, Jim?” The person at the head of the second line would then follow up with, “well Eric, this is an interesting time to tell you, I quit five days ago.” Then the first person would make their reply, “well Jim, maybe we can start our own business together in the Cayman Islands,” and then the scene would end. Everyone would get to go a couple times, working off the cuff with a few other people, creating a variety of often absurd scenarios.
After a few rounds, I took note of the energy of several of the performers, often a reflection of their personality and interests. Danny, who fast became one of my favorites, played the costumed Spiderman at Universal for his day job and utilized a hot cocktail of high energy, brazen positivity, and references to Japanese animation in his scenes. Ray, a displaced Englishman, used characteristically dry delivery and always dropped a verbal pun and allusion to a previous scene in his work. Tristan was a sort of Napoleon Dynamite, drunken master. Speaking in narcoleptic slurs, he also provided some of the most unique use of body positioning to accompany his characters. Christianna was a ray of sunshine, playing cutesy characters while being prone to flip into dark and scornful female lovers, who really should have been treated better. What these patterns said about their performers, only Freud could know.
I enjoyed my first night of collaboration and positivity and continued going to the improv meetings on and off over two years. During that time, I saw a lot of humor, but also a lot of its members develop and flourish. I also saw a support group arise and embrace those members who were in need. Shyness was embraced to become comfortability and openness. Speech impediments made way for proud monologues and seemless interjections. Hangups, personal histories, and recent traumas were addressed and listened to by all. Iam50Million became what it was needed to be by the members who had joined it and triumphed in it. One member summed it up best when he said “I love coming here to watch people slay dragons.” Everyone’s dragon is different, and the group helps that dragon get slayed for growth and healing. These were some of the fundamentals of personal development, as I came to know them.
Comedy comes and goes, but lessons and a support network-like family kept me coming, and so I did. Fall 2018 I appeared in my first show. It was exhilarating, it was nerve wracking, and in the end, it was all just games. At first, I wanted to see if I too could become one of the stars of the stage and maybe I was for the night. A galaxy is far greater than its numerous stars though, of which there are probably 50 million or so.