When I asked Menelaos if he’d like to write something for me, he knew right away, what would that be about. Community. How surpiresed I was, when I got the complete text not after a month, but the next day. But then I thought – why was I even surprised? When you’re a person, who brings improv to your country, build it from scratch, and after only five years has own company, venue and second edition of international Mt.Olymprov festival in Athens… you know the value of the community. I’m glad I could be a part of that festival, to feel the Vibe, to learn, and to perform with this inspiring Greek – and I can say, it was the best community atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at the festival. I couldn’t agree more with Menelaos and I’m really glad, I can publish his article now, just before starting the new season – and I hope that Polish community will pay attention and make plans together for next year, and grow stronger!
“DO YOU LOVE THE COMMUNITY AS MUCH AS YOU LOVE THE ART FORM?”
Have you given any thought to how important community is for the growth and evolution of the art of improvised theatre? Being part of the core team that has been trying to create a community in Greece from the ground up, I have become a firm believer that it has the power to make or break Improv as it grows, both for me and as a whole.
Ever since the first day we fall in love with improv (which, let’s face it, for most of us it is the first day we discovered it existed) we are dying to get on stage and get involved. We take lots of classes and workshops, watch shows, perform, listen to podcasts, read books, talk about it with friends through the night, fall asleep on the couch watching Whose Line… What is behind all that though? It’s not just me, myself and I performing on a stage. If that were the case, I’d just be a shower singer and excited about it.
Think about it. During any given show, how many members of the audience are other improvisers? Every time you take a workshop with an out-of-town instructor, how excited are you to share the classroom with people you are not regularly taught side-by-side with? When you attend an international festival, either in your own country or abroad, isn’t seeing old improv friends and making new improv friends one of the biggest highlights? When you go out for drinks with improv friends, don’t you love it when they bring other friends along and one of them happens to mention that they are about to start taking classes? You get that “one of us” feeling! And yet, no one hardly ever talks about how successful they were in helping the improv community flourish. More often than not, people talk about the how they did, the show they watched, the workshop they took. The element that is constantly present seems to be getting left out.
When I first began teaching improv in Greece, I expected it to take years before getting a decent number of people involved in it. We may be talking about one of the birthplaces of theater as we know it, but up until 2012 improv was inexistent in the entire country. To my surprise, it kicked off with an initial pool of 30 people and it has been increasing ever since. But that wasn’t the important bit. What I loved was seeing these people -strangers up until days before- hanging out after class, getting to know each other and staying in contact even after some stopped taking classes.
The biggest shock was in December of 2012, when we were building our very own venue. That was merely 3 months after I had introduced Improv to a handful of people. People that, if you see it in its essence, had paid me money to provide them with a product. I was nothing to them, the other students were nothing to them, our improv company was nothing to them. It was too short a time to mean anything more to them.
That’s what I was wrong about. All those things meant a lot to them. More than I could comprehend. They had a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than them. I was humbled and speechless every single day when those people would show up and work all day and night to build this venue. They would clean shit up, paint walls, scrub wood, carry stuff and for nothing in return. Well, nothing material at least.
Had it not been for them, I wouldn’t have done it. It was an impossible feat, yet they all chipped in. Seriously, we even had people who would show up late in the evening, saying “I really don’t have any time to spare to help out, but here, I brought a bag of snacks and drinks for everyone doing work here”. I get goosebumps every time I think about it. I had days when I fell apart, not believing I could do it any more and one of those people would pull me back out of the hole in the ground, showing they believed in me. Had it not been for the community, I probably would have given up a long time ago. That was people helping each other out, without having built a strong bond between them yet. That was the beginning of a community. A group of people who have something in common. Something that, when meeting a stranger in a bar, you may be lucky enough to be able to say “Oh, you’re involved in that too?” And give them that winks that very subtly hints “You’re not alone. I got your back.”
I do understand though that not everyone feels the same way. Not everyone is interested in being part of the community and we must respect that. Being outside the community doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful or enjoy what you do. It just means that you’re missing out on a big part of the experience and on the ways improv can change you. In the five years that we have been spreading the love of improv in Greece (and beyond, I guess), we have seen plenty of people who clearly were not interested in the community itself, regardless of whether they were still practicing the art form or not. It’s a shame when it happens though. Especially when people continue performing but go rogue, you see that hardly anyone of the community goes to see their shows. At the same time, they do not go to see the shows of other people. It’s not that either side has no desire to do so. It’s that there is no feeling of belonging, no sense of connection. It makes sense. If you don’t feel in any way connected to someone, why would you go to see their show? Why would you support them? There are way too many causes in the world to support and we tend to choose the ones we feel connected to. So, when not connected with the rest of the improv community, everyone misses out on influences and inspiration that we could have from each other. That experiential teaching that helps us grow and evolve simply by watching a show, or sparking a conversation with like-minded folks.
This is something that I feel applies to any kind of community. We are all humans and we are one and we are all there for each other, sure. But there are sub groups. People are connected by being people. And some of those are even more connected because they live on an island. And some of those are EVEN more connected because they lost a parent at a young age. And the connection gets even deeper for some of those because they also happen to be practicing archery, or anything like that. It’s not elitism. It’s about having things in common and when one of those things enables you to speak the same jargon, recognize the same code, you feel a stronger bond with this person. You enjoy that connection and want more of those people around you, because the more of you there are, the more intense and contagious your energy becomes. And that is a wonderful feeling.
I believe that this is even more true for improvisers. Besides, our art form is based on connection, on giving, listening and accepting, on making your partner look good. By default, this teaches us to care about getting together and building something bigger than life itself. We want more for ourselves, we want more for our art form, we want more for our community. Even more so when this community is young. We want to protect it, help it up on its feet, create a solid, fun, safe environment for new people that will join it, because we know what a natural high the feeling improv gives us is and we want those new people to feel it as intensely as we do and to want to contribute to it.
For a community to grow and stay vibrant, it needs constant love and care. Once it’s alive, you can’t assume it will stay that way without everyone doing their part over time. You may be wondering what you can do to help with your local improv community. Well, lots of things. Here a short list:
- Make the effort to watch other people’s shows.
- Personally invite people to your own shows.
- Organize events. Parties, nights out, games nights, escape room groups, movie nights…
- Write thoughts about improv and share them with the community.
- Saw something online from anywhere the world that you liked? Share it!
- Teach! Offer classes, drop-in workshops.
- Take a workshop that a former classmate of yours is teaching. Never underestimate what any improviser has to teach you!
- Offer to help. Volunteer, lend a helping hand, be part of the team that is organizing a big event, provide your expertise… Improvisers tend to be exciting people with lots of interests. Chances are, many of them are involved with other things you know nothing about and could do with some help from fellow improvisers.
- Attend. Anything. Everything.
So continue going out there, doing shows, taking classes, teaching classes, getting better and better at it and continue loving it. But always remember to appreciate, love and cherish your community. Remember who those people are that will always fill the front row at your show. Remember who you’re addressing when posting about your upcoming workshop. Remember who will laugh at the spontaneous, silly bit you just did at the dinner table which, to be honest, maybe wasn’t really all that funny, but they laugh because they get you. Remember that when all is said and done, the days that you rock and the days that you suck, it’s your community of improvisers that will applaud you like there’s no tomorrow, extend its empty palm and say “Here. I brought you the best thing in the world, just because you deserve it right now.”. And when that happens, you too will be one the lucky ones who get tears of joy in their eyes, just like I am doing now, thanks to that feeling. That feeling, man……..