Just don’t suck

Laugh in the face of fear with Black Box Improv

By Don Hurst

“You and your scene partner are Civil War soldiers pinned down by enemy gunfire.”

That kind of statement doesn’t make sense in a lot of places, but it’s pretty normal in The Black Box Theater’s level 1 (beginner) improv class. In fact, it is nowhere near the craziest thing you will hear in a class, which I learned as I watched pairs of actors perform impromptu scenes around noodling, or catching catfish with your hands, and gigging, a fancy word for frog spearing.

Pretending to be a Civil War soldier on stage seemed easy in comparison. But still, what am I supposed to do? I feigned confusion to buy me some time to come up with an idea, any idea, even a bad idea.

Our instructor made it sound easy: “Just act out what you think the civil war looks like.” Just be civil war soldiers and make up a scene on the spot and make it funny and don’t suck. Too easy.

The only problem, aside from a lack of improv comedy talent, was that I didn’t know what civil war soldiers would do. Judging from my scene partner’s shrug, she didn’t know either. So, I sat down and pantomimed ramming a bullet down a musket barrel. Were soldiers even still using muskets in the civil war? I don’t know. History’s not really my jam.

However, acting like a crazy person in front of strangers apparently is my jam.

As I rammed the imaginary bullet into the imaginary musket with the imaginary ramrod, I earned real laughs from the audience. I hadn’t even said anything yet! This improv stuff was too easy! That’s when I figured out that they were laughing because what I was doing did not look like ramming an imaginary bullet into an imaginary musket. I had inadvertently committed a sex crime in front of the entire class.

My fellow students were entertained, but now I felt nauseating fear blossoming in my stomach. That distant fear promised to metastasize into full-blown, body-crippling terror. Not only was my name going to end up on a federal registry somewhere, but in a few short weeks, I would perform in front of a real audience. Since The Black Box isn’t that kind of theatre, I would have to learn more than accidental obscenity.

Before our first class, Justin Howard, The Black Box’s owner, tried to assure us that fear is normal. Don’t worry, everything will be fine. We’ll see about that. At least I can take comfort in the fact that Howard and his instructors taught hundreds of students in the last three and a half years. None of them died from lethal embarrassment. Howard even taught an improv seminar at Harvard University’s MBA program. If he can make those people funny, then my classmates and I will be awesome on show night.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

It seems that fear and improv go together like Kanye and crazy. Not knowing what you’re going to say. Not knowing what your scene partner is going to do. Just trusting the process, trusting your fellow actors, trusting yourself that everything will work out. To survive, you have to be completely in the moment. You have to listen to what is happening around you and you have to ignore the fear.

Howard learned to embrace fear early in the founding of The Black Box. After training with Chicago’s legendary iO Theater, New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade, he arrived at the unlikely conclusion to move to Dayton and start an improv theatre from scratch. A career in comedy is a terrifying endeavor anywhere, but even more so in a city that is not known as a comedy mecca. That’s not a route most actors take.

Howard laughs and admits, “You don’t move to Dayton to make it in comedy.”

Most of the students aren’t trying to become famous actors. Mainly they are working through some kind of fear. “They’re taking our classes because they struggle with communicating, or they have difficulties in relationships, or they got promoted at their job and now they have to do public speaking,” Howard says. “That is the bulk of the reasons people take our classes. That, and just the desire to do something different in their life. A lot of people will say that they’re here because they turned 40…or they got divorced. Or something like that.”

It’s the people surrounding The Black Box that makes the theatre special. Actors flock to the prestigious theatres in Chicago and New York hoping for movie deals and Saturday Night Live contracts. The actors in Dayton hit the stage hoping to create something bold and spontaneous – something that laughs in the face of fear.

The Black Box Improv Theater is located at 518 E. Third St. in Dayton. For more information, please visit daytonblackbox.com, like its Facebook page, or call 937.369.0747. 


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Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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