Friday, March 8, 2013

Bringing Organized Chaos into Focus

by Jennifer Adams

Hot off the heels of another successful performance at the Make Believe Ball, I picked the brain of Patrick Schmitz, creator and teacher of First Stage’s year-round improvisation team, Organized Chaos, also known as OC. Organized Chaos began six seasons ago with 12 students and has grown to nearly 100 members who come back year after year.

JA: How did you get started in improvisation?
PS: When I was in high school, I saw a performance by Comedy Sportz and went, “I want to do that!” So I got involved with classes at Comedy Sportz after high school and started doing improv professionally and then went to Second City for training.

JA: What was the inspiration to start OC?
PS: I looked up to my teachers and wanted to know more about how improv works rather than just performing without thinking of the hows and whys. I started teaching and the more I learned about how it worked, the more I taught until the teaching took over. Starting OC was a part of that transition for me. I love explaining it and watching students have those same discoveries I had. It’s fun to see that happen over and over in my teaching years.

JA: What are the benefits of a year round class in improvisation?
PS: The growth is clear. Chemistry is really important to good improvisation. With a yearlong program, they get to know each other and how they work. We do a lot of reflection in OC, and they begin to notice not only how other students work, but also how they themselves work. From the first day in fall to the final show in spring, it’s a fun arc to see where they are as individuals and as a group. The respect and trust it takes to do good improvisation doesn’t happen overnight. When you meet once a week that is hard to build, so it’s stronger to grasp over an entire year as opposed to one session.

JA: OC sometimes performs in the community. Can you tell me about any of those experiences and what do the students gain from these performances?
PS: We’ve learned that when going out on road shows, short form works better. Short form is so universal. An audience can sit down for two minutes and then move on and still get something out of it. I think its fun for the OC players to go out and do the shows and perform for people who are not friends and family. They have to up their game since it’s a totally different environment. These audiences aren’t going to be unconditionally supportive, so the students experience how difficult it can be. I am really proud of these performances, like this
past weekend at the Make Believe Ball. Some audience members came and went, but there was a large majority that stayed for the entire two hours. People wanted to see more, and that is a real accomplishment.

JA: What are the most important life skills gained through improv?
PS: Self awareness. They have to truly listen to someone and support their ideas. They find out quickly that it is more difficult to do things by yourself. We are usually more successful when we have people up there helping us figure things out. This says something really powerful about building community and that we all need to help each other, on stage and in life. The “Yes and…” theory is also really important. It’s about trying things and going in for a taste of what you
think you don’t like, so you have real reasons to deny things. That’s a huge life lesson. I think trying new things is definitely a good thing, We build each other up through keeping things positive instead of looking for the negative.

JA: What is the foundation of good improv training?
PS: Exploration. Being able to let the students explore ideas, their own limits. You want to push them a bit, but encourage them too. I put it like this, throw them in the deep end and see what happens. Students definitely appreciate the challenge. There is a lot of self-analysis going on when they learn by doing. They can feel that it didn’t work and say to themselves, “I don’t
want to ever feel that way again”. So they are motivated to learn in a really personal way. I like to let them play, discover and explore. I see my job as coach as the training wheels. We are not showing how brilliant we are; rather we are helping them go in the right direction when they start to fall.

JA: As students continue taking OC year after year, how does the training progress?
PS: There is a saying in improv, “It’s always different, it’s always the same.” The exercises can be the same in 3rd grade, then 8th grade, then 12th grade but what the actor is able to tap into will be different. The students start to get smarter with their choices. Their sense of humor becomes more sophisticated. Just a few weeks ago we talked in class about how our senses of humor have changed since we were younger and how to think about who the audience is and what they will think is funny as well.

JA: Do you have any great stories about how OC has changed the life of a student?
PS: Of course, I am a fan of when individual students tell me what improv has done for them, as far as being shy and helping them find their voice in the world. I also love to see them go to other events with non-OC students and see them become leaders. Recently some of the Organized Chaos students performed at the Milwaukee Comedy Festival. They were the only group that got a standing ovation at the entire festival. They did long form work and took the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions. They got to a point where the improv didn’t have to be funny, they moved the audience to tears with a really honest and sincere performance. I was glowing with pride, they deserved it.

JA: What kinds of students excel in OC?
PS: Team players, students who know how to turn it on and turn it off. You have to be patient and willing to learn and willing to fail. That’s how we know we are learning. It’s like a musician, you have to be willing to practice and play the scales and go off pitch and eventually you’ll start playing the music.

JA: What is unique about the OC program?
PS: When I started OC, I knew that going the long form route was a risk. Short form improv is fun because of all the games, but with long form there is a great deal of theater involved and I think that is really cool. The OC students are different from a lot of improvisation students because they want to put on improvised one act plays rather than playing a game. This brings a stronger theater foundation to our work and what makes OC different than a regular improve class.

JA: What are the challenges of running a program like OC?
Comedy is subjective. I always have to consider that comedy is subjective. Who am I to say if what this student has done is funny or not? Which leads to another thing I constantly have to think about: when students come to a comedy improv class they think its all about the funny and don’t realize it’s work. They expect instant gratification through audience laughter, and if it doesn’t happen they get discouraged. I have to let them know it’s OK and relieve the pressure to “be funny” so they can really focus on the process.

JA: How does a student get involved in OC?
PS: Students must audition to be in Organized Chaos. Auditions happen throughout the summer during lunchtime or at a separate audition in September. When the students audition, I am not looking for the funniest performer or the greatest actor, I am looking for someone who is able to take direction. The most important thing to the audition is, “Can I hear you, understand you, and can you work with other people?”

JA: What’s your favorite thing about OC?
PS: The best part about working with OC is that I’m nowhere close to burnt out with this program. I work a full week and then come on Saturday and I love it. I always look forward to it. It’s hard to get sick of something that is always new. Even with the same games the students are always bringing something new to the table. The best part of my job is sitting back and watching them be brilliant because they have come so far!

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