By Megan Ward
Without a script or any idea of what the plot will be upper school perfroming arts teacher and Scene Monkeys adviser Michele Spears steps on stage with other members of the Impro Theatre company to improvise an entire show. She reminds herself before entering to be aware of the offers other actors have thrown out and to follow the story that emerges.
Spears performs with Impro Theatre, which does long-form improvisation, completely improvised full -length plays in the styles of great writers such as Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Stephen Sondheim, William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
Spears started doing improvisation in 1990 when she moved from New York to Los Angeles.
“I had never done improv before that,” Spears said, “I had studied classical theater with Stella Adler at New York University and had done lots of regular theater, but never improv. The thought of improvising terrified me, so I thought I should try it out.”
Spears first joined an improv group that was focused on short form sketches where most of the members were comedians. When Spears saw the narrative approach that Impro Theatre, the the Los Angeles Theatresports, brought to their scenes, she thought it was a better fit for her. The company had a stronger emphasis on the creation of stories and most of its members were actors and writers. About six years ago, the group reorganized, changed its name from Los Angeles Theatresports to Impro Theater and now performs only long form shows.
Since then, the group has performed all over Los Angeles and gone on tour in Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, Paris and San Francisco. The company just finished a six-week run of shows at the Pasadena Playhouse in the styles of Chekhov, Williams and the TV show “The Twilight Zone”. Currently, they are performing a show at the Broad Stage called “Jane Austen, Unscripted,” every night creating a play in the style of Jane Austen. Next year, the company is set to perform again at the Pasadena Playhouse in February and at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.
“I love working in an ensemble,” Spears said. “When the work is good, there is a wonderful sense of play, of collaboration and of discovery as you bounce off each otherâs ideas.”
Spears has taught improv at the Upper School for seven years, starting during the Summer Intensive Acting Workshop.
“Some of the students asked about putting together a group,” Spears said. “Jonah Platt â04 spearheaded the idea and the Scene Monkeys was born.”
Spears said for any improviser it is important to remember to say “yes” to whatever appears, follow the story where it wants to go, trust his or her instincts, trust fellow actors and to play with complete commitment.
“Actors always strive to be âin the momentâ when youâre improvising,” she said, “Thereâs no other place to be. Itâs pretty exhilarating.”
Spears is currently expanding the improvisation program at the Upper School, holding workshops where all students can participate and are not just limited to the Scene Monkeys group. The workshops will focus on improvisation games and exercises designed to build improvisational skills.
“We had over 40 people audition for the Scene Monkeys and only so many spots to fill in the group,” Spears said. “It seemed like we needed another arena for people to learn about improv. There are also some students that arenât interested in being in the Scene Monkeys but want to check out what improv is all about. The workshops provide a place for them as well.”
The workshops are usually about two hours and taught only by Spears. The first one was Dec. 5 and had about 10 participants, most of whom are not part of the Scene Monkeysâ group. Spears said she hopes to have one workshop a month to give more people an opportunity to try improvisation.
“Improv is like skydiving,” Spears said. “Itâs a great rush. You have to jump into the unknown and trust that the story will reveal itself. It is a completely collaborative art form. The ensemble has to rely on and support each other in order for the work to be successful. It is an immediate form of theater, requiring the performer to be completely present and open to whatever appears. Itâs incredibly challenging and requires that the improvisor be actor, director and writer all in the same instant.”