Self Improv-ment

Jacob Goodman

On a Friday evening in October, Dave Bushnell runs through the do’s and don’t’s of improv. He throws out terms like “block” and “waffle” to the 13 students who make up the new student improv group, the newly-named Jackanapes.
Bushnell recently became an official staff member when the Performing Arts Department decided to form a second improv group to accommodate more students who wanted to participate in improv. Bushnell has worked with the Scene Monkeys over the past few years and was given the reins of the new group.
Bushnell grew up in Federal Way, Wash.  In high school, he was an exceptional math and competitive speech student, testing out of his first year of college-level calculus and accumulating numerous awards for speech competitions. He always did theatre as an extracurricular, though he said he didn’t receive much support.
“I don’t think anyone meant to be discouraging,” Bushnell said. “It’s just that no one I was connected to knew how to point me in the right direction. I might as well have said ‘I want to study to become a daffodil.’ A ‘career in the arts’ is not always part of the lexicon of working class families and public schools. And really what career-guidance counselor would ever say, ‘Your math skills are exceptional. Have you considered summer stock?’”
Eventually Bushnell was voted “most dramatic” in his high school’s senior class.
He attended Washington State University with plans to become an engineer, but became more and more sidetracked from his engineering classes by what he was doing for his theater classes.
“In hindsight, the classes and experience I gained in the university theater department were all that stuck with me,” Bushnell said. “There certainly isn’t much call for FORTRAN [Formula Translating System] programming these days.”
Bushnell took up improv when one of his acting teachers told him he needed to be more spontaneous. He immediately joined an improv group called Seattle Theatresports. After just a short stint with the troupe, he quit the acting class at Washington University and devoted himself to improv.
“It’s hard to say just what the draw was, maybe the challenge of holding my own for any length of time without a script,” Bushnell said. “And of course the thrill of pulling laughs out of thin air.”
After working at Seattle Theatresports, he moved down the coast to San Francisco, where he worked with Bay Area Theatresports and eventually came to Los Angeles, where he worked with several improv companies.
“For about four years, I produced a weekly show at Acme Comedy Theatre where I invited players from groups like Groundlings, ImprovOlympic, Second City, TheatreSports and others to play in a sort of jam session,” Bushnell said.
Bushnell’s good friend, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” star Brad Sherwood, eventually invited him to tour in a two-man improv show around the country, an experience that showed him the uniqueness of improv, Bushnell said.
“Improv, like no other theatrical form, completely involves the audience at all times,” he said. “Think about it: the first thing you’re told when you watch a play is silence anything in your possession which might make noise. Standup comedians tell you, sit down and shut up or I will punish you, make noise only when I cue you to laugh. Improvisors, on the other hand, say “Shout out: what can I do for you?” Somebody sneezes, and it becomes a part of the show.”
Bushnell later picked up acting again while still maintaining his improv career. He has guest-starred on shows such as “Parks and Recreation,” “Monk” and “iCarly.”
He says that because he didn’t pick up professional acting until later in his career, he’s much more appreciative of the parts he receives, unlike career actors, who always want more.
“There are tons of really good reasons not to get into acting,” Bushnell said. “For instance, not having a theatre degree. So given the limitations I started with, I’m pretty happy with my résumé. One thing I’ve learned is, there are many dangling carrots in this business. Extras always want a speaking role, co-stars always want a recurring role, TV stars always want films, film stars always want awards and so on. No one ever seems to ‘get there,’ and a great many actors are miserable. So I’ve come to it as a latecomer, not as a disillusioned career-seeker.”
At Theatresports Los Angeles, which is now Impro Theatre, Bushnell met performing arts teacher Michele Spears whom he has been in a relationship with for 15 years.
“I fell completely in love right away,” he said “Her, not so much.”
Before becoming the head of the Jackanapes, Bushnell  directed at the Harvard-Westlake Playwrights Festival and substituted for Spears with the Scene Monkeys.