A Week with Charna Halpern

After a quiet summer, I was in need of a pick-me-up. I get very grumpy and introspective when I don’t get the opportunity to do improv. My improv drought recently ended with a flood: a five-day intensive longform improv class, taught by Charna Halpern.

Along with Del Close, Charna founded the iO Theater in Chicago, developed The Harold as a longform structure, and wrote the book Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. She has had such a wide influence on the artform as it is practised worldwide that there was always a danger of her reputation getting in the way of the work. In my experience, when improv teachers are held up as “gurus”, people approach them less as facilitators, and more as physicians or priests, offering either health or salvation through their access to privileged wisdom.

Charna didn’t give many personal notes. She certainly never said “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that”. She sometimes said “I loved it when you did so-and-so” and “You’re good at such-and-such”, but only when it benefited the whole group practising a specific form. She spoke about the things that helped each performance, rather than what might help each of us in turn. Steve Roe has written a great list of some of these tips.

For me, the week was all about operating as a group rather than as an individual. It’s rare for me to get up on stage in a team of more than five people. I was initially wary about being taught in a group of nineteen – I guessed that the class would involve a lot of sitting down watching two-person scenes – but the larger group gave me a different and useful perspective to the work. “Everybody up on stage!” became the signal for some of the best stuff of the week.

The focus away from myself turned out to be the most refreshing thing about the course. I didn’t come away with tips on how to make myself a shinier and more attractive improviser. It was all about how groups can make shinier and more attractive performances.

When I performing with a larger group, there will be moments when I am following and other times when I am initiating. (There are also those sublime organic instants, when the two modes are indistinguishable from each other. They’re still my favourite.) But I still have a tendency to attach some egotistical weight to my own initiations. When I step to the front of the stage, I change my focus. On a semi-conscious level I shift from thinking: “I’m supporting the others,” to “Now the others are supporting me.”

With Charna, I had the opportunity to practise with my body and voice what I already knew in my head: that an improviser should be equally supportive whether they are following or initiating, whether they are in a spotlight at the front of the stage singing a song or at the back miming being a wardrobe. I’m massively grateful to her, and to my classmates, who were a magnificent team: Alex, Chris, Hettie, Jacob,  Jason, Jules, Julia, Katie, Maria, Maria, Mario, Murray, Nicola, Pippa, Sarah, Steve, Tony and Veronika.

This autumn I will be starting one or two new improv projects. I will be busy, which is good.

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