Students get into the act at Second City workshop

Grand Canyon University sophomore dance major Sidney Williams (left) "lifts weights" at an improvisation workshop on Saturday helmed by members of The Second City Touring Co.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

“I was a cheerleader with a cold.”

“I was a doctor in a hospital for clowns.”

“I was a balloon animal artist … who is really afraid of balloons popping.”

The Second City Touring Co.'s Julie Marchiano and Charles Pettitt, who recently performed "It's Not You, It's Me" at Phoenix Theatre, give students improv pointers.

It was just one in a slew of exercises Grand Canyon University students dove into on Saturday in the College of Fine Arts and Production Building as part of an improvisation workshop taught by the cast of “It’s Not You, It’s Me” from The Second City National Touring Co. Four cast members -- Julie Marchiano, Charles Pettitt, Amanda Blake Davis and Tim Stoltenberg -- took time out from their performances at Phoenix Theatre to help Lopes hone their performance craft.

The game: One student suggested a character that their improv partner had to create. On the spot. In a few seconds. Right then and there.

“Is that a character you would normally play?” Marchiano asked. “Would you say you know a lot about World War II?” she asked one Lope, who brought to life a World War II veteran during the exercise.

“No,” he said.

“I feel each of us was actually given a character but also a problem,” another student said.

Pettitt told students there are no mistakes and no rules in improvisation, just helpful guidelines. One piece of advice he shared with workshop participants: “For me, it is my opinion that comedy boiled down to one word is surprise. We want to keep as much variation and stay ahead of our audience and surprise them and get those laughs.”

Just down the hallway, a second class of student improvisationists barked out an activity to a student who had to keep a particular motion going on for three or so minutes. Fellow students then jumped in to improvise a scene, but they had to take that movement and turn it into something else.

GCU Parables troupe actor Gavin Harris (right) reacts with feigned disgust during an improv exercise.

“Hacky Sack!” someone in the class piped up as the student in the spotlight asked, “Wait, what’s that?” before pretending to kick a small sand-filled bag into the air over and over again, not allowing it to fall to the ground.

Another student joined in the Hacky Sack motion and quipped, “Boy, these coals are really hot!”

“When they said Indian fire walking, I was, like, ‘Sure!’” said the student in the spotlight.

Minutes later, another student took center stage, pretending to lift weights when another student improvisationist joined in, copying the weight-lifting motion and saying, “Boy! This concert is great,” changing the movement in the minds of those watching from weight lifting to concert cheering as the rest of the class laughed.

The improvisation workshop, which included about 30 students, was arranged by GCU theatre instructor Michael Kary, who met The Second City cast at a workshop in Peoria and invited them to campus.

“This is the first time The Second City has come out,” Kary said of the comedy club and school of improvisation known for churning out comedy greats such as Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, John Belushi, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Jordan Peele and Dan Aykroyd, to name a few.

In addition to throwing themselves into almost two hours of improv exercises, they spent some time asking the actors, all alumni of The Second City location in Chicago, about the art of improvisation, their careers, and advice about working in the entertainment industry.

One of the questions: “Have you ever gotten nervous, where you feel like you’re going to mess up?”

Amanda Blake Davis of The Second City Touring Co. (left) gives students feedback.

“The first seven years I was improvising -- and that includes after I had been hired by The Second City to tour with their company -- I used to panic. It’s a game of fake it until you make it,” said Marchiano, who always had acted in theatre and knew her way around stage but, when doing improvisation, said, “I hope that it comes out right or that I’m clever or I’m funny. I had that sort of self-consciousness for a long time when I started, but it goes away.”

Pettitt added, “If you’ve never improvised with someone, my anxiety goes through the roof because I’m like, I don’t know this person. … But as you continue to grow and change as a person and meet more people, that comfortability is going to come in your improvisation because if you can improvise with a stranger, you can improvise anywhere, anytime.”

Junior theatre education major Brenda Batres (right) said her favorite part of the workshop was working in pairs and "getting to build off another person."

Davis told a little about living in Los Angeles: “L.A. is an interesting beast, and it’s a create-your-own opportunities town, writing as much as you can, auditioning as much as you can, trying to do everything to cobble together a living in the entertainment industry. … I thought, ‘Oh, I’m an actor. I’ll just be an actor.' But you just don’t show up in Los Angeles and say, ‘I’m an actor!’ You should be an actor AND a writer AND you should be performing live, whether it be improv or stand-up, not just one thing.”

Davis said she landed her first writing job in L.A. by writing Bugs Bunny cartoons, something she never imagined she’d do. But her improvisational abilities got her the gig, which led to other jobs in the industry.

The cast also gave students insight on where to pursue their careers. Chicago is a good place to get your footing onstage as a theatre actor and it’s cheaper to live there. If you’re set on TV and film, head to L.A. and know that nepotism “is a thing that will get you one of your first opportunities,” Pettitt said.

They also suggested Atlanta, which is “blowing up with TV and film right now,” said Marchiano, as well as Austin, Washington, D.C., and Boston, though Pettitt also added that one of your best resources is your local community theatre and local improv troupes as you start building a career in entertainment.

Theatre student Christina McSheffrey (left) has just just a few seconds to create a character.

“But you can also be in Tyler, Texas. They have an improv team there, and I’ve seen them perform. Just explore as many resources as you can,” Pettitt said.

Junior theatre education major Brenda Batres said she wanted to take Saturday’s improv workshop to not only enhance her acting and teaching skills, “but to create opportunities for myself and learn from experts.”

Her favorite exercise was working in pairs. “It was really fun just getting to build off another person,” said Batres, who spent some of her improv workshop time improvising a shoe-cleaning scene.

Sidney Williams, a sophomore dance major, threw caution to the wind and took the workshop, he said, “so I can try something new that’s out of my comfort zone outside of dancing.”

His plan was to audition for the University’s own improv troupe, the Cantalopes.

Garrett LaPorte, a senior studying history and secondary education, also applied to be part of the Cantalopes.

Although he’s a history major, LaPorte said he’s not new to the stage. He acted as a child, was in several high school plays and was in theatre at his previous college, Citrus College in Glendora, Calif.

Students line up for an improv exercise.

“I was kind of hesitant,” he said about diving into improv. “I’d never done improv before. We had an improv class (at Citrus College), but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. Now that there’s a sanctioned improv team here, I just wanted to try something new.”

LaPorte said he learned a lot from the after-workshop question-and-answer session with The Second City team.

“These opportunities are few and far between,” he said. “They’re from L.A. They’re super busy and don’t have time for this sort of thing, so this is a privilege. I love it. It makes it all human to me, and that’s the most important part of theatre.”

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

Related content:

GCU Today: "Hitting the stage: A new GCU theatre troupe"

GCU Today: "Never a dull moment with the Cantalopes"

GCU Today: "Moon, Starcatcher ... theatre season heaven-sent"


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