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Catherine Weidner has worked as Program Director of The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at the George Washington University, The Guthrie Theater, Center Stage, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Bread and Puppet and the La Jolla Playhouse, and holds an M.F.A. in directing from the University of Minnesota and a B.F.A. in acting from Ithaca College. She has also trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and the Second City in Chicago.
Q: How and when did you start in improv?
A: After receiving my BFA from Ithaca College, I moved to Chicago. I didn’t know anybody and knew I wasn’t going to get into a show right away so I called Second City to take a class. They told me I had to audition. I said – ‘What? I have to audition to get into an improv class?’ They said – ‘Yes, it’s a formal training center.’ So I auditioned and got in.
Q: What were classes like at Second City?
A: Once everyone gets over their desire to work at Second City or their dreams of being on Saturday Night Live, we learned fast that the class was not about becoming an improv star; it was about developing and refining basic techniques. We focused on fundamentals: give and take, listen and respond, explore and heighten, establish a relationship and conflict, then resolve that conflict. We probably did the same exercises for the first six months.
Q: What kinds of students take your improvisation workshop at the Shakespeare Theatre Company?
A: Some students feel confident and want to learn about what’s involved in improv. Others want to develop better interpersonal skills. Some people say they can’t do improv because they don’t think they’re funny. It isn’t a comedy class; it’s not about being funny, but it ends up being funny because it’s truthful. But the person who says – ‘now there’s a class I’m afraid to take and, by God, I’m going to take it’ – that’s the kind of student I want in class.
Q: What can students expect to learn in your improv workshop?
A: I use the same exercises I learned at Second City. Your scene partner says something and you listen and respond. Whatever happens with that ‘stimulus and response,’ we explore and heighten. My goal is to help students develop a greater awareness of their own impulses and instincts, to be able to connect more fully with their partners, and to increase their willingness to take risks. I structure exercises to help students realize that they are in a safe environment, where the possibility of failure and level of actual danger is so low, they can afford to take big risks.
Q: What is the key to being good at improv?
A: The ability to work off others is the key to being good at improv. You don’t have to figure out or plan what you’re going to do next; you need only trust your scene partner and move into that space. Venturing into that unknown space can be scary, especially for actors who are used to relying on a script. Actors who jump to results or want to feel like they’re doing the right thing aren’t really in the moment. They’re too busy thinking – ‘I hope they like me, I hope they think I’m funny.’ They have to get past that.
Q: How do improvisation skills improve acting?
A: Improv keeps an actor’s work fresh. Actors need to experience new things, and I don’t mean taking dangerous risks. Maybe just – I’ll put French vanilla creamer in my coffee today instead of hazelnut just to be a little different. When our lives become routine, our work becomes stale. When we stop challenging ourselves as people, we stop challenging ourselves as artists.
I call improv ‘the great leveler.’ Everyone starts at the same place. The best actor in the world walking into class would start at the same place as everyone else which is ‘What am I connecting to? How do I want to respond?’ We can have all the technical skills in the world, but if we’re not available to our impulses and instincts and are able to act upon them, our work won’t be interesting and compelling. Improv challenges us to become and stay aware of our own instincts and emotions and to other people. To me, if that doesn’t make us better actors, nothing can.
Q: Can improv skills help build confidence?
A: People I coach in public speaking ask how they can build confidence. I say ‘you’re not going to like this, but the way to build confidence is to make a fool of yourself.’ People are too afraid of what other people think. I try to get across to students – when you worry less about what other people think, you can respond to what they do and say. Someone in class may appear to be really good at improv, but so are you. You just may not feel it because when you get up, you may be thinking ‘oh, am I doing this right?’ That doesn’t make you a bad improviser. It just means you’re carrying unnecessary emotional baggage, and that gets in the way of your work.
Q: What excites you about improvisation?
A: I joke about it, but I think improv makes us better people. Improv is a fun way to get at the core of human behavior. It teaches us how to let other people in. Sometimes actors stand by the side in class thinking ‘well, it wasn’t my scene so I wasn’t watching.’ Some people, when they start talking, never stop. That’s called ‘self generating’ – filling up the space with words because we weren’t listening, not trusting ourselves or the other person, or just plain panicking. In my opinion, the ability to watch, pay attention to, and listen to others is a valuable life skill that makes us better people.
Every moment of our lives is an improvisation, a negotiation. We improvise from the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we go to bed at night. We may have plans for the day, but we don’t know what else we’ll have to negotiate. Improv is when one moment meets the next moment and no one knows what will happen next. To me, improv is the key to life and something we get to work on the rest of our lives.
Source by Mary Ann Sust