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Queen City Improvisation

by Christina Ritchie Rogers

October 4,2005

Unexpected guests. We love them dearly, but they never arrive without baggage- and I’m not talking suitcases or handbags. I mean the stress that inevitably preceeds an imminent arrival. Do I have clean towels? Do I have time to clean? What will I feed them? What restaurants are good? And worst of all, What will I DO with them?

Thursday night I received a phone call from a beloved out-of-towner whose ETA was, of course, Friday. This left me with the early half of Friday to figure out freshening up, food, and fun. Freshening up was quick, and I knew food would be easy- in Charlotte, finding a good spot to eat on the fly is not hard. But for the fun…that can sometimes be a challenge. As I am want to do, I visited the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s web site hoping for a not-too-expensive way to pass a few hours. I was not disappointed. The Second City was performing at the Booth Theater, and tickets were available.

I chuckled to myself as I booked tickets last-minute for a group specializing in improvisation.

The Second City is a very well-known, very talented comedy troupe from Chicago. Born at the University of Chicago in 1955 and originally called the Compass Players, The Second City has been a nucleus for comedy entertainment since 1959. Their act includes sketch comedy, song, and improvisation, and their list of alumni includes Mike Myers, George Wendt, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi.

Their sketches are a mix of satire, commentary, and goofiness spread over a wide range of topics- from current events to universal human experience. The individual flavors introduced by the actors as well as the presentation serve a delightfully diverse feast to the audience. At times, members of the audience are invited to contribute, free of censorship or discretion, to the scene. The improvisation segments are an impressive display of quick-thinking and creativity which emerge from a strong foundation of team, trust, and talent.

In addition to their theater performances, The Second City offers programs and workshops for the community. They actively reach out to minority students interested in performing, and offer workshops for businesses, teachers, and students. The skills necessary for effective improvisation and entertainment on stage can be applied very practically to other aspects of life. Serving the greater community through training and teaching is a perfect gift from an improvisational troupe.

Teamwork is a crucial element of any improv show. To work effectively on stage, live, in a show which people have paid hard-earned money to see, a show in which anything can happen, the actors have to work together. If a scene is unsuccessful, it is not the fault of any one individual. As the performers build a scene from scratch, they are constantly taking cues from each other, new directions, new character traits, new surroundings. Like passing on a football field, the ability of the quarterback is as important as the ability of the receiver.

Once the actor receives his pass, he has less than a split second to respond. He needs to think quickly and continue the scene, the other actors paying close attention to whether he zigs right or zags left. The ability to listen is paramount. Actors must be focused and concentrating at all times. The actors must recognize shifts in leadership, character, and situation. The cues may be conveyed verbally or physically. Amid the constant change and development of a scene, actors are constantly moving, problem-solving, and thinking “outside the box.” As a team, they are communicating and presenting ideas with no rehearsal. For the sake of comedy, they are taking risks. Their minds are switched on and working overtime.

Think about your communication and presentation at your next business interview. Be ready to think on your feet at your thesis defense. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues the next time you talk to your student or child. Remember to listen actively to your friend, or to take the lead with a great excuse to get away from the obnoxious guy at the bar.

The Queen’s City should follow the example of The Second City. As Charlotte continues to grow, skills in effective communication, presentation, and problem solving are a must. Divergent thinking and risk taking are part of the game, and lead to some of the best developments. Concern for the greater community and an appreciation for entertainment and laughter are all wonderful assets, not to be ignored. Whether a business leader or consumer, teacher or student, the skills of effective improvisation are skills for success in life (and success with houseguests).

The Second City is due to return for a show called “Sex and the Second City” this March. I recommend you mark your calendars now and take a guest or two with you- it will save you some high-stress improvisation later.

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