During my second year as an Assistant Professor at Rollins College – when my improv troupe was still taking its first steps towards finding an identity, style and purpose – the potential for an out-of-the-box collaboration with the Office of Rollins Explorations emerged. This office oversaw programming for incoming and transfer students which included presentations and lectures from various campus constituencies, as well as some events with an eye towards entertainment and helping students start to form connections and friendships. Yvette Kojic was a particularly driven member of our fledgling troupe, Rollins Improv Players. She was active across campus – more connected to various programs than I was at that stage of my teaching career – and quickly proved to be fundamental in starting conversations with Explorations in terms of pursuing a possible partnership. The idea emerged to create an improv show that could entertain while also more stealthily address and consider some of the tensions of college life. Several meetings and conversations ensued that addressed the form and function of this potential collaboration in addition to concerns about the unpredictability of improv, language and content parameters. Doug Little, the head of Explorations, proved to be a generous and open-minded colleague and collaborator, and he bravely green lighted the first endeavor, setting in motion a production that has become a mainstay of my August on campus ever since.
The Basic Premise: Before an audience of first years and transfers, a company of student improvisers weaves together monologues and scenes drawn from audience suggestions targeted towards their feelings, fears and expectations regarding college life. Performers, seeking inspiration from their own experiences as well as the ideas of the audience, craft multiple rounds of scenes that playfully – and perhaps poignantly – embody transitional stresses of starting life on a new campus.
I’ve written elsewhere about my first improv Fringe show, E Pluribus Unum, and this one-act along with its earlier incarnation at Louisiana State University provided this undertaking’s general frame with some notable exceptions. The opening and closing ritual center around the motif, “That reminds me of the time,” with company members sharing true college stories initially, and then reflecting on either their own experiences or those of their fictional characters as each performance culminated. Edits were also handled quite differently from prior experiments with the device of bells pausing the action and company members narrating brief introductions for their fellow improvisers: this has become a stock edit that I think is a little unique to our campus and style. I’ve found this approach encourages tighter vignettes while also training a certain generosity of play as narrators generally pitch ideas for others to explore rather than editing so that they can then enter themselves. It was around this time that I also introduced a set piece between the third and fourth round of scenes, modeled on the short-form game Phonebank (which you can read about here.) This feature has proven to be a great way to heighten connections and further explicate the central theme of the show as it begins to culminate. The tradition of bell edits and the omnipresent use of the phrase, “That reminds me of the time,” have become so representative of the troupe that these elements often appear on our company gear and feature prominently in our end-of-year rituals.
At least within the troupe, these start-of-the-year performances have become known as ImprOvientation – a punny title that probably has no meaning or traction with anyone else other than those who have performed in it! While some of the logistics have changed a little from year to year – such as how many shows were performed, the size of each audience and performance space, and how we were scheduled in the overall orientation week – the substance of the show has remained surprisingly consistent. Framed by a large white board or similar, the audience of new students are asked prompts such as “What do you think about when you hear the word college, or Rollins College in particular,” “What are you most excited about as you start this phase of your life,” and “What are some of the things that are causing you stress or anxiety?” While there are always exceptional or unexpected responses, the answers often explore similar terrain, such as nervousness about roommates, dating, parties, communal bathrooms, maintaining relationships back home, finding a place to fit in, and figuring out their major or course schedule. While I assist in this stage of eliciting suggestions (and, in more recent years, some of the scenic introductions) the show becomes primarily peer driven for the duration, which has always been a central part of its design: this is a student performance inspired by students and for students. Typically, I’m the only faculty or staff representative of the college in the space during the shows.
Improvisation can be a scary pitch to an administration that is wary of branding and messaging during these formative initial days on campus. As the show has become established, this has become less of an issue (although it tends to re-emerge at least a little as new leadership enters the picture.) Great care is taken during the rehearsal process to stress the purpose of this collaboration and that we want to balance the needs of honoring our producing partner (this is not the time to reveal all our least favorite things about our campus) with creating a playful performance atmosphere free from stifling censorship (we don’t want the show to become merely a didactic series of institutional talking points.) In practice, this balance has not been particularly difficult to find, especially as the trust between all parties involved has been forged. We also deploy strategies to try to keep the content honest, joyful, and nuanced. This is one of the gifts of the bell introductions and edits, as an outside eye can gently nudge a scene into new territory if it is becoming cliché, problematic, or lacks consequence. We also have a seldom-used but important device built into the form in which any improviser can pause a scene to provide a quick contextualizing personal monologue. For example, if we’re painting Greek life in a bit of a simplistic or negative tone, a company member who is an active member of a sorority or fraternity might pause the action and briefly talk about how this aspect of their college experience has been of significant value or import.
The First (2005) Company:
As this project has continued and grown, I think we’ve all learned to trust the inherent value of an improvisational offering in a week of generally more formal and constructed events. Initially, ImprOvientation was framed with accompanying feedback sessions: peer mentors led debriefs with students about what they had just seen and how they could relate to it. Later, we connected the piece with specific alcohol awareness programming and resources. For quite some time now, however, we’ve just allowed the performance event to plant gentle seeds, to invite casual conversations or reactions, and to playfully embody some fears and excitements that are probably more common than individuals might realize as they sit in the darkness of the theatre auditorium. This is in no small part a result of the programming having proven its inherent value to our producing partners.
There have also been some simpler lessons just in terms of scheduling and how to set the company of improvisers up for success. That first year, 2005, we improvised ten hour-long shows over three days for approximately 450 students. More recently, it’s typically been five or six shows for larger houses, albeit crammed into one long day! Our troupe now generally averages sixteen members, with eight or nine performing in any given show and the others taking on supporting technical and directorial positions. I work hard to rotate students in and out of the cast in a way that isn’t too daunting or exhausting. However, the scope of this experience, along with the intense 12-day rehearsals to forge and train a new company combination each year, has become truly central to the identity of the troupe. (This reality was made even clearer when we had to forego the show for the first time since its inception in the fall of 2020 due to COVID restrictions.) There is incredible value in launching into each year with a long-form structure securely in our pockets, a deep sense of trust and connection from all the personal stories we have shared and facilitated, and the seeds of a relationship with a new audience who might have not taken the risk of seeing an improv (or any campus theatrical) show otherwise.
A quick shout out also to Claire Kunzman, an original ImprOvientation company member, who co-wrote a conference paper with me that I’ve drawn upon to refresh my memory a little. Along with Yvette and Doug, she was instrumental in helping this partnership materialize and blossom.
For sixteen years this show has been a well-received welcome to the Rollins campus. It saddens me that we had to take a hiatus in 2020, but the tradition returned in a scaled-back way in 2021. This is probably the single improv show I have directed and re-directed most in my life!
Go here for a sneak peek inside the project.