In the Attic: The Art of Improv

1237bdb7a83c0ba10074c469210c6be3Note: this is the first in a series of happiness chronicles — discussions that focus on why and how interesting people pursue things that make them happy.

 

Two things that go bump in the night: something in your attic and someone on stage doing improv comedy.

For many people, the idea of crawling around in their dark, crowded, and potentially vermin-visited attic is equally appealing to the idea of stepping onto an empty stage with no props, no script, no clue — and only their quick wit to armor them from a cynical audience.

Lauren Bossers (nicknamed, appropriately, LaBoss) is an exception. She bravely visits attics and stages, and far off places in her very agile and very funny mind.

“My mother best describes me as my own best opposite,” says Bossers, a 40-year-old mom with a high-powered marketing role at Oracle. “I’m equally serious as I am silly. I’m a Type B in Type A clothing: relatively driven, but not consumed by it.”

Professionally, the petite, blonde and doe-eyed marketer is a master of the arcane technical details of supply chain software, and wields a grammatical sword with the passion of a warrior.

Personally, in 2012, Lauren was regrouping after a separation and looking for a new way to meet people and learn more about herself.

On August 20th that year, she read the obituary for famed comedienne, Phyllis Diller, who died at the age of 95, leaving the world with a lifetime’s worth of wit and humor about families, relationships and womanhood.

If you’ve never heard or read her work, here are a few Diller quotes that moms from any generation can relate to:

“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

“Housework won’t kill you, but then again, why take the chance?”

“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”

Here’s what jumped off the page of that obituary to Lauren: Phyllis didn’t start doing comedy until the age of 37. Lauren was 36 at the time.

“I’d been a shy child: an introvert, by Myers-Briggs standards. In my 20’s I worked hard to overcome that. Now I test off the charts on the extrovert side; and when I meet new people, they tend to think I’m a little insane. But people have always told me I was funny and quick, so I thought it was a good time to try improv.

“ I wasn’t that familiar with improv before doing it. Stand-up comedy is really different from improv: using a script versus flying by the seat of your pants. I had comedic heroes like Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. But since then, I’ve listened to a ton of interviews with comedians and learned that most do either stand up or improv. It is a rare person that does both.”

Lauren signed up for Pittsburgh’s Steel City Improv Theatre introductory class.

Steel City’s website tagline is: Listen, Commit, Play. This was an appealing draw for the newly-single mom.

She wasn’t nervous about the first class since it was an introductory level and she came armed with a well-honed quick wit. But Lauren quickly learned that great improv requires equal parts verbal and physical comedy: the actors are not supported by script nor props. They need to create both an engaging story and a visual environment using only their minds and their bodies to set the stage for their audience.

One improv game created to help develop that skill set is called “In the Attic.” The first person in the group imagines something in an attic that they need to go and play with, like a doll, a wedding dress, a bottle, a gun. Each person, in turn, plays with something new plus everything the prior people have played with, doing something different with each item. For example: play a game of Russian Roulette, take shots out of the bottle you found, put on a wedding dress, then grab the gun…

This exercise helps the actors develop on two fronts.

  • First, the “yes, and…” priority of improv: when you are on stage with someone else, all you have are that person’s eyes and ideas. You always need to connect with them by really listening to build on the story ideas put forward before you. If you cut off the idea, you kill the sketch. And, ideally, if you are the first person in the sketch, you start on a positive note, which provides a lot more room to grow the content, versus a negative angle.
  • Second, if the actors —like great mimes— can’t clearly physically “show” the difference between each item they are working with, they can quickly lose the audience.

Putting the show into the right context for the audience’s mindset is a third leg to the comedic stool that Lauren experienced firsthand. The date of Lauren’s first show was the night of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. She doesn’t remember that content for the show at all. “It was incredibly difficult to be funny or carefree that night. It was really tough.”

But overall, Lauren found improv incredibly energizing.

“You get an idea of why performers do it. It is an adrenaline shot. After working all day, you need to get your energy up to take a two hour class. But once you tap that creative energy, it’s almost harder to wind back down. It is exhilarating.”

Today, Lauren’s busy work and mom schedule doesn’t make it easy for her to do as much on stage with her improv skills, but those classes have carried over to her professional and personal life regardless.

On the personal side, she’s met a community of people from millennials to grandmas that she still sees, including one of her best friends that she met at improv class.

Professionally and personally, she’s taken the “yes, and” idea to heart in her relationships and collaborative teamwork.

“The power of validating and perpetuating an idea helps you connect better to other people. It makes you more engaged to try to understand what the other people are and to build on that idea.”

Those lucky enough to be on Lauren’s Facebook page, see the fruits of that collaboration every day, from the string of hilarious give-and-take discussion threads with her equally funny friends, to the brief and brilliant outtakes she shares from her life with her middle school son.

Here’s one recent example:

Adam and I were doing our usual bedtime routine of the NYT mini-crossword puzzle.

Me: Much debated Donald Trump word…

Adam: Bad hombres! Nasty woman! Chinese steel! Chiiiiiiiiina! DISASTER!

Me: Um, it’s “bigly.”

Adam: Good one.

Phyllis Diller has gotta be loving this.

 

Are you willing to share some insight about what makes you happy? Let me know, I’d love the opportunity to chat about it and share here…

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