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Off The Top Of My Head

Love a good bargain as much as Jean Teasdale? Betcha you don't! For example, I don't call the third day of the week Tuesday anymore—I call it Doublecouponday! Why, I'm such a Super Saverette (lady version of Super Saver) that—get this—I subscribe to a website that e-mails you daily discounts from local businesses! A couple weeks ago, I found an exciting deal that struck my fancy like a semi: a free weekend introductory class at an improvisational theater!

It should be of no surprise to you Jean­keteers that your den mother has long been quite the frustrated performer. (Now add frustrated baker, frustrated quilter, frustrated crossing guard, and frustrated psychic to the list, and you'll have a complete picture of who Jean Teasdale really is!)

Yet this wouldn't be my first time on stage. Remember when I did open-mic night at Laughingstock's Comedy Club, out on Lorraine Road near where those teens got caught in the flash flood last fall? The $8.99 all-you-can-eat shrimp special? Now you remember, I'm sure! (Yum!) Well, it didn't go so hot. I ended up walking off the stage after an audience member asked to see my bosoms. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud that I left my comfort zone (aka my living-room couch!) and did something I'd wanted to try for years. But the question remained: What would I do for a follow-up?

Enter this online coupon, which was offered by none other than Laughingstock's itself! Destiny beckoned once again! Immediately, visions of becoming the next whoever the leading star of improvisational comedy is today crowded my cranium!

You know what improvisation is, right? It's when a group of people wears the same kind of T-shirt and they say things off the tops of their heads. Zilch is scripted, and everything they do is inspired by shouted-out suggestions from the audience! Hubby Rick and I once saw an improv (what insiders call it) troupe perform at a pizza place. It caught us by surprise, because we were only there for pizza. Guess what? The mirthmakers performed a whole 10-minute routine based on Rick's suggestion "Go away, we're eating!" It was soooo funny, too! They worked it into a skit involving a telemarketer calling a family during dinnertime, and then the girl in the family gets brainwashed and joins a telemarketing cult. It comes off kind of weird in print, but performed live, it was hilarious! (To moi, at least—Rick almost punched out the tall skinny guy in the troupe afterwards for interrupting pizza time!)

About 30 people showed up for the free improv class, and we were divvied up into three classes by the instructors. My group's instructor was named Susan. She was Canadian! I couldn't wait to say things off the top of my head, just like the troupe in the pizza place. Had I at last discovered my true true calling? After all, I've been doing it all my life! How hard would it be to do it on stage? Well, tougher than you'd think!

Even before we got to improvise on stage, Susan took us through an extended session of strange exercises, such as mouthing "oooooh" at different pitches and clapping in rhythm. They were rather fun, but I didn't see the entertainment value in any of it. I don't recall anyone ever doing this on Saturday Night Live, though I haven't watched it much in recent seasons.

Then we did an exercise in which a student pretended to do something and the rest of us joined in one at a time with our own related pantomime, so that we all formed a sort of big, crazy machine. I was a tad peeved, though, when this girl who came right after me totally misinterpreted what I was doing. She was doing this weird pulley-hoisting thing, and it took me a minute to realize that she thought I was on a platform washing windows. But clearly I was picking chocolate kisses from a candy-cane tree! Sheesh!

It took a couple hours before we got around to group skits. But even this grew frustrating. Whenever I had an idea, it didn't come out the way I wanted. Like, my partner on stage wouldn't get me, and then I wouldn't know how to respond, and we'd have these awkward silences. Or vice-versa! (At one point, I thought I was playing a nice woman tending to her houseplants, but then these two guys came in and turned it into some zany bit about a carnivorous marijuana grove! Holy frijoles, can you blame me for being tongue-tied?)

Susan coached us between skits. Every time she said something critical, she addressed it to everyone, but she seemed to do it only after I said or did something. "Don't overthink or enter with premeditated ideas," she said. "React to what you're presented with, just as you do in real life." "Don't feel like you need to be funny. Don't force the humor." "Listening is your most important skill. Good improvisers listen." "Loosen up. Relax. Open your mind." "When you feel a touch on your shoulder, it means stop what you're doing, go to the back, and let your teammate take your place." (Okay, that last one was definitely aimed at me!)

All Susan's relaxation and opening-up talk was making me very anxious. When would be my chance to shine? Instead, I had to build off what my classmates said or did. I think I got disoriented because I'm not accustomed to prolonged conversation that doesn't end with someone having to be somewhere all of the sudden. (As for my talks with Rick, they don't involve "Yes, ands" so much as "No, grunts"!) Besides, during a real-life chat, I often like to change the subject. And rather than live in the moment, sometimes I simply prefer thinking about other stuff or what will happen later, like what to make for dinner. (Don't tell me I'm the only one!) But here's my big question: Why is listening more important than imagination? Did the Whose Line Is It, Anyway? cast wonder this when they improvised? I'll bet they did! They seemed a little out there!

I know it's wrong to look a gift horse in the mouth. But it will be a while before I attempt improvisation again, especially now that I know I'd have to shell out a couple hundred bucks for a series of courses in which I'd learn to master following other people's lead in impromptu skits that become all about drugs anyhow. If anyone else feels the way I do and would like to form an improv group in which we all come with premeditated ideas and each get to shine in clean skits about chocolate-kiss candy-cane trees, you know where to reach me!

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