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This is Sam. I’m going to write about covenants in this blog. This seems like a fitting thing for me to do. Jewish blood runs in these veins. I come from a long line of prophets. And the prophet speaks, now (in the third-person):
We spent time coming up with answers to a very simple question last weekend. What is improvisation?
You might think this is a silly question for an improv company to take up. Especially after we’ve been working together for over a year. You’d be wrong, my friend. Improv is a many splendored thing. And by that, I mean improv is complicated.
Improvisation is not a concrete art. There are different, competing traditions, and folks conceptualize improvisation in all sorts of ways. All of us have years of experience with improv. But we come from different places. We kept meaning to come up with our tenets as Happy Valley Improv, but it just never happened.
Until we decided to expand our troupe.
We held auditions in January. People participated in a three-day audition. Afterwards, we realized that we needed specific language to describe how we were evaluating improvisers. Further, how were we evaluating ourselves? What ideology were we adhering to?
We made lists. We scrutinized every word. We spent a Sunday afternoon agonizing over our work. We cut things. We edited. What did we believe? Why did we believe it? Our work resulted in the following covenant. Read it with reverence, my friend. We share it with collective solemnity.
I’m not going to go through these beliefs in detail, here. That’s an academic paper. And a book. And a novel. And an epoch. There’s so much work to be found in explicating and nuancing the ideas above. At least for me. I believe that the five statements above contain something that points to the mystery of living well. Go read my books for elucidation:
Excuse me. That was a self-promotional hiccup. But seriously, these two books are about the improvisational nature of my being. So is my upcoming book, Playing with Sharp Objects. Improv, in concert with other things, has taught me how to live. And the five statements above are central to how I see human beings living well (and healthily) with each other. Especially in our precarious age.
I’m proud to be part of a community that adheres to the tenets above. We’re proud to be building such a community.
Yes, improv is joyful and funny. Ridiculous too. But it also might provide alternative ways for people to be. And the five tenets above might guide us in that direction.
So sayeth the prophet.
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I love making resolutions. I know that I’m in the minority on that one. But my approach to Resolutions is less guilt-based, less drudgery, and more fun. I use New Year Resolutions as a chance to take stock of my life, habits, and intentions, and to make changes—big and small—that I WANT to make. Not changes that I feel like I SHOULD do because I’m SUPPOSED to. I use Resolutions as an opportunity to give myself permission to do what I’ve got to do to be the me I want to be.
This is not to say that I don’t fall short. Last year, I truly did WANT to cultivate my avian appreciation skills, so I made a resolution to keep track of all the birds I spotted. Well, that didn’t work out and my specially-designed birding checklist was consigned to a makeshift grocery shopping list in no time. Oh well. I’ll try again on that one. Or maybe not.
Another resolution I made a few years ago was to go ziplining. That one I technically met because I did get on a zipline in my cousin’s backyard, but I only made it halfway across because I let go when I realized that I was too scared to stop myself by bracing my feet against the oncoming tree. The result was a spectacular, face-first fall into the mud below, which was not my finest hour, but it was hilarious for all who were watching. I like bringing joy to others.
A few years ago, I resolved to try improv comedy. So when I found a weekend camp for that, I signed up quickly before I could talk myself out of it. The rest is history (read my other blog post about that.) Lots of people have asked me why on earth it even occurred to me to pick up a new hobby, and why improv of all hobbies. So below I’m going to list some of the things I wanted more of in my life. I should add that I’ve been greatly influenced by several of my spiritual heroes and life philosophers whenever I make lists like these, including that fateful list-making session on New Year’s Eve in 2015. So, I should give a shout out to Gretchen Rubin, Brene Brown, Holly Temple, and Daniel Tiger. These 4 people/puppets help me figure out what I want to do and how I want to be.
So, here, in no particular order, is the list of things that I wanted more of in my life, and improv helps me with all of them.
I, Andrea McCloskey, hereby resolve to be more...
What do you think? Can you add more to this list? Come take a class with us and make your own list!
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Teaching and learning is dispositional.
Our disposition is the tendency of our spirit. It is our mental or emotional outlook. It is the way we live and move in the world. And, of course, our disposition informs how we bring ourselves to learning about things. It impacts the way that we teach, as well.
This is Sam. I'm blogging on the behest of Happy Valley Improv. I've been tasked with writing a little something about improv, pedagogy, and disrupting the norm. So here goes.
I first got involved with teacher education in 2011. I'd been teaching high school for ten years, and was working on my PhD at The University of Minnesota. I supervised student teachers in the spring of 2011. I followed potential high school English teachers, as they completed their student teaching. These people were placed in various high schools throughout the Twin Cities. I was given a rubric to assess these aspiring teachers and their ability to, well, teach. Mostly, I was asked to name their dispositional attributes.
At The University of Minnesota, teaching was a dispositional art. How flexible were these teaching candidates at meeting student needs? How positive were they in relating with their students? Were they confrontational, amiable, rigid, etc.? I was given a survey with over 100 questions. I filled out this form for each of the student teachers I was assigned to work with. I'm not a fan of surveys, and the questionnaire seemed formulaic. Still, I liked the idea that our dispositions are central to our ability to teach. This seemed true to me, even if a survey felt forced. In some ways, I measured students on how they lived and moved in their classrooms.
Assessment is tricky, of course, because it assumes that we've prepared students to be assessed. How could those of us in teacher education hope to teach our students dispositional expertise? We weren't grading these potential teachers on their ability to write an essay or pass an exam. No, we were assessing their ability to be with people. Discussion, lecture, or other traditional forms of learning, to my mind, do not impact the ways we move through the world as much as improv can.
Improv teaches us how to be with people in affirmative ways. We learn to build off each other's ideas, work together non-evaluatively, and exist in a temporary, carefully crafted group-mind. We don't learn about these things. We practice them. And our participation in improv, to my mind, changes us. I've come to think that inviting teachers and learners into improvisation impacts our dispositional ability to be with each other productively. We become flexible. We become adaptable. Maybe most importantly, we become open.
The norms of teaching and learning, in some ways, prohibit authentic connections with people in learning environments. We're so busy with predetermined outcomes, tests, or other standardized practices and procedures, that we don't connect meaningfully with each other. An improvisational disposition disrupts this sort of mechanized, formulaic teaching and learning.
This conversation about teaching and learning isn't really new. John Dewey worried at the turn of the 20th century that classrooms ought to facilitate vibrant, social connectivity. He argued that democracy depended on it. Traditional power dynamics should fall away in a good classroom, and people should form new ways of being together. Participating in good improv might teach us how to better be with each other, to be better with each other.
Happy Valley Improv has a couple of missions. Yes, we want to create improv. Improv makes us laugh, and inspires joy. We also want to share that joy with people around us. Still, we also want to better understand what improv is, and what it might afford us in all sorts of contexts. I'm a professor of education, now, and so I want to learn about the relationship between improv and teaching and learning. This blog post is a simple journal, really. I just wonder how our work as improvisers changes us. I'm curious about the impact this work has on other aspects of our lives, namely, teaching and learning.
I've been working with a colleague at Vanderbilt to think about improvisation and pedagogy. He told me that his interest in improv was simple. He went to an improv show, and was surprised at how much joy there was at the event. He compared that improv show to classrooms which, for him, are often miserable spaces. How, he asked me, might we bring that same joy in improv to the classroom?
This is a brilliant question, I think. And I wonder if the answer might have something to do with the dispositional ways we move through the world.
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Hello everyone! My name is Jenna Minnig and I am overjoyed to introduce myself as Happy Valley Improv’s newest social media intern. When I first heard about the organization, I knew I wanted to get involved in any way possible. As a college student who is constantly surfing the Internet, a position in social media sounded like a dream come true!
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I’m a big lover of television. We do live in the golden age of it, after all – or at least that’s what they say. I just recently watched the 2nd season of Stranger Things, which was excellent, and gave me nostalgia for the ‘80s even though I was only alive for about 9 months of them.
I’m also a huge fan of comedy. Comedy Bang Bang is one of my favorite podcasts, and they always have hilarious guests.
You might be wondering where I’m going with this. “Is he just going to tell us about all the stuff he likes?” you may ask. “Isn’t that what his wife is for?” Fear not, there’s a point coming!
In Stranger Things Season 2, a few new characters are introduced. One of them is a conspiracy theory peddling journalist (who, of course, turns out to be right). As soon as he started talking, I recognized his voice – that’s Brett Gelman! (Brett Gelman is a semi-regular guest on CBB. Look up “iBrain,” if you’re okay with seriously NSFW stuff.) There’s a certain feeling you get when someone you know from another world shows up on one of your favorite shows.
Well, I’m happy to announce that you’ll have that opportunity tomorrow night!
See, me and my pals from Happy Valley Improv have been running a faculty workshop series over the past eight weeks. This is the last week of the course, and the students will have a closed recital to celebrate. But, we are also inviting two of them to perform with us in Happy Valley Improv! If we had credits, there would be a giant "WITH SPECIAL GUEST" title card!
We’re incredibly excited to have them on stage with us. They’ll be joining us for the first and final acts of the night. I reached out and asked them to share their thoughts and feelings with us!
Andrea: Working with Happy Valley Improv has been an amazing experience. I was unsure of what to expect when the course began. Every class has been so much fun, so challenging, and so rewarding. This show is going to be a chance to really test myself, to release my inhibitions, and to just focus on my partners and the scenes that they create. I am absolutely thrilled to be a part of it and hope that the audience has as much fun watching!
Jackie: As someone involved with community theatre, I always thought the intersection of performance and pedagogy was something fun to think about. This workshop has made me think about being truly present when teaching, and “yes and-ing” has become somewhat of a life philosophy extending outside the classroom. Performing with Happy Valley Improv is an honor, and I can’t wait to show the audience what we’ve been working on!
To see what we’ve been working on, well, you’ll have to come out to our show on Thursday! It’s going to be a blast! Just click here: TICKETS!
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Tonight is the second of our run of four shows at the State Theatre this fall. It’s just a small part of the many different activities we at Happy Valley Improv have been working on. In our group Slack chat, we have multiple conversations going over multiple channels; we met for lunch yesterday to discuss business and future scheduling; we’ve had to sign up for a bunch of different apps just to keep up with everything going on. It’s times like these that it feels more like running a business than an improv group.
All four of us are busy adults. Two of us have kids, a fact that Sam never lets us forget (he’s also 37 years old, you know!). But all of us have decided to spent time, energy, and effort into building Happy Valley Improv. And it’s a lot of effort! This isn’t a “woe is me” post, though. This is a post about why it’s all worth it. Let me take you in the way-back machine to 2011.
My wife and I had just moved to Charleston, SC. The first couple of years I lived in Charleston, I didn’t have much of a social life. I worked evening shift while my wife went to school during the day. During my off-time I’d watch TV or play video games, sometimes with friends from back home, but I wasn’t building any sort of network there.
That all changed after I saw my first improv show at the Charleston Comedy Festival in 2013. I was hooked. I signed up for classes the day after – luckily, they offered a daytime class. I kept hearing about this “Improv Practice Group,” or IPG, that met on Monday nights. Working evenings, I could never make a Monday night a 7, but finally, one day, I had a day off and decided to go.
It changed my life. The night was so fun, and the people were just…on the same wavelength as me. They made jokes and they made me feel supported. When I got home that night, I literally told my wife, “I have found my people.” I decided to switch from night shift to day shift, in large part because IPG and improv classes and shows were all at night.
I met almost every friend I have from Charleston through improv. A lot of us still keep in touch, even though I’ve been gone almost a year. One of them has been playing D&D with me every Monday night for the past 5 years, and I consider him one of my best friends.
Then, fast forward about five or six years. I moved from Charleston to State College. I knew no one. The only connection I had was an email with a guy named James Tierney who told me that he and two other people were doing improv in a church basement downtown. I didn’t know them, but I wasn’t nervous. They were, after all, my people.
That’s the reason I continue to devote all of this time and energy into building the improv community here. So that one day, maybe there will be a State College IPG, where someone who moves in from out of town, or someone who’s never done theatre or comedy or performed in any way, will be able to come to a meeting and leave saying – “These are my people.”
And maybe, someone in the crowd of our show tonight will be like me during Comedy Fest in 2013!
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Hi all. It's me. Andrea. The improv newbie.
Actually, I’ve been told I’m not allowed to call myself an “improv newbie” anymore. I officially completed my first public performance. People WILLINGLY paid to see me and my group do improv together. On a stage. I survived. I even kind of succeeded, by most measures, and especially if you use the measure I had identified for myself before I started on this whole crazy journey. This measure is best summarized in a flow chart, which I would make if I were better at graphic design, but basically it looks like this dichotomous key:
Query: “Am I having fun?”
If yes: I have succeeded!
If no: Try again, but be and have more fun.
I’m a little bit sad that I can’t play the “But-I’m-new-at-this-and-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing” card when it comes to improv because I’m really good at playing that card. On the other hand, it feels pretty good to put on my big kid underwear and be able to say “Actually, I do kind of know what I’m doing and I can keep up with the big kids for at least a little while.” Because I did!
I had a lot of feelings in the days leading up to and after last week’s performance, and I want to describe them here. So here is a selected list of some of my most prominent and spell-able feelings, in chronological order.
3 days before showtime:
My friends and family keep asking me if I’m ready. No I’m not, thankyouverymuch. Why did I agree to do this, again? Why wasn’t I content with just doing my usual stuff, why did I have to pick up a whole new hobby? And even if I legitimately needed a new hobby, why wasn’t it sufficient to just keep meeting with the crew once a week in the church basement? Why did we decide that we wanted to put on a show for the whole damn town? I can’t remember whose idea that was, but I want to kick him.
10 minutes before showtime:
We are still behind stage, of course, but one of our crew members texted us to say that the ticket office ran out of tickets and they’re having to turn people away!! WHAT?!! How is that even possible? We are shocked, we are thrilled!
We do more warmups. Sam helps us get our Zen on by breathing and blanking. Nate helps us get our silly on by singing like the B-52s. James helps us get our characters on by launching us into “Five things.”
2 minutes before showtime:
We are offstage and we can hear the audience taking their seats. WHY IS SAM TALKING ABOUT HOW MUCH HE NEEDS TO GO PEE? ISN’T HE THE PROFESSIONAL HERE??
Minutes 1 thru 75 of showtime:
ADRENALINE-FUELED FLOW STATE
We run out onto the stage. The audience claps, and we jump right into “10 scenes about.” Someone from the audience suggests “octopus,” and off we go. It’s fun. The audience is laughing. I’m laughing. The paper-based numeration system that has been devised to help me with the counting is wreaking havoc, but that’s ok. We got this.
First hour post-show
I talk with some of my friends and family who stick around after the show. They give me hugs and flowers. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. So many friends came to watch, even though they had to pay babysitters, even though they had to give up some cozy couch time, even though they had to drive three hours just to get here (Special shout-out to Anne, who was a member of BOTH of the bicycle gangs I described in my previous post). A few of my students came, even though Thursday night is primo party night for College students. (Notice how I’m assuming improv and college-partying are mutually exclusive choices). I’m very grateful that so many people were willing to take a chance on my little group.
Second hour post-show
Girl’s gotta eat.
So, in summary: my emotional journey can be best described as:
Nervousness-> Excitement-> Panic-> Adrenaline-fueled flow state-> Grateful-> Hungry
I’ll take it!
P.S. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure the original idea to perform for the public was mine in the first place, so I’ll hold off on the kicking...for now.
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Today marks our first ever full-length show for the public.
We're nervous, to be sure - but more than that, we're excited to be able to finally share what we've been working on for the past year.
On Sunday, we were lucky enough to be able to perform a short set at the State College Community Theatre fundraiser event at Webster's Bookstore Cafe. It was our first truly public performance, and it was a blast. A middle-schooler named Elizabeth gave us the suggestion "unicorn" and in the middle of our set yelled out, "THIS IS AWESOME!" Elizabeth talked to us after the show and told us she does improv at her school. Elizabeth is a cool kid. Be like Elizabeth.
Later on, despite Sam's sleep deprivation (he's 37 years old with two children, as he will often remind you), we joined Penn State's After Hours show for a quick interview and round of "scenes from a riot helmet." (See both clips below. A warning - the second clip has some sparse language). That was also a blast, though Nate must have missed the "PG" memo. (He's not really sorry about it).
On Thursday, our show is going to be much longer - we're hoping to go for over an hour with laugh-out-loud improv comedy. How will we do that, you didn't ask? We'll tell you anyway! Here's a sneak peek of what you can expect from our show, which will be broken into three parts:
Part 1: 10 Things About
We'll open the show with a round of "10 Things About," an improv form or game where we get a word from the audience and do scenes about that word. How many scenes? You guessed it - ten. You're a math major now! (Andrea says that's not true). This is a little different than what we do at the end of the show, because all of these scenes will somehow incorporate the word given to us. It's fast-paced and fun!
Part 2: Small Town
The second act of our show will be a performance of a form called Small Town. If you're into improv, you might also know this as a La Ronde. Basically, each one of the four of us will only play one character for the entire set. We set it in a "small town," but it doesn't always have to be a literal town - it could be a big city, a castle, or even a spaceship. The idea is to explore the interconnected lives of people in this one area. It's probably the most "artsy" part of the show, and isn't always inherently comedic - but we promise, you'll love watching it.
Part 3: Improv Jam
After a quick intermission to refill on drinks and snacks, we'll come back and do the old standby, the oldest longform improv trick in the book: an improv jam. No holds barred, no rules, we just get a word from the audience and weave a bunch of scenes together for the next 25-30 minutes. It's improv without a net - no forms, no games, just scenework!
So that's it. That's a sneak peek at our show. Check out the clip below to see us in action, and please come to our show tonight! All you have to do is click the "Tickets" link in the menu on this site and pick the right show (hint: it's the first one listed)!
Thanks for supporting us!
-Happy Valley Improv
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“Beautiful soul.” “Inspirational founder of Happy Valley Improv.” “Creative hero to many.” “Annoying lady who takes too long to pick a checkout line at Wegmans.” These are some of the phrases that have been used to describe me.
Are they true? You’ll have to judge for yourself. But one thing I know is not NOT true: I am the one who should get 99.9% the blame/credit for this little experiment that is Happy Valley Improv.
As with many things in life, it all started for me at a summer camp. In the summer of 2016, I attended a three-day camp in the Poconos called Camp Improv Utopia. I didn’t know anyone, I had never done improv, and I was scared. But I had a great time for those 3 days. People were friendly and supportive, especially when they learned I was a newbie. I was hooked and determined to find a local community to continue playing and practicing with when I returned to State College.
But I couldn’t find anything like it. So I reached out to Sam Tanner, a colleague whom I knew had extensive experience with improvisational theater, and James Tierney, a faculty member whom I had never met but had been recommended to me by an Improv Utopia leader who knew James from his California improv days.
I didn’t know whether James and Sam would be interested in forming a group that met to practice regularly, especially considering that I was brand new. But they were and we did, and soon the stars aligned and Nate found us and here we are.
I used to teach high school mathematics. Then I earned a PhD in mathematics education. As a faculty member in the department of Curriculum & Instruction at Penn State, I get to teach preservice elementary, middle, and high school teachers. I also get to study mathematics teaching and learning in classrooms. My hunch is that improvisational theater can offer some ideas about more joyful ways we can approach mathematics teaching. So that’s what I’m setting out to explore next.
In my spare time, I like to read fiction, especially with my neighborhood book group. It’s literary fiction, you guys. LITERARY! I like to ride my bike—I’ve been a founding member of TWO bike clubs, one which was composed of two other 6th graders. In that one we mostly just rode around in circles. The other one was while I was in graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana. We formed an annual “Bike and Beer” event, which was a pub crawl on bikes, and we ended up riding around in circles in that one, too.
I like camping with friends, but only if they do all the work and I can just sit in a chair and read books among all the nature. I like eating food that other people cook for me, especially when it’s my mom’s, and especially when it’s her prize-winning blueberry pie. One of my hobbies is learning how to freestyle rap under the tutelage of my coach, JT. That hobby mostly consists of me talking about how I want to learn how to freestyle rap. I used to love watching Pirates baseball, but instant replay has ruined it for me so now I just like complaining about the good old days.
My family consists of my supportive husband Jason, our amazing daughter PJ, and our adorable dog Sluggo. All 3 of them are eternally grateful to Happy Valley Improv for providing an outlet for me to get out of the house and get some much-needed attention. It has relieved them of some (but not all) of that burden.
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Hi. I'm James. (This is also what I say every time my wife says, "I'm hungry...").
My improv journey started back at my undergraduate university, Western New England College, located in Springfield Massachusetts. Attending a liberal arts college meant everyone needed to have three credits of an art. The only two courses that fit in my schedule were paper making and improv theatre. It was an easy choice.
My first improv class was awesome. It taught the basics of improvisation and some short-form games. After finishing Improv Level 1, I continued onto Level 2: Basics of Long-Form.
The 6 of us in this course ended up forming the first improv troupe I've been a part of: The Terodactl Sqwad: Spelt Phonetically. The T-Skwad performed on campus and in a few comedy festivals. My love for scene work was born.
After WNEC I left for graduate school in Orange County, CA. The first year of graduate school was a blur. My free time was spent doing economics problem sets and taking the occasional weekend vacation to Las Vegas. Improv was not in the cards.
As the second year rolled around I finally joined a troupe: ImprovCity. ImprovCity is a short-form group that was in it's infant stage when I joined. It taught me a lot about working with a wide range of skills levels and starting from the ground up. While in Orange County I also joined a scene-based team, The Friday Society, a team under the Spectacles Improv Engine. The Friday Society was special. Six strong improvisers doing all scene-based improv games at midnight in a small theatre. I felt like this was true improvisation.
In southern California, I spent some time getting great training. I took classes at iO West and went to ImprovUtopia. I'm very grateful for the time I spent in California.
After graduate school I ended up teaching in upstate NY at SUNY Plattsburgh where I helped found a student-ran improv group called SPIT. We dabbled in both short and long-form improvisation. This is where I gained experience directing a troupe. I miss those kids...
That brings us here. Which you've heard about already. I could write more about Happy Valley Improv or you can read our getting started blog or the one I wrote on my personal site.
When I'm not doing improv I'm usually teaching economics or playing with my dog, Penny. She has her own Instagram. My wife is amazing and supports everything I do.
I hope to see you at our shows! And, if you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@James_Tierney).