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First Time Improvisor! By Christen Cook Seattle, WA

In an effort to become a more interesting person, I started trying to say yes to all the wonderful opportunities life presents me. So when my old friend Stuart suggested meeting up in Yosemite I said, “Ok, sure!” and he proclaimed, ”YES! AND…by the way, you’ll be doing improv camp with me!”

Wait, what?! I am a comedy fan, but not all that familiar with improv, so I worried I’d be a real bummer for all these folks making the pilgrimage to intensive study. (Pardon me, sorry, sorry, one more time, what are kitty cat careers?) I spent the next couple of weeks vacillating between feeling like I should try to learn everything about improv and just owning the fact that I knew nothing about improv. The latter proved to be the best option, since it had the great benefit of not giving me a panic attack.

Camp weekend arrives and a short plane ride from Seattle dumps me into Fresno to meet up with Stuart, and new friends Amy and Rachel. We have a bit of a drive and a few hours before we can check in at camp so we end up at the Fresno Target for last-minute supplies. Two beats into this Target adventure and Amy and Rachel have collected an assortment of Fresno Bulldogs fan gear and are busy building a Fresno backstory. They immediately pepper all conversations with exclamations of “FresNO!” and chant this to each other as they peruse nearly every item in the housewares department. (Yes, that is a glorious gilded unicorn lamp! FresNO! It would look splendid in the bunk! FresNO!) These gals have come to play.

Arriving at camp, I see a little improv family come together. People cheer your arrival and the place is abuzz with excitement to see who might join in the fun. I slowly tell people I’m brand new to improv and first reactions are laughter at my commitment to an insane bit. I explain, no really, “no bit” and reactions shift slowly to slight confusion then quickly to excitement. Wow! That’s amazing! These folks are game.

Dinner and opening ceremonies are peppered with cheers, chants, and a cacophony of laughter, but I’m getting more and more nervous to move into our smaller groups and start class. Amy, Rachel, Stuart and I are in the movie form lead by Paul Vaillancourt. Meeting Paul is like encountering the entirety of the human life force in one body. He speaks with the speed of an auctioneer and punctuates rapid fire statements with “Are you with me? Any questions?” One camper described him as “like the Incredible Hulk, but white.” He’s tall, meaty, and what you would imagine a giant stuffed into a body two sizes too small would look like. All his energy can’t quite fit into this one human vessel so it seeps out into any space he occupies—one minute into class and our room is charged!

We’re split off into our small groups, Paul gets us settled in, and digs right into introductions. “Ok, give me your name, where you came from, and how long you’ve been doing improv.” I listen to several campers explain their improv histories, have a little panic attack that I have no idea what they’re talking about, then its me. “Hi, I’m Christen. I’m from Washington State…and I’ve been doing improv for zero days.” Silence. Paul claps his hands together, leans back, takes a deep breath, and looks around as if asking, “Did you guys hear that too?” Then leans in, playfully quips, ”buckle up buttercup” and laughs excitedly.

Right here I begin having a heart attack. “Oh my god, what am I doing?” The soundtrack of the one-woman horror film playing in my head goes fully into screechy Psycho violin mode “eeee! eeee! eeee!” But, we start in and I began to see that friendly, generous, FUNNY, people surround me and they love improv. Next thing I know I’m standing in front of people and fellow camper Lauren says, “Follow me.” I follow and we’re soon reaching into a horse?, a cow? and we pull out this thing together. It plops out on the floor and in my best Dirty Dancing “I carried a watermelon” cringe moment I blurt out “it’s so…gooey?!” Thanks Lauren for helping me birth a gooey metaphorical improv baby. You’re awesome.

Throughout the weekend I begin to recognize bits, join in on chants, and gain giddy pleasure watching my fellow campers. I am mesmerized watching all the forms as scenes unfold before me like abstract paintings come to life. I even walked away with an award for being brave enough to join in on this party and got all teary as the room stood up and cheered. Seriously people, the cult of improv is intoxicating, and here at Yosemite, loving, and SO FUN!

Many thanks to the generous players in the movie group and those others I had the pleasure of meeting along the way, Paul Vaillancourt for having the amazing skill to help us all drink from the Movie form firehose (or at least not get our faces completely blown off), Karen Graci for calm words of support (I wasn’t even in your group and you were lending an ear; amazing!), and to Nick Armstrong and the Improv Utopia team for bringing together such a fantastic group of people.