We step onto the stage, just me and my classmate.
We’d been through three levels of improv class together, and this was Day 1 of Level 4. This theater offered 5 levels, so we felt pretty advanced already, which is why it didn’t faze us when our teacher said these words:
“Start a scene.”
The bread and butter of improv is being able to create two-person scenes out of thin air. The most popular form of improv includes little games like you might see on certain television shows (scenes from a hat, props, musical styles, etc.), but at the heart of theatrical improv is being able to compose a scene between two characters given only a small suggestion of input.
I have no idea what our input was, but I just know that we weren’t nervous at all. Two-minute scenes were routine for us by now. We had the arrogance of first graders who talked down to kindergartners, believing that because we learned our alphabet and how to color inside the lines, we were suddenly the keepers of all knowledge. Little did we know what was about to happen.
“Sir, you can’t be here this late, we’re closed.”
“Please, I just need to find them, I need to find them…”
“Sir, I’m sorry, we’re closed, you have to get out of here.”
“No please, I’m just looking for them and when I find them I’ll go…”
This is how a lot of scenes start. This is a conversation without too much context yet. From this, we discovered that I was a janitor or some type of worker at an establishment that was now closed. My scene partner was a patron who’d lost something and was trying to find it.
Two minutes pass.
“Well, we can’t always find what we’re looking for…”
We glance at our teacher. That’s a great line to end on, right? Why isn’t he calling, “Scene”? Why isn’t he ending the scene?
We keep going.
“Um, well, I think…this time…I better find what I’m looking for, though…”
We start to get shaky as we re-enter a scene we thought would’ve been over by now.
Two more minutes. Then another two.
At this point, we still haven’t really established who we are, or what establishment I work at, or why this guy lost his item. These are details we should’ve probably communicated by now, but we were on edge with every minute, just wondering, along with our six other classmates sitting in the back of the small, 50-person theater watching us, when was this scene gonna end?
“Okay, fine, I’ll leave, but just let me look back there behind you, I feel like the staff might know about it…”
We were so deep into this scene, that we finally gave up on waiting for our teacher to end it, and we just continued as best we could.
About seven minutes in, the scene is still about a guy trying to find a lost item at a place I work. We talk about this place like it might be a club, or a concert hall, or somewhere where people party hard. My scene partner establishes that he lost a pack of cigarettes the night before and that they were really important to him. He spoke with a bit of a stutter and fidgeted like he was some sort of addict in need of a fix. I keep denying him entry with an ominous feeling that he might be dangerous, but with a familiarity that made it seem like I deal with guys like these all the time on this job.
That’s when this came out of my mouth:
“Sir, sir…I’m sorry, but we don’t do that here at Olive Garden.”
I said it naturally. I said it without thinking. I said it like every other line, but it was this moment where I finally revealed where we were, and the most surprising thing happened.
From the back of that small, 50-person theater, I hear my teacher and classmates burst out into the loudest, most hearty, cathartic laughter I have ever heard from a stage. They couldn’t contain themselves. It was as if I just said the best punchline ever spoken. For eight minutes, you could cut the tension in that room with a knife. Not only did my scene partner and I establish such an eerie, mysterious premise that felt like it was going to turn into a fight or a shoot-out or something violent and scary, but there was also the tension of our classmates and ourselves feeling very uncomfortable with how long we’ve been forced to continue this scene (nearly quadruple the length of any scene we’d done up to that point).
And then I said we were at Olive Garden. A place whose slogan is, “when you’re here, you’re family.” A restaurant that’s famous for breadsticks.
I get why they laughed, but I also didn’t intend it, nor did I expect it.
10 minutes in, our teacher finally, mercifully, called, “Scene!”
We finally sat down, our classmates enthused to supportively pat us on the back and high-five us for the marathon we just endured.
That was the first night of our Level 4 improv class, and it remains one of my favorite nights of improv, ever.
Up until that point, these classes didn’t challenge me all that much. There were moments I was a bit uncomfortable, and I did better some nights over others, but this night was when things got real. This class was when I really started to understand the level of mastery and courage it took to really excel at this art form.
In this class level, we’d go on to do crazy things like creating characters for ourselves utilizing full costumes and props, and later putting on an improv show outside of a Starbucks for whoever happened to be sitting outside. This class was the highlight of my education in improv performance.
And to think, it all started with…a scene.