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Personal growth in the world of make-believe

June 3, 2018 GMT

The word is “kraken” — the name for a legendary giant sea monster.

The first move sets the scene for the improvisational troupe: We are on a stormy sea with inky water and rolling waves. Charles Gamble describes the setting before he steps back in line with five other performers standing before black curtains draped across half the carpeted room.

After a pause, Kate Chavez steps forward, embodying a sea captain. She poses as her teammates take turns stepping forward to offer new details about the captain. He’s a pirate. He has two peg legs. He keeps his balance at the helm with two holes in the deck for his peg legs. He has tied himself to the helm, determined to continue after his crew escaped in all the lifeboats.

Gamble steps forward again, waving his hands and crouching because the kraken has appeared by the ship. The captain and the kraken wind up in a staring contest.

In the end, the kraken and captain find equally lonely souls in each other. With an exchanged nod, the kraken leaves the captain to reach land with a deeper connection to the sea.

For the audience, a giddy buzz built like the excitement before turning a page. For the actors, an intense focus on each move blanked out thoughts until the sudden jolt of an idea came, like finally finding the right puzzle piece.

For a few minutes, the room was transformed from an empty space with industrial lighting to the deck of a ship under a lightning-struck sky, with nothing but words, motions and imaginations.

Together, audience and improvisers shared in playing pretend, returning to a space like childhood playgrounds, where it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you can make-believe.

In an effort to bring back playtime and moments of mindfulness, Santa Fe Improv is creating a community focused on listening, authenticity and bravery. Classes teach the art of improvisational theater, where an unscripted story unfolds in real time.

These classes bring together adults of all ages, experience and backgrounds. Lawyers, scientists, actors — even a journalist from The New Mexican — can stand up and create an improvised scene.

“The opportunity for adults to come together and connect and play and build trust through those connections and that play is transformational,” said Gamble, a member and teacher at Santa Fe Improv.

While improv is traditionally associated with games, outlandish humor and exaggerated personas, Ben Taxy, founder and creative director of Santa Fe Improv, also is trying to offer individual growth.

“We’re learning how to perform and manipulate things onstage, but we’re really improving ourselves,” Taxy said. “We teach acting techniques and improv techniques, but ultimately it’s about improving yourself. Comedy is really a secondary goal.”

Santa Fe Improv started in 2017 under Taxy’s vision to make improv appealing to the masses.

“It doesn’t mean diluting what it is, but to design the culture in such a way that’s inclusive,” Taxy said.

The eight-week spring session had five classes with beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Taxy and his three teachers assessed not only each participant’s experience, learning and comfort during free classes organized as auditions, but also the dynamic.

“You can be up and running so fast and be having a good time fast,” Taxy said. “Regular people are showing up and going, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ ”

People in Gamble’s Tuesday beginner class reflected Taxy’s goal of bringing in anyone and seeing rapid progress.

When Gamble, also a theater teacher at New Mexico School for the Arts, started the second week of class, people shifted into the warmup circle hesitantly. Warmup games designed to help participants connect went slowly. Word-association exercises caught in people’s throats.

“A lot of it right now is trying to convince them they don’t need to make bizarre choices to be interesting,” Gamble said during the second week of class. “Until we’re able to do that, none of the other stuff can work.”

As they learned about scene painting and were told about the importance of listening, a change slowly kindled in the class over the next few weeks. Instead of going for the joke or introducing idea upon idea, the emphasis on telling the truth and relying on one another sank in.

Facades fell away as smiles came more easily, ideas sprang out of simplicity and the group of strangers became a team. The warmup buzzed as the participants engaged one another. Painted scenes blossomed as they told tales about a crazy animal shelter and a gum-infested submarine.

“The level of play in the class is so high,” Taxy said to the class on the last session. “The way you see each other’s worlds is just beautiful.”

Morgan Farley joined Gamble’s class, trying improv for the first time. The 73-year-old performs poetry and leads workshops. She said that because of her constant interaction with large groups and a need to think on her feet, she wanted to try getting better at improvising.

“I thought of this as a fun kind of spontaneity training,” Farley said. “I thought I was a really good listener, but this is almost a deeper level of listening.”

Chavez taught the Wednesday intermediate class. Listening, Chavez said, “is how we show love in this room. We are clear when communication is going on.”

Chavez is also a theater teacher at New Mexico School for the Arts. Unlike other improv instruction, Chavez said Santa Fe Improv enables more personal growth.

“It’s radically different than anything I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Nobody ever thought of improv that way.”

That difference is what brought John Cullinanback to Santa Fe Improv for a third session. As part of Chavez’s class, Cullinan saw it as an exercise of mindfulness.

“It is like a practice, like sitting zen,” Cullinan said. “You’re flexing some mental muscle.”

Cullinan, pastor at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, joined Santa Fe Improv seeking a creative outlet. He said he never expected the class to transform his daily interactions and serve as a type of therapy.

“It really opens me up to how I’m open to people and receiving them,” he said. “It’s a chance to let loose.”

As a counselor and minister, Cullinan said, the way the class works on accepting what team members bring to a scene helps check his preconceptions.

“It hit me it was practicing gratitude,” Cullinan said. “I’m pulling my filters and thoughts out of the way and accepting what they’re saying and being with them in that moment.”

A lot of Santa Fe Improv’s future is forming around each new session, but this vision of mindfulness is the same.

“Improv is a lot like jazz,” Taxy said. “There’s a way in which we are still figuring out the art form.”

Taxy announced during the spring session that he would be moving to Portland in June. He said he would leave behind a curriculum for the classes to continue and promised future visits and workshops.

While there are still some unknowns, the improv community continues to mold to spontaneity.

“Part of being alive is dealing with a lot of change,” Taxy said. “[Improv] gives us different tools to adapt to change.”