Over a two-week period, Graceland University’s theatre department recently hosted guest artist Terry Withers of Baltimore Improv Group to work with theatre students and teach them the art of improvisation. Four uniquely different shows were performed by the students over the weekend of Feb. 14-17, as they executed varying improv exercises and long-form improv formats in each performance.
Long-form improv is a format in which short scenes are connected by story, characters or themes, and derived from suggestions taken from the audience at the beginning of the show. These scenes are then performed by improvisers to create one long story.
Terry Withers has spent many years honing his craft, channeling his talents and teaching the art of improv.
Q: You have previously studied and been a teacher of improv at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) in New York City and are currently the managing director at Baltimore Improv Group (BIG); can you share your experiences at each?
A: My experiences at both have been wonderful. I spent many years in New York, 10 of them in which I studied, taught and performed improv at UCB. UCB is a very special institution that manages to help and propel a lot of people into their careers. Two to three years into my relationship as a student, I began working part time as a sales associate for UCB. I was pretty good at sales. I already had sales experience because I had been in that kind of work for a decade for my “gotta pay my bills” job to survive in the city.
The role for me there grew as I grew as a performer, and I began teaching. I also became a better improvisor and larger part of the institution from an operational point of view. I gained a lot of insight of the day-to-day operations.
When I saw BIG posted a position for managing director, I thought it was so strange an improv theatre would look to hire for that position. That’s not how improv theatres typically function. It was exciting to me that an improv theatre anywhere was at a level of maturity and ambition that it would do a national search for a managing director.
Being BIG’s managing director has been an insanely rewarding and challenging experience. The theatre has grown tremendously in the two-and-a-half years I have been there. The annual audience has increased from 3,000 to 20,000, student enrollment has almost tripled and gross income had just about doubled. After moving our location, the theatre space has improved tremendously, our community is better and our educational curriculum is far stronger.
Q: What moment was it that you realized long-form improv was your destiny?
A: I don’t know that long-form improv is my destiny, but I do really like it a lot. It seems to be the thing I’m going to be doing for the rest of my professional career – I think. A lot of people’s journey with improv is, if they take it seriously and are curious about it, they take a class or two. Somewhere in that first to second class, they realize they are in love with it. They’ll binge for two years, taper back a bit from five to seven nights a week to about four, then ultimately put it down at some point. Six or eight years in, they may say, “Okay, that was my love of improv.” So, I knew in that first year that I found something I really liked, and I knew that I could tell that the culture of the people was dynamic, exciting and really healthy for artistic pursuit.
However, there was no reason for me to have thought a year or two in that I would now be 12 years in. I don’t think I had an expectation that I would be where I am now.
I think it seemed to me improv was going to stick when my wife and I had our first kid. I had to stop performing, practicing, coaching and teaching as much but was still doing something improv-related every day because I was working at UCB and still imbedded in it. For sure, the decision to take on a position at the Baltimore Improv Group, which we were all surprised was even an option, cemented this career field for me. It would probably be very hard now to get a job in another field. You know, try to convince a bank or a newspaper to hire me… So, I think the dye has been cast at this point. I’m going to be in improv for a while.
Q: Would you share your preparation process before a performance?
A: This may be not what you want to hear, but I have a cup of coffee. I personally like to feel fresh and like to be wearing clothes I feel I look okay in. I probably would have wanted to shower sometime in the last six hours, so I feel like I’m not, like, smelly. I want to feel alert, and that’s about it.
I think, in general, it’s a good idea to connect with the other people you are going to be performing with before you perform with them, like doing games and scenes, or just sitting around having a conversation. When you are a cohesive group, a lot of times you can just jump on stage together without any preparation at all.
You know, when you do sports, you should really stretch or you could hurt yourself. That won’t happen with your brain. Your brain should be able to handle different improv scenes without hurting itself, so I kind of think you don’t have to do that much. You kind of prepare yourself by becoming the best improvisor you can be – by thinking about it, practicing it and, considering that, you prepare yourself enough.
Q: Is this your first time at Graceland? What were your first impressions?
A: This is my first time at Graceland. Well, technically, my second time as I left over the weekend to perform in Albany, so I left then returned. Last week, on my first arrival, my first impressions were serious because I showed up when the thick fog set in, and I couldn’t see anything. I could see literally nothing. It reminded me of a bad Al Pacino movie from the early 2000s.
It seems very, very nice (at Graceland). The Shaw is exceptionally nice. I’m curious, though, and may walk over to explore that building (Higdon Administration Building) after our interview. It seems charming. I like the gym quite a bit and visited the basketball court earlier. I’m told that style of structure can be prone to collapse, but this one hasn’t. So, that’s very nice.
I like Iowa. It is my first time here. I feel like I need to take a day-trip to Des Moines, though, as I’ve only seen the airport, but with the snow, I feel that may not be possible.
This is crazy. I met my wife in Missouri and never realized Iowa was this close. I kind of think of Iowa as being in a different section of the country. It seems exotic to me because I’ve never been here before.
Q: How were you contacted to be our guest artist, and what was your decision process to accept?
A: The decision was easy. I was just in contact with Tracy (Salter) about improv, and I wanted to do it. I’ve visited a couple of colleges and taught classes – instructional visits, not curriculum-based classes – and knew I’d be instructing improv workshops at more institutions. This is the first university I have gone to where I am an actual visiting guest through the theatre department working with the students. That feels special and unique to me, so I really wanted to do this. A new experience.
Q: What has it been like working with Tracy Salter?
A: Working with Tracy has been great. She’s been really fantastic – interested and curious about what I think is important for a group of students who are new to improv to learn about. Tracy has been enormously welcoming and not at all tense about the show that’s going to be happening over the weekend, which is great.
I got sick last week and missed two sessions. I never get so sick that I feel like I can’t do anything, but I did and there was no pressure. Tracy stepped in and happily covered the practices. So, she’s been fantastic.
Q: What has it been like working with the students?
A: It’s been very good working with the students. It’s very interesting to work with students who are obviously right for improv. They seem to have the creativity and sort of youthful reverence that works well in an improv environment.
There has been a unique element of this that has been a challenge for me. How do you describe something to someone they have never experienced? How do you direct someone towards a thing that they haven’t witnessed first-hand?
As a theatre major in college, I was taught in my theatre history course that ballet and opera both were attempts to recreate Greek theatre from just texts. I know the shows and exercises this weekend are going to technically check the boxes of what the improv forms are, but I wonder if the students won’t feel uniquely different because they will not have been informed by the culture that gave birth to the values of this art form.
When Second City, the improvisational comedy troupe based in Chicago, was first experimenting with performing long-form improv, they would do a sketch and then leave a pad out during intermission for the audience to write down identities, locations and activities they would like to see in a comedy scene. The improv group would come out after intermission and write the suggestions on a blackboard. They would then perform scenes from the suggestions and cross them out as they went through each one. The students here will perform this same way in this weekend’s shows, but take suggestions directly from the audience while on-stage.
Q: Tell me an interesting fact about you we may not know.
A: There’s not that much going on with me that isn’t front and center. I like basketball a lot. I have spent way too much time playing fantasy basketball over the last 20 years, never for any money but with a group of people that are competitive enough.
I remember on my first house improv team, we went to an improv festival in Philadelphia. It was around the time of the fantasy basketball draft. I had this little book with me, like a magazine that had all the stats in it, and I was going through it on the bus. A couple of my teammates thought I was a bookie. They were like, “Terry, you’ve got a gambling issue.” That’s what they thought. They were like, this is our first trip with this guy and look, he’s into gambling. So, I’m pretty into that. Probably too into that, and not very good. I’m not sure it is fun; feels more like a burden. I should put it down.
Q: What are your dreams you still have yet to fulfill?
A: Dreams I have yet to fulfill? Wow. I’m like mid-life now. I mean, that’s like a loaded question that could trigger me. Well, I don’t feel financially stable. That’s a dream I’d like to fulfill. Although, I never really expected I would feel that way if I went into the arts.
I’d like to travel internationally a little bit more, and I’d like to have a second child. That’s about it.
A neat dream I have right now is where I’d like to see BIG go in the next five to eight years, to mature even more as an organization. There’s such a great culture there of improvisers helping improvisers, working with each other, passing knowledge along one to the other. It feels very dynamic, but we still have a long way to go.
Q: In all your experience and direction, can you share with us some words of wisdom for up and coming actors/comedians?
A: I don’t want to say anything fake. I don’t have any great words of advice for either actors or comedians. I only really know about improv. I guess I was an actor once, for a while.
For a young person who wants to have a career on camera – which is what they should want, otherwise they are not going to be making a lot of money – I would say it’d be smart to take improv classes. It would be smart to not only view the improv classes as learning a skill to apply to their craft, but also realize they are meeting people who are doing the same thing they are doing for a reason. They may be people who can help them in their career later on, so those relationships are really useful. It’s one of the things I think is really great about improv, that everyone is trying to root for each other and pull for each other.
Q: What is your preparation process for a role? How do you turn a character on and off?
A: I haven’t played a role in years. I honestly feel I can say with my head held high that I’m a pretty good improviser. I think that’s true. Sometimes I look back and think about what I was doing my first 10 years in New York, which was when I was focused on playwrighting and being a stage actor. I’m not sure I was any good at that. I took it very seriously and felt very passionately about it, but just because you feel passionately about something and take something seriously doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at it.
I feel like when one plays a character, that person gets mystical, like they’re going to be someone different and think different. I don’t know that that’s possible. Maybe for some people it is. Most actors I see, in every role they play, seem to be behaving like themselves truthfully in fictional circumstances. So, if I was going to play a character in a scripted role, I would learn my lines really, really, really, really, really, really well, and then I would behave truthfully while I said my lines.
Q: Many have said improv has been a useful tool for life experience and guidance in general. What areas do you find improv has helped you outside of the artform?
A: That’s a really huge question, and please take this very seriously. It is definitely true that improv has helped and hindered me in different ways in my life because I practice the art. I am without a doubt more extraverted than I was when I started.
I remember maybe six months in, I had really been bitten hard by the improv bug. I got into an elevator in New York and just blurted something out. It just came out of my mouth like a horse. It wasn’t rude or anything, just not appropriate for me to be so loud in an elevator. It would have been a great thing to say in an improv scene. It defined the ride in the elevator and let everyone know what was going on with me. It was a very clear move in that non-fictional scene, so it changes you.
Some people find that practicing improv helps them improve their presentational or public speaking skills. Others find it allows them to communicate better. I do a lot of corporate workshops where improv is used to express sales, presentation or communication skills. For sure, you can design a two-hour workshop aimed at looking at lessons on those points. All that is true. At the same time, I think it’s important that we not conflate improv itself with a religion or a self-help book.
Mostly, what improv classes do are teach you how to do improv. They’re not geared toward anything else. If you are a pretty anxious person, and someone told you improv can help you with anxiety, I don’t know. Improv puts you on the spot. If anything, it makes you more anxious. So, it helps you with anxiety in the way hitting yourself with a hammer helps you with pain management. Improv is wonderful, and I do think there are lessons we can pull away from improv about teamwork and about communication and how to apply them, but I also think that the main story about improv is that improv is improv.
Q: Your favorite word is meniscus? Would you explain?
A: That’s just a funny from improv wiki where anyone can write whatever they want to write about you. When I was first improvising, I was a member of a new group, and they wanted to form a team name. I had this idea that a funny team name would be “And My Daddy Named Me Meniscus,” but nobody on my team agreed. We talked about it for probably too long, and my wife, in particular, thought that was a terrible name. I was pitching both “Meniscus!” and “And My Daddy Named Me Meniscus.” If I remember correctly, a person who is very extroverted caught wind that this conversation had happened and, years later, added that to my profile on improv wiki, which I’m fine with. It certainly is an interesting word. What it means is interesting, and it sounds interesting. But, it’s not my favorite word. Yeah, I never use it. I have words that I use, like moreover. I use moreover a fair amount.
Q: The improv world seems to be one big inner circle. Would you share part of that world?
A: It’s so big now. I don’t think I could have known everybody when I first got started, no matter how invested I might have been. There were only the huge, major theatres back then, but now, just about every city is starting to have an improv theatre. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with a population of 50,000 people, has an improv theatre. That blows my mind, and it’s a really good improv theatre. So, no, I don’t know everybody. You can get to know a lot of people, but the way you get to know them is you get to know them online.
I remember my sister came to see this indie improv show we were doing in Brooklyn. After the show, we all went to the little bar downstairs in the venue and started talking about improv. The show was over at 10 p.m., and everyone was still talking about improv at 1 a.m. Then, someone suggested we break in to the locked theatre upstairs and perform more improv, just us. So, we broke in and performed improv for another hour-and-a-half to two hours. I think that kind of passion for improv seems to me to be universal in improv theatres. I feel like people are into it.
Maybe part of it is this central value of “yes, and…” in improv that leads to that kind of excitement. One person has an idea they want to try and you want to make that idea successful, so everyone gets behind it. That’s something I’ll share with you about improvisers: we’re passionate about it.
Q: Where is a place you have never traveled and always wanted to see?
A: Morocco. I’ve always wanted to go to Morocco. I haven’t been there.
Terry Withers began his improv career in high school. He performed short-form improv and loved it. He followed this passion through college. He began performing long-form improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City and has never looked back.
“It is apparent, Terry Withers is a natural teacher. He is the perfect combination of artist who can walk, talk and teach improv.”
– Tracy Salter, MFA,
Co-Division Chair - Visual and Performing Arts,
Theatre Department Coordinator and
Associate Professor of Theatre