MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For the guy we'll hear about next, winging it is pretty much his bread and butter. His name is Shawn Westfall and in 2003 he started an improv comedy school at the D.C. Improv on Connecticut Avenue. Westfall began with 14 students. Ten years later, he's taught hundreds of people to be funny on the fly, including producer Phil Harrell, who brings us Westfall's story.
MR. SHAWN WESTFALL
Tonight's class is going to focus on character in improv.
MR. PHIL HARRELL
In a small room across from the Improv's famous main stage, Shawn Westfall skitters before a cluster of 13 students. His bright red sneakers, green greens and boundless energy give him the look of a highly caffeinated superhero.
MR. PHIL HARRELL
Westfall grew up in Indiana, joined the Air Force.
MR. PHIL HARRELL
Yeah, they let that guy in the Air Force. And he traveled the world before finally landing here in D.C. He found work as an improv actor almost from the start, but that wasn't enough.
I had had stint in graduate school where I taught freshman comp and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed teaching a lot. And I thought, well, what the heck. I think I'm a pretty good teacher and I have seven or eight years of improv under my belt. Why don't I teach a class? And better still, why don't I approach some space that doesn't have a class?
That space was the D.C. Improv, managed by Allyson Jaffe.
MS. ALLYSON JAFFE
And I was 23, 24 and up to trying anything and everything for the club and was enthusiastic.
And that was 10 years ago and we've been going strong ever since.
So what is improv anyway? I mean, it's not the same as stand up.
Improv comedy is collaborative comedy made up completely on the spot, based on audience suggestions.
And contrary to what you might think, the last thing students should try to do is be funny.
The minute they start trying to funny, trying to be clever, is the minute that their scene will go immediately off the rails. Primarily because they're up in their heads, thinking about the ways in which they're going to sort of show off their comedic acumen. Well, what they're not doing is paying attention to what's happening in the scene.
Shawn Westfall is trying to teach the people of Washington, D.C. not to think. In a city filled think-tanks that's a tall order. The students in this class, for the most part, don't have an interest in becoming professional comedians, but they all mention how these classes enrich their personal lives and their work lives. They're applying improv lessons like, listen to what's happening around you and say yes to whatever life throws at you and build upon that. It's almost like they've come to study at the feet of Shawn Westfall, self-help guru.
Even if you don't take these principles out into the rest of your life, there is something therapeutic about getting together with people who only a few short weeks ago were strangers, tearing these barriers down, laughing freely, laughing with them, laughing at them when they do something completely outrageous on stage. There is something to that.
Westfall's classes have turned out a few full-time comedians though.
One of my former students is currently in Chicago and has done some main stage stuff on Second City.
Her name is Katie Klein. And she had a breakthrough in one of Westfall's classes. It involved a warm-up game where you stand in the middle of a circle of improvisers and sing. Klein was terrified.
MS. KATIE KLEIN
And I remember a specific moment when he just locked eyes with me and yelled at me--are you allowed to say bad words on this show? He told me (censored by network) your fear. And I just got over it and started doing the exercise. And I still use that expression when I'm nervous backstage. It's just kind of this, get over yourself, who are you to be so nervous.
Yeah, yeah, that's--we often think that we can't do things. We look at the cliff and we go, I'm taking a huge, tremendous leap and it might just kill me. Right? And the attitude that was hammered into me and which I've hammered into Katie and other students is, take the leap. As Ray Bradbury says, "Leap off the cliff. Build your wings on the way down."
You are a self-help guru. That's what you are.
I'm not licensed and that's probably a good thing.
Shawn Westfall is celebrating 10 years of helping people, hundreds of them at this point, take that first leap off the cliff. I'm Phil Harrell.
Up next, why reptiles have wound up at a lab designed for birds of a feather.
MS. CARLA DOVE
I love birds. I didn't think I'd ever be working with Burmese pythons.
And a brand new remix of Chekhov's classic, "The Seagull."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
It is a different kind of adaptation. It's a response to, it's a reimagining, it's whatever you want to call it. It's its own thing.
That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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