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Back in 2003, comedic actor Shawn Westfall started an improvisation comedy school at the DC Improv on Connecticut Avenue along with club manager Allyson Jaffe. What began with a mere 14 students has now graduated nearly 1,800 people. And this past week, Westfall and Jaffe celebrated their 10th anniversary of helping D.C. bring the funny.
A different skill than stand-up comedy, Westfall describes improv as "collaborative comedy made up completely on the spot, based on audience suggestions." And contrary to what one might think, Westfall says the last thing students should do is try to be funny.
"The minute they start trying to funny, trying to be clever, is the minute that their scene will go off the rails," he says. "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."
And if paying attention to what's happening around you sounds like good life advice as well, it turns out improv lessons are often applied outside the classroom by Westfall's students. The "yes...and" principle in improv instructs students to say "yes" to whatever is being offered on stage "and" build upon that offer.
"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 with them, laughing at them when they do something completely outrageous on stage," he says. "There is something to that."
[Music: "Fly Me to the Moon" by Beegie Adair from Swingin' With Sinatra]