It was a chilly Sunday afternoon, and I was standing in a circle with six other people throwing a finger snap around like a baseball. Across from me, a bespectacled man reared back to wind up his snap. He snapped his fingers proudly, tossing the snap to my neighbor, who caught it and casually snapped my way. I put my hands up and caught the snap. I grinned and pantomimed dribbling the snap like a basketball, considering where to send it next. It was my first day of Queen City Conservatory’s Improv 101 class, and I would spend the next six weeks turning those snaps into scenes, learning the basics of improv—including the iconic “yes, and” rule, which I’ll get to later—and building up my own confidence in completely unexpected ways.
Queen City Conservatory, 417-land’s newest performing arts training center, began in mid-2017. However, conservatory founder Jeff Jenkins has been in the performing game for decades. Longtime 417-landers likely remember now-defunct improv troupe Skinny Improv, which Jenkins founded in 2002. Over the course of a decade, Jenkins took Skinny Improv from a fledgling ensemble to a professional-quality group performing more than 500 shows a year. Eventually, though, the frenzy took its toll on Jenkins. He stepped away from Skinny Improv in 2014, taking several years to explore other opportunities including a stint at Chicago comedy landmark The Second City. Now, Jenkins is back. He’s rested, and he’s hungry—you can see it in the mischievous glint in his eye when he tells his story.
The newly formed conservatory offers courses in improv comedy, sketch comedy, acting, public speaking and more, but goals of the conservatory extend far beyond performing. According to the conservatory’s mission statement, it’s about “helping [students] unlock the potential for greatness that they may not see yet, so they can turn a hobby into a career.” Queen City Conservatory’s website mentions turning “fear into focus” and “instinct into ideas.” That focus is exactly what I found when my editor sent me to take the conservatory’s introductory improv class.
“This Is Not a Phone”
I was equal parts apprehensive and intrigued prior to my first class. I was a theatre nerd in high school, but my onstage confidence had plummeted after taking a seven-year performing hiatus. Lucky for me, the first few classes weren’t about thriving: They were about survival. Our biggest priority was listening and staying afloat while we learned Jenkins’s basic rules of improv—of which there are many. For example, Jenkins was adamant about the proper way to pantomime a phone. “This is not a phone,” Jenkins insisted, sticking his pinky finger and thumb out in a sideways “kowabunga” gesture. “This”—he cupped his hand, gripping an invisible phone—“is a phone.”
If you’re familiar with improvised comedy—think Whose Line Is It Anyway—you know that it’s a team sport. Most scenes involve at least two individuals. Our first few classes centered on working as a team while learning improv basics, like the much-revered concept of “yes, and”—the idea of accepting your improv partner’s reality and taking it to the next level. It’s less nebulous than it sounds. During one exercise, for example, we took turns walking a “yes, and” gauntlet created by our classmates, responding to statements like “I had a burrito for lunch,” with statements like “Yes, and because you had a burrito for lunch, you’ll have Chinese food for dinner.”
Ultimately, a conversation with a classmate really helped me wrap my head around “yes, and.” A few weeks into the session, I looked down at my classmate’s wrist to find the words “YES, AND” tattooed in a typewriter font. He was a more seasoned improv maven, having trained in the early days of Skinny Improv. “For me, ‘yes, and’ is a lifestyle,” he explained. “You can’t always change the things that are going on around you, but the ‘and’ is your chance to tell your part of the story.” That’s the crux of good improv: taking the reality created by your partner and building upon it until, together, you make something great.