Camaraderie, community and nature. That’s Improv Utopia’s motto and as hippie as it may sound, it really does capture the spirit of the Improv Utopia experience. You may recall I briefly wrote about being at the first Improv Utopia East in Pennsylvania last year here. Last month, I had the privilege of attending the fifth Improv Utopia West in California for the first time.

As West camp is well established, they have being using the same camp and the facilities are excellent. Located on the Pacific Coast outside of the town of Cambria, this ocean facing camp offered tranquillity amongst the trees and the wildlife and for a number of days over a holiday weekend in May, a hell of a lot of improv.

As with East camp last year, I was the only traveller from abroad attending camp but I had more of an idea what to expect this time round and I was excited to get there. I was assigned to the infamous Cousteau cabin and Mike MacFarland, artistic director of Sidestage Improv in San Diego, was my camp counsellor. Infamous, in that the reputation of the cabin was even talked about at East camp last year. (And it’s easy to see why Josh Nicols wears the traditional Cousteau hat regularly!) After learning the cabin song, we donned our red hats and so began one of my favourite improv experiences to date.

The concept of camp may seem alien to Irish and Europeans, however it is something that is part of US culture. Campfire, marshmallows, cabin rivalry and banter is the norm and it’s difficult not to get sucked in. West camp this year offered 5 teachers.

Jill Bernard (Huge Theatre)
Jason Pardo (IO West/King Ten)
Drew Droege (The Groundlings / Chloe Sevigny)
Katie Nahnsen (IO West / Baby Wants Candy / NBC Sports Action Team)
Bob Dassie (IO West / Dasariski)

Unfortunately for me, I could only work with 4 teachers. As much as it pained me, I opted to skip Jill’s workshop as I had worked with her at East camp last year.

First up was Katie and her topic was “Express Yourself”. Her focus was very much on emotion and in particular emotional point of view. One of the things I loved about this was how she got us do to do scenes where your stage partner was out to make your life difficult in their choices. Much of what we did resonated with me from my experience of performing Neil+1. She really pushed us to connect to the emotional choices we make on stage and it made for some excellent results. Katie’s support and side coaching was spot on too and her style of teaching felt more like having a mentor coaching you rather than a teacher/student divide which can often emerge in group workshops.

Next was Bob and “What Are You Doing Up There?” Bob’s warm up was probably the most bizarre yet wildly entertaining warm up I have ever done. For the first few minutes of it, I genuinely believed he was making it up as he went along! Bob was focussing on truth and finding it in both ourselves and our characters. We also did quite a bit of work around scene initiations. I couldn’t take enough notes fast enough with Bob. Listening to his improv philosophy was fascinating and having seen Dasariski perform, he really does walk the talk. I loved his quote “Aim for art, settle for comedy”.

Up next was Drew and “Character Shop”. Drew is well known for his characters and he foccussed on creating instant interesting characters. Again points of view were key here. Drew also had us delve into the lives of people from our own life and use them as inspiration for our own characters. This made for interesting and often quite personal results. Using people from our own lives can be quite an intimate experience. Drew was fun to work with, he gave such concise and regular feedback to everyone and it really showed in how much focus he gave to everyone taking part. There was just as much to be learnt from hearing his feedback to other participants.

Jason’s title was “Start Simple, Play Strong and Have Fun!” Jason didn’t bother with warm ups given we were emerged in full day improv experiences anyway (we were already warmed up!) so it was scene work from the get go. Jason worked with sentiments and heightening those sentiments. Playing something strong from the outset and then mutating it slightly. One of Jason’s quote which I loved was that “A relationship is how you treat each other” as opposed to father/son or husband/wife etc.

I was quite fortunate to have the opportunity to get some 1 on 1 coaching from Brian James O’Connell (The Miles Stroth Workshop / IO West). It was my first time to meet Brian but he was very much a guru on all things improv. I’m not going to post the details from the coaching session other than to say, it was intense, powerful and inspiring. I only wish I could have recorded it as so much was happening. Brian is a gentleman though and his coaching session became a core inspiration for me at camp and ever since. I’ve already noticed a huge difference since, in particular during a staging of Neil+1 in Florida this month, there was a moment where I could almost hear Brian’s voice in my head! If you have a chance to work with Brian at any stage, cross oceans if you have to!

Of course Improv Utopia isn’t just about learning. There was the always entertaining Teacher show which featured all the mentioned names above and of course Camp Director Nick Armstrong. Jam City is a staple of camp which gives all 100+ participants a chance to play in a fast paced jam MC’d by JOhN Abbott and Bill Binder. Another staple of camp is the Cabin shows. Each cabin gets a 20 minute slot to show their wares on stage. Given the high calibre of improv at camp, each cabin tends to come up with something innovative and unique that best demonstrates the personality of the cabin.

There were plenty of other events, both improv and non improv related activities. The National Improv Network forum, discussions, camp fires and, um, axe throwing! From the moment you get out of bed, there is always a choice of things to do.

It’s impossible to capture the magic of camp in a blog post. Beyond the improv, the community and welcome that campers share and support is wonderfully contagious. The days were filled with laughs, love and that passion for improv that allows us to share our vulnerabilities and strengths on stage in one of the most supportive art forms I know of. Nick, John and the team involved with organising Improv Utopia really put their love of improv above everything else. The more people who share that view of improv, the greater it will be for the community and the art form.

Without doubt, this will be an annual adventure for me.

Special shout out to my road trip buddies; Jaclynn, Jessie and Donna, who made the trip from Detroit to San Francisco, to camp, so much fun.

Campfire Tales…
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