Tag Archives: Tara DeFrancisco

The Improv Retreat 2015: “I’d rather be here.”

I’m home from The Improv Retreat! I got home a few days ago, ready for one of my last hectic work weeks of the summer, when a bad vaccine reaction knocked me off my feet for a few days and FORCED me to rest up from camp. I’m better-ish now and have camp thoughts.

Much of what I wrote last year about the general feel of The Improv Retreat holds true again, especially this part:

[Tara, founder of TIR] reminded us improv has the capacity to welcome everybody, no matter how long they’ve practiced it, where they live, or what theater they call home. There doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. If improv welcomes everyone, we should, too.

This year, she emphasized, “Especially be this welcoming to the non-improvisers in your life! Your accountant friend needs to be treated with this kind of love, too.”

What was the same this year:

  • Campers were friendly and outgoing. Improvisers tend to befriend one another easily.
  • The counselors were fun and wise and supportive.
  • The shows were some of the best improv I’ve seen in awhile.
  • At least 2/3 of the campers were hypnotized at some point.

What was different this year:

    • It rained most of the time, which meant fewer outdoor activities and more indoor discussion times.
    • I haven’t had camp withdrawal since coming back like I did last year, because I have a regular place to play and teach now. Westside Improv didn’t exist yet last year, and now it does, and it makes improv more accessible for people who don’t live near Lincoln Park. (A mini-highlight for me was when someone said, “Did you say you live in the suburbs? You should check out Westside. I live in Chicago so I haven’t been out there yet, but I’ve heard good things.”)
    • I carpooled with a friend from church/work instead of people I barely knew. I liked those guys I barely knew! I got to know them over the course of the trip! But it was nice to have a friend from my everyday life around camp, even if we didn’t take the same workshops.
    • There were more familiar faces. It was comforting to see campers I recognized from last year as well as players from Westside.
    • Because of the whole my-third-trimester-started-while-I-was-at-camp thing, my energy was Very Limited. I reserved it for workshops and shows and sat out most of the jams and games. This also made me the loser who left the campfire around midnight after a s’more or two. (It seemed like the rest of camp was going to bed between 2am and never.) So I missed out on some improviser bonding time. However, everyone was gracious about offering me a chair or an extra serving of food when there was one to be had, and one of the lovely camp interns who read my last blog post even saved a bottom bunk for me ahead of time. I wasn’t ever made to feel out of place.

At one point on Saturday, I ran into Tara, who has shared publicly about her ongoing, scary-sounding health battles, and asked how she was feeling. She said, “My body would feel the same way at home as it feels here. Where I am doesn’t make a difference, so I’d rather be here. This is where the awesome, positive people are.”

Exactly. I’m not at all equating pregnancy with illness, but that holds true for me, too: I was going to be exhausted and uncomfortable no matter where I was. I don’t think being away from home for two nights made it any worse. I might as well use my energy to play when I can.

I’m so glad I went. I’m also so glad I’m home.

You can read other people’s camp thoughts by searching for #TIR2015 on Twitter. (Though, just like last year, if you go back much past last week, that hashtag refers to the Texas Independence Relay.) The other official camp hashtag is #muppetarms because of reasons.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing the notes I took in my workshops. If you took different workshops or just different notes, you should share those, too! I want to see!

Packing for TIR 2015 WOOOOOO!!!!!

The Improv Retreat is coming up! If you want to know what it was like last year, I summed up the workshops I took, the Q&A session, and my general experience of TIR2014 here.

I’ve agonized over and finally signed up for my workshops, found a carpool buddy, and let my workplace know that I won’t be answering my phone or email over that weekend.

Last year, I was glad I brought:

  • Bedding (pillow and sleeping bag)
  • Shoes (comfortable walking shoes, flip flops for the shower)
  • Sun protection (sunscreen and hat)
  • General toiletries
  • Notebook and pencil
  • Flashlight
  • Warm weather clothes for the day, plus a jacket for night

 

This year, because I learned my lesson last summer, I will also remember to bring:

  • Ear plugs (as there will be a snorer in every cabin)
  • Serious bug spray (because it’s the woods)
  • Protein bars (kosher, to comply with campsite rules)
  • Chocolate (for s’mores; chocolate supplies were low by the time I got to the fire pit Saturday night last year)
  • Refillable water bottle

When early registration started for camp, I didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. I might not have signed up if I’d realized. And even after I found out, there is the scary-but-statistically-probable reality that being 1 month pregnant in December did not necessarily mean I’d still be pregnant by the end of May.

By the time my doctor was 100% confident that this pregnancy was going to stick, the deadline for cancelling my camp registration had passed me by, and I decided I didn’t care. I am going anyway, regardless of physical challenges, because who knows if I’ll be able to go next year?

Also, if our camp director Tara can run the whole shindig while undergoing a stem cell trial for her heart, I sure can handle playing while tiring easily, needing a lot of snacks, and occasionally getting kicked in the ribs.

So, as I’ll be entering the third trimester of my pregnancy while at camp, I’ll also need:

  • Giant, ridiculous, but TOTALLY NECESSARY HOW ELSE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE WITHOUT WITCHCRAFT pregnancy pillow
  • To arrive early enough to claim a bottom bunk
  • To take it easy during the more physically challenging workshops
  • To be as gracious as possible to people while still firmly defending my personal space. Improvisers are the best people in the world, but I still don’t want my torso touched by people I just met. Or by anyone, actually. Everybody stop touching my torso.

I’m so excited to get out of town and into the woods for a weekend with lots of other improvisers. Say hi, y’all!

Questions and Answers

The last night of The Improv Retreat, the counselors did a Question and Answer session. I jotted down what I could, and I looked up #TIR2014 on Twitter to fill in some of the gaps. (Thank you, strangers, for tweeting during the Q&A.)

Any misquotes are because my handwriting is the worst; PLEASE correct me if I got something wrong.

When did you realize you were good at improv?

  • A few years from now, I hope. (Jill Bernard)
  • The moment you feel like you’re better than everyone else in the room, you’ve stopped improvising. (Rene Dequesnoy)
  • It’s for others to say if you’re a good improviser. For you, it should be enough just to be an improviser. (Joe Bill)

 

Should I focus on playing with people better than I am so I can rise to their level, or should I put my energy into mentoring newer players?

  • EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. (Jill Bernard)
  • Regardless of who is “farther ahead,” play with the people you love because you’ll talk about improv differently with them. (Matt Higbee)
  • The next phase of learning is teaching. We learn from the mistakes other people make. (Rance Rizzutto)

 

What do you do when you’ve lost your mojo?

  • Focus on listening to other players and making your scene partner’s offers more specific.
  • Watch a totally different kind of performance, like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. (Michael Tatar)
  • EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. (Jill Bernard)

 

What do you wish you could tell your younger self?

  • Relax. Don’t beat yourself up for not pretending well enough with your friends. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Concentrate on loving the work and having fun, and everything else takes care of itself. Don’t stress about whether you will become next big thing. (Charna Halpern)
  • Play with people who get you. You can tell when a team doesn’t get a player because they make no sense. (Jill Bernard)

 

Straight white twenty-something dudes are awesome and all, but how do we get more diversity in the improv community?

  • It’s not enough to open your doors. You have to chase after different kinds of people. In the long run, a good strategy is to teach improv at a high school. Make it part of kids’ culture early. (Jill Bernard)
  • The more open you are, the more open the person next to you will be. (Rance Rizzutto)

 

Do you find improv therapeutic?

  • If enough awkward kids come together, they become the cool kids. (Rance Rizzutto)
  • This is our island of misfit toys. Comedy gets fun again when you stop caring what other people think and get weirder. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Yes, but improv isn’t therapy. My degree is in theater. Also go to a doctor. (Jill Bernard) Improv is therapeutic, but oh my gosh improv is not therapy. Thank you, Jill.

 

Is there anything you miss about being new to improv?

  • The hunger to do it all the time. (Michael Tatar)
  • I don’t miss a thing. I still have everything I had then, plus some. (Joe Bill)

 

How has improv affected your life?

  • When you say yes, you have more adventures! And improv has made me more spiritually aware. Also, I get fewer parking tickets. (Charna Halpern)
  • Improv has affected single thing about my life. I play with my best friends, and they are the funniest people in the world. (Tara DeFrancisco)

 

Thus ends my blogging of The Improv Retreat, 2014. If you weren’t there and wish you could have been, go ahead and mark your calendar for the weekend after Memorial Day, 2015, and like The Improv Retreat on Facebook for updates. I hope I see you there.

And if you were there, did you take notes in any of your workshops? Would you be willing to share them? Leave a link in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list below.

Maria Konopken summarized her time at The Improv Retreat at National Improv Network:

“The camp experience is something I will not forget mainly because it took you out of your comfort zone. From each of my workshops they emphasized being here in this moment — this is what matters.”

Dan DeSalva wrote a review of the retreat at Life’s a Funny Scene:

Campers’ experience ranged from short-form to long-form; twenty-year vet to two-month beginner. … Everyone was so positive and open to meeting new people and learning new things while still being confident enough to share who they were with the rest of camp. It was an amazing atmosphere, void of judgment and full of weirdness.

I am a loser who is not on Twitter, but lots of people are, and they used #TIR2014 (which, if you follow it far enough back in time, becomes about the Texas Independence Relay) and #GablesUp to post about camp.

Here’s #TIR2014 on Tumblr. (Again, you will find the Texas Independence Relay if you look earlier than late May.)

Improv camp vs. church camp

Remember a few months ago when I got SO EXCITED about improv camp and asked everyone I knew to come with me? Nobody did. I went anyway. I’m caught up on sleep, the bruises from over-enthusiastic warm ups are fading a little, and I don’t even know where to start writing about it. So I’ll just start with the big picture of where I’m coming from and the spirit of the camp as a whole.

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Growing up, I went to summer camps or retreats between 15 and 20 times spread out over 9 years. They were all church camps. Different kinds of church camps — some were woodsy, others were on a beach, some were for student leaders, some were for anyone who wanted to be there. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all evangelical. I’ve wondered what non-evangelical people even DO at camp.

All weekend, I was looking for differences between camps I knew and this camp. And there were plenty. For instance, there were the rules.

Typical evangelical summer camp rules:

  • No hugging the opposite sex.
  • Shorts must reach at least your finger tips. (I am a tall person. There are no such shorts. I always ended up playing kickball in jeans in 102 degree weather.)
  • 8 million other ridiculous things that mostly have to do with clothes and not touching the opposite sex.

The only hard rules at The Improv Retreat:

  • Be cool.
  • Don’t go near the lake after dark.

So obviously, no legalism at improv camp. Awesome. I got to wear shorts and everything. But keeping-control-of-teenagers rules aside, I noticed more similarities than differences.

For instance, the last night there, I heard several iterations of these comments around the campfire:

  • “This has been such a high. But now how do I take all the joy and energy and skills I learned this weekend back to my troupe? What if they don’t get it? And how do I stay this confident when I have my next audition?”
  • “I need to do this with my life. I am going to go home and figure out what I need to do to quit my job and pursue comedy full time. It will be hard, but my whole heart’s in this. It’s what I’ve got to do.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about it, and I am keeping my day job. It pays the bills, and I’m good at it. Also, I think doing improv means I have something to offer my job that not everyone has. I can spread it around at work. And keeping one foot in the corporate world keeps my improv grounded.”

To me, these sound like the conversations people always had the last night of church camp.

  • “How do I take what I learned and apply it at school? My other friends are going to think I’m nuts. Even some of the kids at church won’t get it. How do I find people to keep me accountable once camp is over?”
  • “I think I’m being called to be a pastor or missionary full time. I know I won’t make much money, but I think it’s what God’s asking me to do.”
  • “The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t NEED to go into full time ministry to be a Christian. I can be good at my job and still be a witness in my office; I’ll go to church, but I won’t live in a Christian bubble.” (This last genre of camp-decision especially makes me think of this recent sermon from Fr. Kevin Miller on calling, which I highly recommend. He tackles balancing passion, finances, and service.)

The biggest similarity was the attitude that the counselors were preaching and living out. The camp’s founder Tara DeFrancisco especially talked a lot about inclusiveness, then put it into practice by drawing names from a hat to jump on stage instead of keeping it safe by only playing with her best friends. (You can see her do this every week at iO.) She reminded us improv has the capacity to welcome everybody, no matter how long they’ve practiced it, where they live, or what theater they call home. There doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. If improv welcomes everyone, we should, too.

Which sounds exactly like how church is supposed to be.

And campers took Tara’s exhortations to heart. I drove to that camp barely acquainted with a couple of people, and I came home with lots of new friends. I went with an inferiority complex about being an improviser in the suburbs when all the REAL improvisers are in the city, and I was reminded that the suburbs need improv, too, and encouraged to keep cultivating the community here. Chicago is the capital of the improv world, but it does not have a monopoly on improv joy.

Expect more detailed camp notes in the next few days, as soon as I decipher my own handwriting.