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When Improv Gets Personal

How much should we be expected to share? In class? On stage?

The tears were welling up in the teacher's eyes as she started demonstrating the activity. My heart started pounding, because we were all going to have a turn in a moment. She was pointing to a blank piece of printer paper, folded in half, and talking about it as if it were a treasured photograph of her mother, who had died of cancer not long after the "photo" was taken. We all stared at her and at the "photo" as the details, back story, and emotion poured out. The blank paper was vivid with feelings and memory. And when her story was done, she handed the blank paper to a student in class, who got up and started gesturing at the same piece of paper, explaining a totally different photograph.

My mind was racing. The stories were extremely engaging, but I was only half paying attention, as I had to think of my own "picture" to share with this group. I'd only been working with them for a few hours—and would be working with them all week at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. I was rolodexing through different stories and memories. I needed something emotional, but not too emotional. I needed to fulfill the assignment, but I didn't want to lose it in front of the class. I'm an actor, so I should be able to emote more than this crowd filled with scientists. But I am also a professional, and wanted to keep my status in the room. I needed a story that was moving but not too raw. Something that sounded like I was being revealing, while I felt I was in control. 

At least that's what I was thinking. Some people in class got up and told heartbreaking stories of loss or thrilling stories of near disasters. Meanwhile, I was working on taking a very calculated risk. I understood the intent for this crowd of scientists. This exercise was giving them an opportunity to share a more emotional side of themselves that they might rarely share with their colleagues. It's a chance to tell a story. Use vivid language. Feel vulnerable, like their patients or laymen might. To feel firsthand how captivating a vulnerable speaker is to an audience. To see how everyone carries so many stories and experiences with them--once you consider it, you have no choice but to be more empathetic. It's a powerful and effective exercise. And yet, on some level, I hate it. 

I have a lot of mixed feelings about acting exercises that mine personal history, especially trauma for source material. If you've done enough acting workshops, you've come across this as common territory. It's a way to bond the group, to experience catharsis, to create and authentic performance. But there's a big part of me that feels like my personal history—my story—is too sacred, too private to use for exercises with ad hoc groups. And I don't feel like signing up for an acting class or a presentation skills class means I've given consent to share intimate details of my life or my innermost thoughts and feelings. 

Of course, in most of these activities, the participants get to choose what to share, so I can risk as much as I like. (In some exercises and even performance games, I've seen it sprung on people in a way that I'm uncomfortable with). My insecurities or dating history aren't fair game for others' entertainment, unless it's what I put in my one-woman show. (I did two of those, both carefully curated personal stories I was ready to tell).

And yet I see how for someone who doesn't have the opportunity to share those things, or access that part of themselves, it can be a cathartic and transformative experience. And I see how effective it can be in bonding the group and building empathy. 

It's so hard to know when that discomfort is something you should lean into and push through—feeling the fear and finding the growth—or if it's something to listen to, follow your gut, turn away from and take care of yourself. 

Some performers have no boundaries; they'll do whatever it takes and "go there." And because of that they are utterly compelling to watch. I'm not one of those performers. I preserve my boundaries. And like most personal attributes, it is both a strength and a weakness. 

How do you feel when called upon to share a part of you in class or on stage? Are you an open book or a secret garden? 

Shana Merlin 
Founder, Merlin Works

Beginner Improv Classes

Improv 101: The Spirit of Play
Tuesdays 7:30-10pm | July 26 - Sept 20 (no class August 30) | with Kevin Miller

Improv 201: Scenework Toolbelt
Mondays 7:30-10pm | July 25 - Sept 19 (no class September 5)​ | with TBA



Singing Improv Classes

Improvised Singing 101: Improvised Songs
Thursdays 7:30-10pm | July 28 - Sept 22 (no class September 1) | with Shana Merlin & Ryan Fechter

Improvised Singing 201: Improvised Musical Numbers
Wednesdays 7:30-10pm | July 27 - Sept 21 (no class August 31) | with TBA & Ryan Fechter

Improvised Singing 301: Full Length Improvised Musicals
Wednesdays 7:30-10pm | July 27 - Sept 21 (no class August 31) | Graduation show October 9, 2016 | with TBA



Advanced Improv Classes

Improv 401: Scenework for Narrative Longform
Thursdays 7:30-10pm | July 28 - Sept 22 (no class September 1) | with Lacy Alana


Free Improv Classes

Free Warm Up Jam
Second Sundays at 5:30pm
at ZACH's Whisenhunt Stage
  • July 10th 
  • August 14th (special 6:30pm pre-graduation show jam)
  • September 11th

Free Improv Mixer 
4th Sundays 4-6pm
  • July 24th
  • August 28th



Second Sunday Improv at ZACH

It's Showtime: Merlin Works proudly presents The Known Wizards with guests Loverboy! and improv students.

Sunday, July 10, 2016
7pm Show featuring:
Merlin Works Improv students
Special guest Loverboy!
Merlin Works Instructor troupe The Known Wizards
On ZACH’s Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey Road

Get your Tickets now!

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