ISHPEMING - A group of Westwood High School actors will be taking the stage Wednesday, but they don't have any lines memorized. In fact, they don't have a clue as to what story line they'll be acting out. And their directors are ok with that.
Co-directed by Westwood teacher B.G. Bradley and Northern Michigan University student TJ Carter, Westwood students will be presenting Will and the Prisoner, a comedy-improv performance, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the school's auditorium.
"You get up there and you don't know what you're doing," said performer Shaylee Carlson, 17, a senior at Westwood. "The audience gives you a word and then you build a scene out of it."
Although they had never participated in improv before, these Westwood High School students have been meeting weekly to learn the basics of improvisation through games and activities. The students, here waiting to begin one of their weekly workshops, said pariticpating in improv helped them not only with acting in plays, but also in giving presentations in class. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
Co-director T.J. Carter, a Northern Michigan University student assisting with the production, explains an improv game to actors on stage. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
The performance is a collection of improv games that have the actors build situations and characters from their own imaginations, often from prompts given by the audience, meaning the actors on stage have to organize themselves quickly and come up with lines on the spot.
"It seems to be working pretty well," Bradley said of the production. Although the group held a similar performance in November, this is the first year Westwood has hosted an improve performance.
"This is a way to get them involved in drama without having a huge time commitment," Bradley said.
To prepare, students interested in performing have been meeting once a week to learn the basis of the improv games and get some experience on stage.
"It's really interesting to see them grow from the first week," said Carter, who is a co-producer for NMU's improv group On the Spot. He is working with the Westwood students as part of a service project for the Student Leader Fellowship Program.
For the Westwood students, who hadn't had experience with improv before, the production has been chance to learn a new skill and improve in other performance areas.
"I was really nervous," said Emily Kinne, 17, a senior at Westwood. "After you do it a few times, you get used to it.
"I think I like improv better (than a traditional play)."
The students who participate in improv, however, said they found it helped their performance in other areas of theater, as well as making them more comfortable making speeches and presentations in class.
"It teaches you you can go with it. It helps a lot," Carlson.
The actors on stage aren't the only ones dealing with improvisation either.
The production is accompanied by piano player Miranda Balcom, 16, and saxophone player Cory Steede, 16, both juniors in the school's jazz band. Like the actors, they will also be making up the music as they go along.
"We have to look at what the actors are doing. We make it up," Balcom said.
"She'll say, 'Key of B-flat,' and I'll say, 'Ok,'" Steede agreed.
Although both musicians have improvised for playing with the jazz band, with the improv stage performance, they get to make up whatever they play, sometimes following directions from Bradley like "Play 'couch' music" or "They're in Antarctica."
Getting the entire performance to gel together is as much about teamwork as it is acting skills.
"A lot of it is chemistry. I equate it to sports teams. You have to understand who's going to do what in any given play," Carter said.
And although improv usually has audiences laughing, the trick is to not try to be funny, the performers say.
"You're not supposed to try to be funny because it usually isn't," Kinne said.
Tickets for the performance are $5 and are available at the door.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.