Julia Perry, 13, of Beverly has been involved in theater productions with the YMCA of the North Shore for several years. But it wasn’t until she tried improvisational theater a year and a half ago that she found out it was what she loved the most.
“It [improv] is the freedom to take over and let this imaginary character be whatever your mind comes up with,” said Perry. “It’s not having to worry about saying the right thing.”
Now young people like Perry will have the opportunity to learn more about improvisational theater, commonly known as improv. From February 20-24, the OddFellows Improv Company will hold an Improv Intensive at the Salem YMCA for children and teens grade six and up. The cost is $75 for YMCA members and $93 for the community. The workshop will run each evening that week from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Alec Lewis, 23, of Beverly started the North Shore-based Oddfellows Improv Company with friends Ben Drake, 23, of Beverly, Zach Reynolds, 24, of Beverly, Jon Ramey, 23, of Beverly, Tyrel Borowitz, 21, of Gloucester, and Andrew Lamb, 25 of Portland, ME. The group has been doing improv since performing together in college. After taking a road trip to perform in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee in the spring of 2010 and performing in several shows together last summer, they decided to start their own company.
Lewis approached Kimberly LaCroix, 25, performing arts director at the YMCA of the North Shore, with the idea for the workshop, and LaCroix—who’s in her third year as director—was quick to agree.
“There’s not much available for teens locally in improv,” she said.
Improv is typically comedic and involves actors performing spontaneously in response to cues from fellow actors or the audience. A popular improv game is Freeze, in which performers begin a scene but at any point actors not on stage can yell “Freeze.” Those performers then take the exact pose of the replaced actor and a new scene begins. According to Lewis, Oddfellows’ mission is to teach people to have fun with improv games like this, and to connect the performance aspect with the opportunity to improve social skills and confidence.
“Improv is really working those social muscles,” Lewis said. “Being able to adapt and think on your feet allows you to be more confident in social situations.”
During the weeklong workshop, Oddfellows will teach improv games, provide feedback and talk about the benefits of such skills. The week will end with a public performance by students scheduled for Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Salem YMCA.
The workshop is sponsored in part through a grant from the Beverly Cultural Council (BCC), a funding organization that allocates money from the state for arts and culture in Beverly. Lewis submitted a $1,000 proposal to the BCC in October 2011 to bring Oddfellows’ mission to the area. According to Gail Eaton, 65, chair of the BCC, approximately 20 grants are awarded annually and Oddfellows received a $500 grant. Eaton said the BBC fell in love with Oddfellows when they presented their proposal.
“Their idea was unusual,” she said. “I’d love people to realize this kind of thing is art and a very valid art form.”
But it’s more than art, says Kelley Challen, program director at the Spotlight Program in Danvers, who believes that the social benefits of improv are evident. Spotlight—who has also worked with Lewis—helps students with an array of social skills, including youth with Aspergers Syndrome, Autism and other social diagnoses. Traditional improv and theater games are used to enhance social confidence because the skills used in those games are the same as social competency skills like eye contact.
“Helping kids to have fun in a group setting is very important,” Challen said. “Improv is a lot of fun, and if kids are having fun doing it than they’re likely to want to do it [use those social skills] again.”
(Photo of Alec Lewis by Katie Thompson)
Oddfellows hopes to provide similar workshops for the community. Lewis said his group hopes to offer an April intensive as well as a summer program in Beverly with the goal not only of teaching the technical elements of improv, but also to address insecurities and confidence issues in youth.
“We’ve experienced personal and social growth in theater and we want to share that,” Lewis said. “In improv you let insecurities go and are totally free to be who you are. We’d like to help others experience that.”
Julia Perry plans to attend the intensive and has already learned lessons from improv that Oddfellows wants to develop further. “If anyone said something mean to me, I can have a quick comeback,” she said. “That’s especially good to have in middle school.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Gordon College News Service.