Posted 2014/08/22 by jeremy in On The Street

Saying “Yes” to the Fringe: an improv primer with Kevin Gillese

If you’ve never tried it before, watching talented actors improvise can seem impossibly complex and challenging. Yet, if you ask most actors how to improv, they will tell you all you need to do is say, “Yes.”

Kevin Gillese isn’t most actors. “I actually think saying ‘yes’ is not the first step.”

“It’s going to sound like I’m oversimplifying but first you have to learn to listen,” he continues. “Then you learn to say yes.”

“Offer and receive, offer and receive. Listening is how you receive, offering is putting your idea out there. Saying ‘yes’ is how these things swirl around and flow together.”

“You’ve got to start by really paying attention to what the other person is doing,” he concludes.

Sounds simple, right? Those are just the basics. Once you get started working together, there are many more layers to add on.

“There’s a lot of different schools of thought, a lot of different approaches,” Gillese explains, listing off a number. “There’s ‘the game of the scene’… narrative… character-based … premise-based… Anybody that’s doing it is going to be using something from all the schools of thought but approaches will vary.”

Gillese started doing improv as a youth in Edmonton. “Rapid Fire Theatre has a thing called the Nose Bowl—well now it’s called the Wild Fire Festival, but when I got into it it was called the Nose Bowl,” Gillese recalls. “I was a teenager in high school and I just loved it and I just kept doing it and doing it, and it just snowballed.”

Today, Gillese and his collaborative partner, Arlen Konopaki, are celebrating 10 years of performing together as improv duo Scratch. Gillese is the artistic director of Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta, while Konopaki is in New York, working as a writer and filmmaker.

“Working with Arlen for so many years, doing improv together is a way we continue to create content together,” he says. “We try to tell some big stories that all connect, so when you’re doing a 60-minute show and combining all these stories, it’s a lot of information to remember because you want to keep every character, every moment of the story and work them in perfectly.”

Gillese isn’t kidding. At Thursday night’s Scratch performance, plot lines about Iron Man, a father of an autistic son who plays piano, an awkward girl getting her first period, dance-offs and Boyz ‘n’ the Hood were all woven into the story. “It’s a lot to keep in your head,” he admits.

But that’s no reason to feel intimidated if you’re a beginner looking to get started in improv. “There’s lots of great literature on this stuff… or if you’re more of a hands-on learner, every city has improv courses,” Gillese recommends. “The classes are built to ease your fear and create a safe environment where we can all have some fun.”

As an example, Gillese takes me through a word association game where we simply exchange words, each of us saying the first thing that comes to mind. There’s a certain ease to it, no question, but nothing so brilliant that it bears repeating here. Instead, go see Scratch or the Late Night Cabaret, at which Gillese is regularly hosting.