My Training

 
 

The Beginning

The young grasshopper makes a discovery...

Under the direction of Thomas Stretton at Cheltenham High School, I got the opportunity to perform in such great musicals as "The Pirates of Penzance", "The Mikado", "Fiddler on the Roof" and more. Thanks to Thom, I learned both a discipline and a love for the theater. Thanks to long rehearsals, I learned to improvise my lines to keep myself and those around me entertained. A skill was born; s director was flummoxed.

The 'Ole College Try

The Mask & wig club

When I was invited to join the fabled Mask & Wig Club at The University of Pennsylvania, it was turning 100 years old and known for its raucous and hysterical shows. During my four years in the troupe, I rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the head writer and director of the Senior year fall show. As we performed 40-60 shows a year, we often improvised to keep the material fresh and to keep each other on our toes. Now, the skill deepened, egged on by others who also enjoyed the practice. 

 

The Lion's Den

Los Angeles, ca

When I moved from NYC to LA in the Summer of 1992, I went to live at the home of Joan and Melissa Rivers with a mutual friend from Mask & Wig. Long story. What's important here is that this same friend insisted that I begin taking classes at The Groundlings, LA's premiere improv school that helped launch the careers of PeeWee Herman, Phil Hartman, Kathy Griffin, Will Ferrell, Jennifer Coolidge Kristen Wiig and so many more. I took all four levels of class (there were only four in the 1990's!) and, when I didn't make the Sunday Company, I cried. No, that's not a joke. I hated the Groundlings but badly wanted to be asked to be one. The school was abusive, unkind, competitive and harsh. It also didn't really focus on improv as an art: rather, it focused on using improv as a tool to create characters for sketches and monologues. Something was missing in that equation for me and I found it accidentally, when a pal from my Advanced Groundlings class — Scott Wainio — told me about a fella named Stan Wells. 

 

The Empty Stage

The real work begins

Stan Wells, an alumni of The Groundlings started his own improv theater in the 1990's: The Empty Stage. There, I got to learn from a man who was, truly, in love with improv. Stan created improvised musicals, improvised stories, and even improvised Charles Dickens. With his encouragement, I created and directed improvised sitcoms and improvised one-act plays. I shared the stage with incredibly talented improvisers like Jon Stark, Jake West, Colleen O'Shaughnessey, Scott Hennelly and others who would later join me in the cast of Fake Radio. I had the honor of working with Stan for over a decade at the Empty Stage and, during that time, I learned to let go and allow anything to happen on stage; I learned that there were no such thing as a "mistake"; I learned to trust every single person with whom I was on stage. In the end, I learned that improv was, like surfing or kung fu, a delicate dance and an exchange of energy. 

 

The Master Class

the young grasshopper sees how young He Is

A friend from The Empty Stage, Jon Stark, invited me to check out the master class of Bill Steinkellner, a two-time Emmy-winner. Bill was Stan's improv teacher (from back in the day), so I felt  like I was now able to study with my "Grand Teacher". Bill was a writer for and executive producer of such TV shows as "Cheers" and "Don't Shoot Me", which is probably how he became an real master of story. Ditto for his wife Cheri, also a two-time Emmy-winner and an equally gifted improviser. When I walked into the class, I recognized half of the faces there: they were actors in their 50's, 60's and beyond who'd been honing their craft for decades. I was, once again, a young grasshopper in the improv world. Only now, I was getting the honor to work with accomplished and well-known stage and screen actors. From Bill, I learned how to find and move a story forward to its next, logical beat; to not delay in getting to that next beat but to absolutely delight in any absurd game or moment that might arise on the way to that next piece of the story. 

 

The Big Move

Portland, oregon

When my wife and I decided to leave the clutches of Los Angeles, we headed North for Stumptown. My friends in Bill's masterclass gave me the names of the best improv schools and theaters in Portland, Oregon. When we landed here In 2014, I began performing at Curious Comedy as well as teaching Levels 1 and 2 classes there. After a several years, I found a better match for me at The Brody Theater in NW PDX where I continue to perform, direct and teach. I even got to perform in the 2016 Stumptown Improv Festival. In 2018, I opened my own studio in SW PDX and am now teaching workshops there as well.

David (in front at left), taking a bow with other members of The Brody Theater during the 2016 Stumptown Improv Festival

David (in front at left), taking a bow with other members of The Brody Theater during the 2016 Stumptown Improv Festival

 

The Kids

a huge improv discovery is made... 

In the Fall of 2016, I began teaching improv to 6th-8th graders at St. Andrew Nativity School in NE Portland. This amazing Jesuit school system (there are about 60 schools like it around the country) serves communities of need around the US. Here in Portland, all of the students are students of color: Black, Latino and immigrants. I thought I'd be teaching improv as a way to teach being on stage. I was wrong. I quickly realized that when giving them suggestions for their scenes, I'd need to pick places, things, and topics that my students could understand and embrace. As an outsider, I quickly ran out of ideas and, one day — because there was nothing else to try — I asked my students to offer up topics based on actual problems in their world that they wanted to change. I was floored as they wanted to discuss racial shootings, domestic violence, car jacking, global warming and more. From that moment, our class pivoted: I begin developing a curriculum based on honoring the students' desire to discuss difficult topics in a constructive manner. I focused on applying improv to help teach emotional and psychological IQ, instead of comedy or performance. Here's a picture from one of our classes:

 

The Results & The Future

doors are opening

I have now received a grant from the Bruce J. Heim Foundation and from RACC for my work at St. Andrew's. Those funds are helping to form a performance-level class as well as to train a second teacher in my curriculum and finish a documentary film on the kids. As the world suddenly realizes how improv can be used to help make better humans, other institutions are now contacting me about teaching these same skills to their students. In 2018, I was invited to teach a 4-day workshop at Portland's #1 private school, Catlin Gable. Later, I taught students at both Spokane and Shadle High Schools in Eastern Washington and MC'ed a friendly improv competition between the two schools. In the summer of 2018, I gave a keynote presentation at the international AIN convention in Paris about my work with the kids. In 2019, I'll be returning to Catlin Gable to teach their middle schoolers. Corporate clients are now also reaching out as they learn that the skills of improvisation help make better humans and, therefore, better employees.

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