For This Troupe, Improv is Serious Business

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The Echoes provides an outlet for those who may have ‘forgotten how to play’

By Michael McElroy | Photography by Beth Mann

In a video conference call in May, an instructor told the Echoes that he’d been hoping to see creatures emerge from the cadaver they had made together. Soon after recounting this memory to her compatriots, one of the Echoes gnarled herself into a troll and pouted aloud that a baby was too ugly to eat.

For the Echoes, improv is serious business.

They are a six-member performance troupe that follows a style of improvisation called
J.T.S. Brown, which was created by the actor Craig Cackowski in Chicago and relies on “dream logic,” “physical transformation” and “group mind.”

The style fits them well.

Many of the members have retired from successful and demanding careers and all but one are over 50. But this is no hobby for them. Their rehearsals are focused and physical, and they have performed at The PIT Chapel Hill and across the state. Last month, they did a gig in Richmond, Virginia.

Carolyn Cole, a retired educator and psychiatric social worker, founded the group in January of 2018, but had long found improv intriguing. She has taken classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and at The Second City in Chicago and teaches them through Duke adult education programs and at The PIT. But she started her own team to intensify her progress.

The techniques and particulars of improv are “refreshing,” she says. And liberating.

“I will always be an older woman in any scripted piece,” she says, “but in improv, I can be a child, I can be a man. It’s wide open. There is just a pleasure and joy to be in as many shoes as I want to be in. I can be ageless.”

At the troll rehearsal in June, this free range is clear. The dreamscapes the team create are often funny – at one point multiple trolls joined the debate over whether the ugly baby was inedible until another walked up and rendered it moot, “It was delicious.”

Jennifer Van Vickle, Carolyn Cole and Barbara Grubb
Jennifer Van Vickle, Carolyn Cole and Barbara Grubb play trolls.

And it can be stripped bare and disturbing: Barbara Grubb, a former art curator with an expressive face, becomes a grandmother whispering her secret glee that the Earth is warming: “It’s a little scary what will happen to the grandkids,” she says, creeping around the stage. “But I like it warm – because my bones creak in the cold.”

In every imagining, the Echoes fully commit to the moment and to each other. To do otherwise would be a betrayal.

Kim Andrews, who in her career helped train corporate leaders in instructional design, joined the Echoes last year, but has been improvising for 11 years. She, like Carolyn, has taught improv classes at Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The benefits, she says, have particular resonance for people 50 and older, whose experience lets them draw from a deep creative spring.

“There’s no script in life either,” she says, “and we know these people,” she says of the characters they create on stage. “We’ve been these people,” and it is “fun to be able to laugh at them. As we get older we get so serious, we forget how to play.”

Jennifer Van Vickle, who retired recently as a diagnostic radiologist, agreed, saying that improv freed her from the necessary restrictions of her profession.

It “changed my sense of humor,” she says. “It made me realize how serious I am,” a metric understandable given that she often had to tell her patients that they had cancer. “The levity [on stage] gave a really nice contrast” to her life, she says.

It’s a recurring theme among the members: Improv’s lessons extend beyond the stage.

Von Hill, who works in communications for a nonprofit that helps teach boating skills, says that when she turned 50 a few years ago, she felt an urge “to do things that scared me.” A colleague told her about improv classes, and Von thought that certainly applied.

“I had to push myself out the door every week for that first class,” she says, “but it was like I found my people.”

The classes made her more confident.

“Being on stage and being authentic scared me,” she says. “It sounds ridiculous to me now, but at the time, I was afraid to be vulnerable. We don’t ever show our real face to people,” she says.

“Sometimes fiction is more true than reality.”

Nearly all members expressed the art’s sustaining resonance, especially, “Yes, and …,” its sacred tenet. Whatever a partner throws at you, you accept it and build on it. “No,” is a curse on the improv stage.

“Yes, and …,” also serves life in general.

“It makes you a much better listener,” Von says. “Saying ‘yes’ really just means you aren’t coming into a conversation with your own agenda. It means that you just surrender yourself to whatever is in the moment and accept whatever is there.”

Kim agrees. “It’s about trusting the other team members,” she says, “and whatever happens, you just deal with it, try to make eye contact and just keep working together.”

Near the end of the rehearsal in June, the group moved around the space and froze in a tight, multi-layered tableau like a human forest. Carol Machuca, the only Echo under 50 and with a focused but slightly reserved energy, bent down behind the group to start a scene. She began to push through the tangle of arms and legs like a child lost in woods acrawl with witches. “Let me out,” she says over and over, straining against the legs and arms and hands and bodies that, at least for the moment, had become thick vines and trees.

“That’s beautiful,” Anne Deloria, the group’s movement coach, says when the scene is over. “It doesn’t have to be fancy,” she says. “You just want to think of dimensions you can hold. Because you don’t know how long the scene is going to last.”

The Echoes mill around for a moment, laughing together, resetting their focus. “OK,” Carolyn says, “let’s do it again and see what happens.” 

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