There's a TON of great students in the improv program at Spitfire and we think it's about time you heard from them. Follow us in the coming weeks as we put the Spotlight on our students - the heart and soul of the theater - and share a little bit of their experience taking classes and learning the craft of comedy art.
This week we spoke with Nettle Greenman about discovering improv early in life, then again over the years in Seattle, and deciding to do it here in St. Pete. In addition to being an improviser, she's an avid storyteller and vocalist who brings an intelligence, emotional capacity and rich understanding about both character and narrative to the Spitfire stage. She's also part of the inaugural cohort of students at Spitfire, who will be graduating from the program this season.
How did you first learn about improv?
I was one of the Theater Geeks in Jr. high and high school, and I started college as an art/theater major, so it was one of the classes I took. I remember very little about it, though, other than this one exercise where we were sitting with our backs to someone and we were supposed to feel when that person was looking at us. I was weirdly good at discerning when someone was looking at my back, which might have to do with years of experience of knowing when someone in school was thinking about beating me up. (I grew up in Brooklyn when it was West Side Story rather than Hipster Heaven and being a geek was hazardous to your heath.)
Then I ran across it again as Theatresports in Seattle when I had some good friends on a team. My husband's and my first real date was at Theatresports, in fact. So I'd been hanging out with improv people and going to improv shows and thinking about taking a class, but didn't get around to it before coming to St Pete.
Why'd you decide to start doing improv?
Even though I ran across improv in college many moons ago (I don't want to tell you how many, but it was many many) and then again in Seattle in the 90s, I didn't do much with it until about a year and a half ago when I noticed a workshop in musical improv at American Stage and dropped in on the spur of the moment. But I was thinking the workshop was something else--I thought the class was going to be about vocal improvisation, which is a form that is about creating a spontaneous musical experience (also called circle singing -- Bobby McFerrin is the master of this form in the US). When the class turned out to be about improvising musical theater, I said, "Well, okay, this looks like it'll be fun too" and stayed for the workshop and then signed up for the class and the rest is history. The current Artistic Director of Spitfire was in that class class and when I heard he was creating a different school, I followed him over.
Did you have any acting or improv experience when you signed up for your first class?
I had been acting in Seattle before I left in 2009 -- I had been doing plays and some writing and directing, but more recently had focused on acting in indie films and doing solo performance pieces, and I was starting to get auditions for commercials. The thing I liked about film vs. plays was really the bridge to improv -- I loved the process of, "Okay, you did those lines that way, now do it with this different emotion or motivation or secret, etc." I didn't usually mind doing a scene 59 times in 59 different ways. With plays, the discoveries more or less came about in rehearsal and then when you put the show up, it's essentially codified, and deciding spontaneously to do something in a different way is...not necessarily beneficial from the casts' viewpoint. I have a low boredom threshold and not being able to transform something or make new discoveries made me feel like I was in Actor Jail.
What's your favorite memory from classes so far?
I did this exercise with my husband, Ian, where we were just counting--using numbers instead of words. And even though we weren't using words, the scene was this tiny, perfect encapsulation of a relationship from its beginning to its end in 21 counts. I loved it because it proved that when you are completely emotionally honest, you can create something in the moment that is real and moving and not even about the words.
But it wasn't funny. It was riveting, but it wasn't comedy. And that remains my biggest struggle in improv as most of us locally are doing it -- while I can write comedically and tell stories that are both funny and real, it's not my biggest gift to create comedy on the spur of the moment. Interactions and relationships, yes. Funny, not always. I'm still struggling to find where my voice actually lies in unscripted theater.
A narrative I did in class that involved singing cows was a lot of fun, too. It was one of these moments where words were falling out of my mouth without the intervention of my head and I realized, "HOLY SHIT I JUST ENDOWED THE NEXT 19 MINUTES WITH SINGING COWS AND EVERYONE NOW HATES ME." And my adorable, smart, wonderful classmates made it work. It was one of the best narratives we spun off in that class. The under-story being not about singing cows, but about our synchronicity. That experience of falling into the groove where a group of people is sharing a single brain doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's like great...er, chocolate...you gotta have it again.
What kind of folks do you like to see in improv classes?
I'm not sure how to answer that -- I guess people who want to learn and have the generosity of spirit to facilitate their classmates' learning too.
What do you think makes a good improv student?
Curiosity, bravery, emotional honesty. A comedic sense and good timing doesn't hurt either, but I think those three attributes are the base requirements.
What kind of comedy do you like?
Comedy isn't just about a chuckle. Historically, comedy was used to make an observation that wouldn't be safe to make just straight-up. "What? I'm not really dissing the Queen Mother. It's just comedy." The Monty Python crew are my deities. My dream would be to create comedy that makes people go, "Hmmm, I' need to think about that" instead of just dissolving like a soap bubble. But I think my talents are more about emotional honesty than, say, political satire. I'd love to do political satire but I don't think I consistently have that particular skill; if I can leave people with a takeaway, it's more likely to be along the lines of creating a moment of recognition that resonates with them emotionally.
Nettle is currently enrolled in ST5: Advanced Narrative. You can see her perform in this season's Student Mainstage Marooned: An Improvised Star Trek Show. Nettle is also a regular performer in Whose Line St Pete on Saturday nights.
Thinking about taking improv classes? Sign up now for ST1: Foundations and save 25% on your first class! Learn More >>