By Roger Gonzalez
Micheal Gellman is a rock star of improvisational theatre, even though he speaks in terms of jazz.
“It is the Jazz of theatre,” he says. “It is simply acting without a script. It is the act of creating spontaneously whether it's in music dance or acting. Writing is almost always improvised. The craft of improvisation is an important part of the actors tool kit. Like a symphony, acting is to a great extent the space between the notes. Improvisation encourages the actor to play between the notes - in the moment with truth and awareness.”
The co-author of “Process: An Improviser’s Journey,” published by Northwestern University Press, Mr. Gellman is also a master instructor on the subject and someone you want to meet if you are a serious actor.
As a former Senior Faculty Member at The Second City – Chicago. He is an Alum of the Second City Main Stage and was a resident director there for 25 years. He is also an Adjunct Faculty member at Columbia College teaching in Comedy Studies and has worked/taught/directed with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Farley, Steve Carrell, and Tina Fey. If you want to learn Improv, he is the man to see.
Much has been written lately about how American actors lack training. Not that Mr. Gellman and I discussed the matter, but when asked what actors should be looking to “take,” in terms of training, he went back to the basics. “In most cases "improv" people have only studied 'improv'. Without sounding like an arse, the usual advice is… to take acting classes if they really want to pursue acting. If they are there for human development then another improv class...or maybe a painting or writing class might be of interest. If they have been studying acting and are exploring a more diverse set of tools I will often suggest either a movement workshop - for comedy definitely a workshop in clown or mask work.”
Put simply, actors need to train. And as an actor myself, I can’t imagine an actor not wanting to take some sort of improvisational training. This is why Mr. Gellman’s upcoming workshops at Artistic New Directions is so important.
“I try to combine old school 'Improvisation for the Theater' (Viola Spolin)… techniques I have developed over the years and techniques used in traditional acting from Stanislavski to Shurtleff.” he says.
“Any student will take away what they are ready to learn. What they are open to. I know that might sound airy… but the whole philosophy of improvisational training is to provide an opportunity for the participants to make their own discoveries. Set up an exercise with a goal and have 5 different students go through it and they are going to take away 5 very different things based on many aspects of where each individual is in their work and life.”
“In my workshops I hope I can provide each participant an opportunity to make discoveries about themselves, gain practical tools and techniques to add to their working methodology as actors. and a better understanding of how to create new work. I am teaching 3 different workshops with 3 different learning outcomes but in general we will be exploring methods of acting and creating with a stronger understanding of truth in our work - from Character to Reacting to Living in the Moment to Developing Text and Movement in order to develop a present our very unique stories."
If you're not an actor, you might still Mr. Gellman's workshops useful.
"Improvisation has over the past 20 years formed 3 branches of training, he says. (1) Improvisation for business (communication, interaction and team work); (2) Improvisation for human development - (Classes for "civilians" to have an opportunity for social interaction and methods to enhance their communication skills), and (3) Training for the actor. (This includes an huge array of methods and techniques for a variety of different purposes: All improvised shows (so called long and short forms), tools and techniques for actors form the experienced working actor to raw beginners, developing new shows and scripts, rehearsal techniques for character, text development and exploring the space between the notes."
"I had a student in an acting class in Columbia College once announce in the middle of a class - 'Oh, I get it. Scripts are just very, very, very, very tightly structured improvisations.' I liked that a lot."