Improv thoughts from an old man: a letter to the Ship of Fools

Current Mood: Corleone

The class of 2014 graduates very soon (ugh olllld), and this marks the exit of basically the last batch of folk that I have performed improv with as a part of the Ship of Fools.  Such is my bond with this band of yuksters that only now do I feel like I myself am leaving the group.  I still know most of the current troupe, to varying degrees, but it seems like a logical point of departure in my brain.  To that end, I wanted to do something special to let the group know how much I have enjoyed my time with them and how much they have and still do mean to me.  So I wrote them this letter (below, slightly edited).

It will also be one full calendar year of my own departure from the university, a year out in the real world and gainful employment as a productive member of society.  Success!  Also mixed feelings!


To Fools,
former and especially present and future,

Some of you might not quite know my background with the SoF, so first, a trip down memory lane if you'll indulge me-

I started my Purdue journey in the fall of 2004.  I was a freshman in engineering, and I wanted pretty badly to be "different" than I was in high school - more athletic, less awkward and dorky.  I thought joining the crew team (rowing) would transform me, but I failed the swim test.  So much for that plan.  I found in my BGR Activities Fair bag a flyer for a club that promised free no-commitment fun.  My only exposure to improv to that point were some reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway? on TV and seeing my older sister perform in a few shows at Miami, OH (with the now defunct Tower Players).  For the rest of that fall I fell in love with open forum and tried some games - I wasn't very good and simply being in front of others in Beering 2280 made me so nervous I almost threw up - but Friday nights were the absolute highlight of my week (I was pretty miserable in engineering).  I kept at it, and in the spring of 2005 the Fools took a chance on me and a guy named John "Freshman/Tripod" and brought us into the fold. 

My first show was the Santa Claus United Methodist (SCUM) Show in Santa Claus, IN - hometown of our own Wes "Tab A".  It was nearly 400 people, and we were the opening act for a religious comedian.  I thought I was terrible (I still remember being the last to join Space Jump because I had nothing, so I panicked and just pretended it was a Japanese monster movie - all I did was scream and make poorly-dubbed subtitle jokes).  Over the next
six years I had the privilege of improving, learning improv by participating in Tuesday/Wednesday practice and Friday Open Forum just about every week, and we went from a few shows a semester to almost two shows a month (!).  We played all over campus, took trips across the state and to spots around the midwest.  Tournaments, workshops, private and public shows, charity events, carnivals, with audiences smaller than the troupe itself to thousands in Elliot Hall of Music - some of them bombed (Sailor Show), others I'd proudly put on my all time highlight reel (Towle Theatre).  I've watched generations (plural) of Fools grow from watch list prospects to seasoned vets that can carry a show themselves and host a moment's notice.  I've been COMOFF, webmaster, President and Captain.  I promoted the first SoF Sergeant, negotiated four figure contracts and fought with the business office, started and blatantly rigged the Hidden Hannukah Helper Gift Exchange, and founded the Awards Ceremony.  I also switched my major to technology, prolonging my tour at Purdue.

In 2011 I "retired" from the SoF and took a spot with One Size Fits All Improv (even though I wasn't done with Purdue yet).  It was a complicated and difficult decision, and stemmed from both a desire to change and grow my own comedy, and also to ensure the troupe experienced new growth, ideas, and leadership.  I put retired in quotation marks because even though I no longer performed with the Fools, I *
always* felt connected to and welcome within the group.  I've had the pleasure of watching an entirely new Ship form - through growing pains, evolving and changing and still bringing the funny.

I really can't emphasize just how big an impact the Ship of Fools and Purdue Improv Club has had on my life.  As cheesy as it sounds, it's given me confidence (on stage and off), public speaking skills, honed my wit and expanded my brain.  I've met four of my college roommates through improv, 3 of my 4 groomsmen including my best man, and probably most importantly, my wife.  For a good chunk of my life I've had my Friday nights spoken for and I mean that in the best possible way - knowing I always had a standing date with funny, happy, and energetic people who wanted nothing more than to be silly and try to create something new.

I meant to write this letter after my SoF retirement.  Then I said I'd finish it for my senior year, then after my own graduation.  I kept stalling because I wanted to write the perfect letter with profound words and because I still procrastinate hardcore.  It's only now, after almost a whole year in the real world, that I'm thinking about my time at Purdue and I can't sleep and I'm getting all sentimental that I've got the gumption to finish this, imperfect and rambly as it is.  If you're still with me and don't mind, I have a some thoughts and unsolicited words of advice to share with you all:

To the new Fools, the rookies, and those who still have a while to go:
Congratulations - you've been selected to join an elite group.  Huzzah!  Now get to work.
You won't have time to be every character and play in every scene, so every time you watch improv- pay attention.  Listen, think, and analyze on stage and off.  Play in every single game you can get your grubby little paws on.  Time flies when you're having fun, so chip in and build the group at all levels - it'll be yours to run before you know it.

To the grizzled veterans, officers, and those who will be entering the real world soon:
Lead by example and leave your mark.  Play in every game you can - you've earned it.  Remember when you first joined?  Mentor somebody.  Mentor everybody.  Play all the scenes with confidence and gusto (or at least fake it).

To the rest:

Everything I just said applies to you too.  Probably double.

For the whole troupe:
 Take this stuff seriously... just because you're an amateur troupe and improv is silly doesn't mean you can't act like professionals.  Show up to meetings on time and get your practice in.  Make your warmups count.  If something's not working, do some research and change it.  Give your fellow performers honest feedback and critiques.  Take notes.  Treat your show contacts with respect, and follow up - you never know if they'll want you back.

 ...except don't.  You're students first, and this is a hobby.  And a fun one at that.  Lighten up, don't beat yourself up.  Bad games and shows happen (the audience sucked, I know).  Humor is subjective.  Be nice to your friends.

Don't change a thing... the Ship of Fools/Purdue Improv Club formula is a process honed through more than a decade of trial and error.  You've got to balance so many things - burnout, saturation, turnover, campus exposure, everybody's ego, a budget, and a thousand other things.  We built this (city on rock and roll) troupe a certain way because it works, dammit.

...just kidding.  I love that you are experimenting with long form, workshops, auditions, and collaborating with the other local troupes.  I've seen the troupe's web presence grow by leaps and bounds (back in my day we didn't have your fancy Facebooks and Twitters - we taped our flyers to the sidewalk with masking tape, thank you very much) and you continue to find a variety of funny new people.  I only ask that you carefully consider those choices and how they can impact things down the road.  (Or don't sweat it, in 4 years or so everything will be different.).

One of my favorite parts of the SoF was when people would ask me at the shows "so are you guys all seniors in theater, or what?".  I loved telling them that we had people from multiple states, freshman to super senior, STEM to liberal arts and everything in between.  I hope it's obvious to you all that the strength of the troupe is the people in it (what else would it be?), so please please please keep connecting with each other.  Spend time together, road trip, do a show in somebody's hometown, toast each other's mothers, impersonate each other at Halloween parties, stuff like that.
I always started every workshop I did with a disclaimer - I'm not an expert at improv, I don't have any formal training, and what works for me may not work for you.  I believe it was John "Cowboy" who once said "I stopped giving a shit, and sometimes I'm funny".  The best way to get better at improv is to do it, but if you want improv advice here let me Google that for you: http://secondcitynetwork.com/15-reminders-for-every-improviser/

In closing, thank you all so much from the bottom of my heart.  I wish nothing but the very best for each and every one of you.  Please continue to grow the club and troupe, develop into smart successful professionals, don't deny, and have fun.

Ryan "T-Rex", "T-Muffy", "T-Sexy", "that guy with the overly complicated scene suggestions", "that one week where his nickname was suspended when people found out he'd never seen Jurassic Park", "The Gar-Father", Garwood

P.S. Keep up the Gar-Father thing and in approximately 30 years when young Leia Garwood walks down the aisle, I promise I will not refuse a favor on that day.