For Michelle Macau, improvisation is a way of life.
When her April 26 LearnX event, “Improv Your Way to a Better Self” was booked in the wrong location, Macau reverted to what she knows best to adapt to the situation — spontaneity.
Within just a few minutes, Macau collected her props and set up at a new location, leading her typically indoor workshop outdoors.
As an educator, actor and director, Macau travels to teach a variety of groups how improvisation can change lives. In addition to leading workshops like LearnX, Macau teaches graduate students from Lehigh’s College of Education how to use improvisation in the classroom.
While Macau has used improv skills in her work as an actor and director, she believes the art has a greater impact on the performers than the audience.
“People think of improv as a performance,” Macau said. “These techniques and exercises really are about yourself and who you are.”
Macau believes her improv experience has made her more compassionate and a better listener.
“(Improv) teaches you to listen,” Macau said. “It teaches you to be spontaneous. It teaches you to take risks. It teaches you to trust when you are on stage with somebody. You’ve got to trust the people you are on stage with.”
When teaching improv techniques to beginners, Macau emphasizes three rules: make your partner look good, keep the narrative moving forward and be fun to play with.
Improviser Noah Marcus, ’18, believes Macau’s first rule is essential to entertaining the audience and supporting one’s team.
“Making the other person look good is always the best thing,” Marcus said. “In the end, the show isn’t about you. When you perform improv you don’t even say your name. People just know your team name.”
Although he was unable to attend the LearnX, Marcus has been intrigued by improv since high school, when he often attended shows at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, created by comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh.
Though he has only practiced a few times with Lehigh’s improv troupe, Hobo Army, Marcus is an active member of two off-campus improv groups: Four Eyes and Staycation. Four Eyes performs twice a month at SteelStacks, while Staycation, an independent group, performs whenever they book a gig.
Regardless of who he is on stage with, Marcus said the “yes-and” method is the building block of all improvisation.
“Improv is such a crazy thing to do with someone because you’re just playing pretend with adults,” Marcus said. “To help navigate that, the main idea is that you should always be agreeing — especially at the beginning of scenes — you should always be agreeing and supporting whatever your partner is, that is the ‘yes’ part. The ‘and’ part just means you add to it.”
Macau also emphasized the “yes-and” method and encouraged LearnX participants to practice this technique. Faculty, staff and graduate students who attended the workshop played icebreakers and learned the importance of listening and being silly.
First-year graduate doctoral fellowship student Deliya Kim had no prior improv experience, but she attended the LearnX in hopes of gaining a new skill to apply to her research, academics and personal life.
“I was really curious to learn more about how we can apply creativity,” Kim said. “I like learning new things, and I think it is a great opportunity.”
Macau said performing and leaving comfort zones invokes fear and hesitation in many improv beginners, but a strong sense of community is essential to her events.
“It’s very important in these workshops that we create an environment where there is no judgement, and if you are making your partner look good, your partner isn’t really focused on what’s wrong with you,” Macau said. “All they are focused on is what can I do to make my partner look good.”