Fifteen barefoot adults are lined up against a wall. Ben Taxy, in track pants and a fandom T-shirt, sits in a chair against the opposite wall, elbows on his knees, and faces the line of people. There is a dramatic pause before he says: “Show me a scene in a barn.”
A man breaks from the line and goes to the middle of the room. "I am a '68 Chevy!" he says, and spreads out his arms to appear hulking.
A woman runs to bend over next to him. "I am a mechanic working on the '68 Chevy!"
A third person goes to stand about six feet away. "I am Harrison Ford."
The group giggles, but doesn't pause. Someone runs and holds a hand next to the last person's ear. "I am an earring in Harrison Ford's left ear, because he wants to look hip."
One by one, class members add to the scene's growing fractal. Each new element is either a spinoff of one that had been previously added, or an internal look into something that could be mined deeper. Eventually, we know more about Harrison Ford's psychology and the mechanic's intentions for fixing the car—and that there's a whip involved. Of course.
This is just 10 minutes or so of a meeting of Santa Fe Improv’s introductory class. Another scene (they’re called Marthas, by the way) involves a shaman performing a ritual on a horse that had jumped into a cactus; yet another features a Mexican snowmobile dealer bartering for 50 snowmobiles on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Marthas are all made up of each participant contributing a single phrase—no building dialogue yet, that’s in the intermediate class—and there are very few rules (it just has to more or less build from something someone else has offered, and it’s never allowed to be a dream or a movie or some other easy copout from reality).
Taxy founded Santa Fe Improv in 2009. He's a former screenwriter for Family Guy, a ghostwriter now, and has a degree in psychology ("from Harvard and who cares," as his website bio reads). Santa Fe Improv is an opportunity for Santa Feans with every kind of goal to come and play. "Play" is the operative word here.
"The way that improv is typically taught is suited to actors who want to perform at a professional level," Taxy says. "But the source of improv, the core of it, is play. And every kid can play. Not every kid can be a professional actor, but every kid can play—and that instinct is in us as adults."
As such, Taxy designed his classes specifically for Santa Fe. He says improv classes held somewhere like Chicago or New York are flooded with professional actors (or wannabe professional actors), and they can come with a means-to-an-end feel—participants want to be onstage, to get the audition, to make it big. Santa Fe's community, he says, is different.
"There are so many creative, fun people in Santa Fe who do not want to be professional actors, but who still have the play instinct, and still are really good improvisers," he says. "So, what would a program look like that was sourced from the same material that's used to develop actors, but also would have the benefits of better listening skills, better negotiating skills, more self-confidence?"
Taxy's classes, then, are full of people who already have careers as lawyers or massage therapists or college admissions counselors. While professional actors are absolutely welcome, and the classes are as useful to newbies as they are to veterans, Taxy doesn't focus on those folks.
Kristina Paider, a screenwriter (like Taxy, but that's a coincidence) who is based in the Dominican Republic, decided to get away from hurricane season and spend a few months in Santa Fe. She was excited to fulfill a lifelong dream and take what she referred to as a "comedy class"—but she did much more than laugh.
"One of the things that really struck me about these classes and this process was the emphasis on truth," she says. "Tell your truth in the moment and don't try to be funny … even if that led to darker, weird stuff, versus lighter, funnier, crazy stuff."
Indeed, these classes really don't have much to do with being funny; they're more about interacting, listening, reacting and working with others. Out of this kind of environment can come some hilarious moments, of course, but when someone tries to be funny, or enters the class with an agenda item of "Make People Laugh," it becomes inorganic and forced. The best quips come from honesty and genuine reactions, and if you flub or say something that doesn't fit—well, if the team is good, they'll fix it for you. And that's half the fun. (Example: In the intermediate class, when a growling claw-handed character that was clearly a bear inexplicably became "a waterfall" to a fellow actor, the team went with it—and soon, all bodies of water made animal noises. And it made sense, with this nonsensical insta-logic.)
These skills can be extrapolated, of course. "I am so intrigued by the emphasis on teamwork, truth, listening and the sharpening of your own skills," Paider says. "Those skills, being candid and in the moment, the emphasis on the team … especially in today's political environment. Be a team. Listen. Be truthful. Some of it is even learning how to be truthful with yourself."
WHAT: Santa Fe Improv auditions for classes
WHERE: Teatro Paraguas (3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601)
WHEN: Sunday and Wednesday Sept. 17 and 20
HOW: For a spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org
OMG: Don't stress out. The audition is basically a mini-class where a bunch of people just act goofy
THEN WHAT: If you get in, the once-a-week, eight-installment class is $200
MORE: All the info you need is at santafeimprov.com