April 28, 2017
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An oldie but a goodie: Minnesota seniors find vitality through improv comedy


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By Sharyn Jackson


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Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS — Like many people of a certain age, Diane Fuglestad has been made to feel invisible.

The tipping point came one winter day at the bus stop, when the driver closed the doors in her face and started to drive off. After she knocked on the door to get his attention, his excuse was, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.”

There was a time she might have chalked that up to life in a society that overlooks its senior citizens, and moved on. But after six years of taking improv comedy classes, she decided she wouldn’t accept invisibility anymore.

“I said, ‘OK, that’s it.’ You don’t see me? We’ll fix that.”

Fuglestad bought a barrette with a giant yellow ribbon on it and wore it all day, every day, until she couldn’t help but be noticed.

“Improv gave me the guts to do that,” she said after a recent Monday morning class. “See me. Acknowledge me. Talk to me.”

At the Brave New Workshop comedy school in Minneapolis, Fuglestad, 69, is one of 30 senior citizens who have been learning improvisational technique for years. It’s about more than getting a laugh: The classes give these elders new skills to think and act quickly, speak up and, most of all, be seen.

Most found improv through the city’s community education catalog, looking for ways to keep active after retirement. Other than absences for surgeries or snowbird trips, regulars have been coming to one of two weekly classes for more than a decade, with a few new members joining every year.

“I’m harder on them than I am on anyone,” said instructor Lauren Anderson, an actress at Brave New Workshop and the Monday class’ leader for the past five years. “These are some of the most vital, involved, interesting people I’ve taught, regardless of age.”

A typical class begins with warmups that stretch the muscles and vocal cords. Hips sway to “ooh, ahh,” then swing around to “oh, wah, wah, wah.” Students throw each other an invisible ball, the signal to shout a “zip,” “zap” or “zop.” Finally, they form words and organize them into declarative statements — the building blocks to improv: “I am flatulent. I am overwhelmed. I am elated. I want pizza.”

Then, they perform made-up scenes on the spot, going wherever their imaginations take them and high-fiving afterward. They play babies in the mountains; they spot a depressed octopus in a swimming pool, and they have deep conversations about nature and shoes. It doesn’t need to make sense.

“It’s a safe place for expressing ideas,” said Judi Tsudo, 70, a former preschool teacher. “Whatever you say is the truth, so I don’t have to worry about whether I made a mistake or not.”

Tsudo started learning improv when she retired four years ago and has become something of an improv addict. She takes both of Brave New Workshop’s senior classes every week. A writer in her spare time, she has found that spontaneous comedy has improved her craft.

“It helps me get ideas and more vocabulary in my mind,” she said. “I’m coming up with things quite a bit faster, and not thinking as hard.”

And though there’s always the threat of stage fright, improv is safer than other recreational activities she’s been hesitant to take on. “It’s not bungee jumping,” she said.

The power of ‘yes’

Many of these senior students say the principles of improv have helped them in their daily interactions. Improv’s No. 1 principle: “Yes, and.”

It means accepting what someone gives you and then building on it.

“That’s such a positive way to look at things, because you’re agreeing with someone and then you’re adding your point of view, without saying ‘but,’” said Nikki LaSorella, 73.

A former social justice advocate, LaSorella has been in the class for eight years, and has no intention of stopping.

“Because it is an art form, we keep learning,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something that you give up.”

Jim Beggs, 71, a semiretired physician, wishes he had studied improv earlier in his career. Naturally introverted, he says the concept of “yes, and” has given him a newfound ability to be more outgoing with his patients.

“It’s communication,” Beggs said. “The best thing you could do as a physician is listen and communicate.”

For shy Scott Schumack, the youngest in the group at 66, improv has given him enough confidence in his sense of humor to share it with his skeptical family members.

“I had the opportunity to be funny at one point at a family gathering, and people were looking at me like, ‘What did you just do?’” he said.

A cousin who had previously doubted him surprised him with positive feedback. “You will never find a drier wit,” the cousin told him. In his droll, deep voice, Schumack said, “I treasure this.”

Aging funny bones

Although the goal of the class isn’t necessarily to perform, some of these longtime students do take the stage around the Twin Cities area. They’ve played benefits and festivals, meeting throngs of fans afterward.

The improv theaters around town are welcoming, they say, even if they do encounter ageism among younger players.

“They always cast you as the older whatever,” Fuglestad said. The remedy to that, she found, is simply to think and speak faster than her counterparts.

“One day I walked on stage with a guy 25 years younger, and I said, ‘Hey, Dad,’?” she said. “You have to bring it to their attention.”

Sometimes students take a timeout from the laughs in class to talk about the ageism they encounter day-to-day. In that way, the class is also a support group for older people who refuse to be overlooked.

The classmates say stepping out on stage gives them a chance to show their younger fellow improvisers that brittle bones can still be funny bones.

“We’re educating these young people with our ideas that they don’t think we have anymore,” said Susan Youngdahl, 79. “To them, we are Grandma and Grandpa, very strait-laced, we don’t know any four-letter words, and we don’t know what they mean. So when we perform, it’s eye-opening.”


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