What began six years ago as a few Wilton High School students expressing an interest in learning comedic improvisation has transformed into a WHS staple. Heather DeLude, a Second City Conservatory alumna, has taught Chicago-style improv comedy to eager Wilton High School students, and for the past several years, continuously selling out the WHS Little Theater in the process.

Freeplay: A Night of Improv Comedywill return for its sixth annual show on Friday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 26 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., with a 50 person cast, many of whom are new to the art form.

Freeplay follows The Second City model of having a ‘Mainstage’ cast composed of advanced players as well as two ‘ETC.’ training casts. For many members of the ETC. casts, and even a few Mainstage players, this is their first time doing improv.

“I learn so much in just one rehearsal,” says sophomore Jake Eagan, one of the brand new ETC. members and Mainstage understudy.

Improv is different from other types of theater because it is entirely unscripted; the audience shapes the entire show.

“I can’t wait to have people out in the theater actually watching. Having an audience is what improv is all about and is what makes it so fun,” says freshman Dana Wax, who will be performing improv for the first time in front of a live audience during the upcoming shows.

Freeplay is entirely based on audience suggestions, so each show is different. Audience volunteers are even invited onstage to participate, creating a uniquely fun experience for both the improviser and audience member. The shows will also feature a live band, backstage tech crew, and piano player.

DeLude’s top-notch experience has been invaluable for the improvisers she’s coached over the years. Junior Hunter Driscoll, who spent his sophomore year in ETC and is now in Mainstage, has said that his favorite part of moving up in the cast has been “being coached directly by an expert… it is so helpful.” His other favorite part is “playing with people who I was watching all of last year. It’s exciting, but also extremely nerve-wracking.”

Each year a large portion of the cast graduates, this year leaving only seven Mainstage cast members with previous Mainstage experience. DeLude has cited “all the new talent” as one of her favorite aspects of coaching this year, saying that it is “so heartwarming to see everyone grow both individually as improvisers and together as a cast.”

Ensemble bonding is an integral part of the rehearsal process and DeLude’s coaching style. She emphasizes that in an unscripted show, trusting your castmates is everything, and facilitates an environment that encourages and allows vulnerability. This sense of community is visible not just to the members of Freeplay, but to the audience during the shows.

For many seniors, the upcoming shows will mark the end of a defining part of their high school careers. Senior Rachel Wilson, who spent her freshman and sophomore year in ETC and is now in her second year of Mainstage, credits improv to much of her growth throughout high school. “I’ve met some of my best friends through Freeplay. I can’t imagine my high school experience without it. The more I learn about improv, the more confident and empathetic person I become.”

Freeplay tickets are general admission seating and cost $12 at the door. Get there early as seating may be limited. Tickets will also be available for students to purchase for $10 during lunchwaves the week of the show.