“Who am I, who are you, who are we?”

These are the questions Wilton High School’s troupe of improvisors, Freeplay, sought to answer last Saturday, June 2, as they listened to a special guest, one of the giants of their discipline. The person posing the questions, Joe Bill, is an internationally recognized improv guru who is regarded as one of the best teachers of scenic and comedic improvisation in America today. As a result, there was some self-imposed pressure on the students gathered in the Little Theater. The current and former WHS troupe members were eager to impress him and perhaps gain a leg up in the theater world as they embark on their post-high school experience.

Bill is one of the co-founders of the famed Annoyance Theater in Chicago, a faculty member at the Second City Training Center, a headliner for various acclaimed improv groups, and a personal friend and mentor to Heather DeLude, director of Wilton High School’s own improv group and a WHS English teacher. The two seasoned improvisors met at The Big Stinkin’ Improv Festival when DeLude was only a few years older than her students are now, and found Bill to be one of her “absolute favorite instructors” among the other greats teaching there–Del Close, Martin de Maat, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

DeLude orchestrated the workshop with Bill for WHS’s Freeplay cast members after he reached out to her while performing a guest piece in New York. She was able to arrange it thanks to the generosity of the WHS Little Theater Company. “I was lucky enough that the Little Theater Company sponsored this guest artist for us and we had the funds to do it, and that we had the support of our artistic director, Marty Kozlowski.”

DeLude invited more than 20 improvisors from her mainstage cast to participate in the workshop, which was primarily focused on long-form improvisation. ETC, the secondary cast, has experience with short form, or game-based improv; they were able to audit the all-day session and ask the legendary instructor questions.

Long-form improv is scene-based work, and Bill honed-in on this format, exploring improvisation as an art form through analytical observations and complex exercises, gracefully taking on the challenge of teaching 23 students and ensuring that every person received as much instructional and play time as possible. He spent a significant amount of time warming up, allowing those participating to ease into the workshop. He then introduced Meisner acting exercises, which enable players to interpret the energy of the group and use it to make initiations on stage.

Bill also explored basic scene work, randomly assigning improvisors into pairs. He linked these exercises to his theory about what players go through physiologically at a certain point in a scene, musing, “The golden time, between 15 and 30 seconds into the scene, is the amount it takes any improvisor in the world to hate what they’ve initially done.” He urged the student improvisors to accept this, even to welcome it. He told the players to greet the self-check, “wired into the part of our brain where our eye, our ego, our right, wrong, good, bad, and into that library of voices that remind us what a terrible person we are,” in order to improve both the scene at hand, and also to act as a life philosophy. He said, “You don’t get rid of that. That goes with you for the rest of your life. So, don’t make that your enemy, but rather a critical friend that you don’t have time for right now.”

The vulnerability of improv mirrors the trepidation of stepping out into the world for the first time, something that many of the senior and alumni improvisors are either on the verge of, or are already familiar with. Bill advised them to embrace self-criticism and allow it to mold them into a better improviser by thinking, “I am going to bask in what a terrible choice this is. And I am going to give a high-status engagement to the awful way that I have started this improv scene. And that is a system internally you can take with you forever.”  

“In therapy, it’s called self-forgiveness. Bleh!” he quipped.

DeLude was delighted at the success of the workshop. “It was such an honor, it really was almost a dream to watch him giving notes to my students. I was not much older than my students are now when I met Joe Bill; I was only 19 or 20. He is literally one of the people that they might be auditioning for if they were looking to go to the conservatory program,” she said.

“Joe said that our students were the most emotionally intelligent, talented group of high school students he had ever worked with. And he doesn’t give that type of compliment lightly,” she added with pride.

Not only did the workshop provide each participant with improv skills that will be treasured and used in real life, it supplied those students who want to explore improvisation professionally with a connection and an ally. Bill warmly and enthusiastically expressed his willingness to lend his support, a characteristic DeLude says is rare in the comedy world. She said, “He has a very loving, philosophical, and psychological approach, in which he marries the idea of who we are and how we are as people. He empowers people, he does not tear them down, which is unique in comedy.” She added, “I wish he could come back every year.”