As both a Wilton High School English and theater arts teacher and a Second City improvisation alumna-turned-director, the wildly popular, recent WHS production, Freeplay: A Night of Improv Comedy, isn’t Heather Delude‘s first time around the block.

And she’s taking her love of the improv arts to inspire her high school students to soar onstage and off.

As a teenager in Orlando, FL, Delude grew up on improvisation, taking classes from SAK Comedy Club, an institution famous for launching the career of actor Wayne Brady. She pursued a BFA at the University of Florida, where the incredibly competitive nature of the theater program (and being cut from her first musical) led her to audition for the university’s improv troupe, Theater Strike Force. Delude realized the possibility of turning her teenage passion for improvisation into a talent to launch a career.

“I never would’ve dreamed of having a professional career in improvisation had it not been for my college experience. My college director took us to all of these improv festivals throughout the country. There was a big one called ‘Big Stinking International Improv Festival.’ I didn’t know at the time that I would be working with the greatest people in improvisation.”

Delude later went on to work with various improvisation troupes in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago where she eventually joined the touring cast of Second City, a renowned improvisation theater that’s the training ground for Saturday Night Live stars and award-winning actors. There, she learned from and performed alongside the legends of the business.

“It was the time when improvisation was first being launched outside of Chicago, especially longform improvisation. We were hooked. We got to work with Del Close, Gary Austin, Adam Mackay, Tina Fey and David Koechner, people who were just improvisers at the time. I was so lucky to have worked with them.”

The Student Becomes the Teacher

In improv, like other performing arts, work wasn’t always steady. While her peers pursued side-jobs like waiting tables to supplement their income, Delude gravitated towards teaching the next generation of performers, inspired by discovering her own love for improvisation as a teenager.

“I found myself so drawn to teaching that I found it as fun and just as rewarding as what I was doing performance wise. Like a lot of artists, my side job became my job. After I had children, it was too hard to keep up the comedy lifestyle and especially touring lifestyle. I think I just naturally morphed into it.”

Delude has not forgotten the tenets she learned in improvisation; in fact, she uses these skills to aid in her teaching, creating a unique and intellectually engaging curriculum for her students. In her creative writing classes, for example, she’ll implement free-writes where students must continuously write for a period of time, always moving their hand. At the end of the session, students stop and read their writing without judgment. When peers share their work, students are told to agree, or use the classic “Yes, and…” improve technique to review the writer’s work, supporting the essential ideas that the writer is sharing.

“I’m finding more and more ways to connect improv to literacy in the English classroom because it’s about nuance, human understanding, tolerance, open-mindedness, and creativity. The idea of no judgment translates into creative writing; just going with it, putting it out there, and then knowing that you can sculpt it later, translates into improv with sketch comedy. Taking risks, feeling safe, good creative writing only really happens in a class that has an ensemble feeling to it. In a true creative writing class, like the one I took in college, you do some of the same trust exercises that you do in improv. Without trust, you could not put your writing out there. We have specific protocols that we do in improv about how you always say what’s positive first, what you support, and the ways in which you criticize are very specific because people have to feel like they can take creative risks and that they’re in a safe environment to expose any truth about themselves or other human beings,” she explains.

While Delude is known around WHS for her challenging yet engaging English courses, it’s natural that she’s also teaching theater arts. She stresses the idea of taking “safe risks,” a vital rule in improvisation, to her students in order to increase creative decision making in scenes.

Her students turned the tables during her first of teaching in Wilton, encouraging her to take a ‘safe risk’ of starting an improvisation club. There, Delude’s first year students including Daniel Glynn, Harry Wendorf and Griffin King blossomed as improvisers, surprising her with their sheer talent.

“We just started meeting and performing after school for each other. They were already so talented that I realized that we had to do it in front of an audience. This was not meant to be done in an isolated room. I really feel like it was those kids that inspired me, that I had the right people to do it. If I just throw this idea out there, who might be attracted to it? I will say that the right people were attracted to it.”

The following year, Freeplay was established, replacing what was formerly known as the underclassmen show. Delude took the name from a jazz improvisation book called Freeplay:  Improvisation in Life and Art, a work that she calls the most profound philosophy book she had ever read. She discovered that establishing a high school show was far more rewarding than directing a show of her own.

“I launched Freeplay in New Haven and I rented out my own space. I filled classes, pamphlets, etc. I just found that the business side of it was not for me. I really just wanted to focus on the artistic side. It was successful but I felt like I wanted to return to teaching where I didn’t have to invoice people and mix the money with the art which always made me feel uncomfortable. I enjoyed that launch but I much prefer it in the vein that it’s in in the high school–that everyone can participate for free. It supports all aspects of the curriculum–human growth and development. The shows have been very quality as well,” she says.

Improv Beyond the Stage and Classroom

For Delude, improvisation isn’t just a hobby; it’s the way to live. She teaches that the focus on vulnerability and open-mindedness can foster creativity, and she see it as something her students can use throughout their lives.

“You can use it in your personal lives as far as the way you relate to people. Professional relationships are incredibly important and the way that you build trust within people, the way that you manage people, our students are very successful. If you can bring some of this to the way you manage people, they’re going to be a beloved leader in their field if you can model these principals,” she say, adding that improve is useful in behavior therapy for people on the autism spectrum, in corporate problem-solving situations, and so much more.

Freeplay holds student auditions every November, and has no pre-requisites–Delude says students don’t need to have prior theater involvement or be known as ‘funny’; rather, she says, they just need to be willing and kind. While many teens may be afraid of taking creative risks for fear of failure or rejection, Delude emphasizes the importance of being vulnerable, whether that’s in the context of the classroom or in one’s personal life.

“Our high achieving students are afraid of failure. Failure is embraced in improv. It’s that Miles Davis quote, ‘There are no mistakes.’ I heard something on NPR the other day, someone said, ‘Scar tissue for the soul.’ It builds that. It’s okay if you fall on your face, because someone will be there to pick you right back up. You’re the only one who even remembers that you fell on your face in that show because everyone else is going away laughing about something else. If you can learn to take risks in your life, that’s how you gain success. We have to find ways to encourage risks here because the kids are too safe. Even in my English classes, they won’t take intellectual risks because they’re too concerned about the grade. There’s no grade in improv. You can take risks and fail,” she stresses.

For Delude, improvisation is like a Venn diagram showing what’s between fear and joy. To her, every moment in life is fleeting, and what improv teaches is that in order to seize it, all you can really do is be present and accept the facts you’re given. Great improvisation, she says, has to involve vulnerability. To Delude, if teachers aren’t willing to be vulnerable, their students can’t be expected to be vulnerable either, and it’s this attribute that has made Delude a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend of a wide swath of WHS students, who come together on stage and in the classroom to celebrate the possibilities that open-mindedness cultivates.

“There’s applause and laughter that you get rewarded with but there’s nothing to lose really, only to gain,” she says.