What do Amy Poehler, Donald Glover, Emma Stone, and Steve Carell have in common? Outside of their acting achievements, these award-winning performers all acquired an improv background before pursuing their success-studded career. Heather DeLude, a Second City Conservatory graduate, has imported Chicago-style improv comedy to Wilton High School for the past five years, cultivating an improv program starring students that consistently sells out seats for its annual show, Freeplay: A Night of Improv Comedy.
This year, Freeplay: A Night of Improv Comedy will wow audiences on Friday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 27 at 5 p.m. and again at 8 p.m..
Though already well-established in its fifth year, the program still maintains the refreshing quality of its first show, showcasing crowd favorite sketches as well as new games and long form bits. As usual, the show is fueled by audience suggestions and participation, and audience members may even have a chance to get up on stage themselves.
Despite the recent losses in the cast due to graduating seniors who had been involved in the program since the original shows, there are many fresh additions. In fact, the excitement and popularity surrounding the program continues to grow with each generation of performers, resulting in auditions from over 70 students this year. Freeplay boasts a large number of underclassmen in its two 13-person ETC. casts as well as a hefty 22 person Mainstage cast, a casting style also modeled off of The Second City. The shows will also feature a live band, backstage tech crew, and piano player.
In addition to new bonuses to the cast, the atmosphere surrounding the performers is one of a community, and each student displays an infectious passion and affection for what they are doing and the people around them. The support present on stage between each improvisor is palpable, solidifying a collective ensemble bond that is readily apparent to the audience.
Improv is more than an afterschool activity for the students involved, and the skills gleaned from the exercise “reach far beyond the stage,” according to DeLude. She touts,“embracing risks and failure,” saying “yes, and…” and tackling challenges from a place of “love instead of fear” as abilities learned from improvisation. She praises the importance of risk-taking as a life skill.
“It’s especially important for Wilton kids. The enormous amount of pressure that exists in their high school often prevents them from taking risks. They often feel they must get perfect grades, in the most challenging classes, to gain admission to the perfect college. Nonetheless, in improv, the perfection lies in the imperfection,” DeLude says.
She notes that the daunting nature of performing in an unscripted show is a horror for some and a thrill for others, and emphasizes that comedic improvisation teaches students “to embrace failure over and over as the eventual path to success.”
Freeplay tickets are general admission seating and cost $10 for students and $12 for adults. They will be sold during lunch waves at the high school as well as at the door.
Ella Kinnersley is a Wilton High School senior and a Mainstage cast member.