Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Evan Anderson
The Asheville Improv Collective is turning play into capital.
A guy walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, want to do improv?” The guy says, “Well, I was going to get a beer, but sure.” That’s a joke, but jokes aren’t inherently fiction—and this one is true, if a simplification. That guy was George Awad, the bar was Habitat Brewing, and the improv was the fledgling representation of Asheville Improv Collective (AIC).
At the time, AIC was less of a collective than a chimera. Husband and wife duo, Clifton (partner and dean) and Dana Hall (partner and director of sales/marketing), both graduates of the renowned Dallas Comedy House (DCH), had founded the improv organization in January of 2016 with the hopes of cultivating an improv community in Asheville like the one they’d seen rise in Dallas: A gang of like-minded eccentrics with the collective confidence to perform verbal trust-falls on stage, leaning on witty one-liners, off-the-cuff antics, and a no-man-left-behind mentality, Musketeers-style, to make people laugh.
When Awad, the organization’s third partner and art director, walked into that Asheville bar in late 2016, AIC was still a little knock-kneed and newborn, and its classes, though growing, were far from full. The Asheville improv community was abstract; there were improvisors and classes and even a few troupes, but they operated singularly. AIC was working toward uniting them all, and though it sounds like a joke, that moment in the bar was the turning point and launching pad they needed.
Today, AIC is a multifaceted organization with four levels of adult improv classes, youth programming, AIC for Business, and, most importantly, a ranging community of concordant improvisors who come together faithfully to workshop, experiment, and, of course, laugh.
So, What is it, Anyway?
Improvisational theater—or improv—is exactly as the name suggests. It’s a form of live performance, in which everything is made up on the fly: plot, character, dialogue. Improvisors, as the comedians are called, usually take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously build a story around it using a predetermined “game” as the guiding structure. There’s short form—speedy, unrelated acts—and long form, which is more story-based. Throughout the scene, improvisors make “offers” to their conspirators, defining different elements of their staged reality, like a name or mimed prop. Though it’s unscripted, there are “rules” most improvisors follow, like “Yes, and…” which encourages performers to accept the “offer” and build on it with another, unspooling an oftentimes absurd saga in a game of reverse Jenga, stacking offer over offer as the whole stacked storyline gradually starts to wobble and, ultimately—raucously, joyfully—crashes. Cue up (hopefully) the laughs.
Improv may seem like a modern invention of idle comedians, but its origins are ancient (The Atellan Farce, improvised games, were popular in ancient Rome) and its applications noble (it’s long been used as a tool in drama education). The art form gained structure and those rules in the mid-20th century, then ubiquitous popularity through internationally-lauded organizations like The Second City and insanely popular TV shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Chicago, then Milwaukee, then San Francisco became rookeries for improv, and today, the kind of communities that the Halls so valued in Dallas are practically universal.
The immediate motivations for pursuing improv are self-evident: Telling jokes is fun; laughter is good for you. But the benefits of the practice last long beyond the length of a laugh.
“I love it because it does challenge me and it pushes me out of my comfort zone,” explains Dana. “It’s helped me in a lot of ways: to be a better listener, to be more confident, to think quickly on my feet.” Improv boosts creativity, cultivates empathy, and encourages collaboration. It helps build relationships and communication skills, especially listening, and attunes problem-solving acumen.
Unlike other forms of acting, improv is usually easily accessible and utterly approachable. “It’s a much lower barrier of entry than say, theater or stand-up—you don’t have to come up with a tight five minutes or need a theater company to bless you,” says Awad, laughing. There’s no memorization of lines, no refinement of skits, and, as a rule, improv is non-discriminatory; regardless of experience, age, race, sense of humor, et al, everyone is welcome. The foundation of improv is trust and support from your fellow performers, a safe space to express your ideas (as long as they aren’t offensive) and yourself. And it’s that sense of open-armed community, even for the mavericks and oddballs, that appeals to many improvisors, who often liken it to therapy.
According to Awad, there are two types of improv students: “There are people that want to be performers. And there are people that just love the classes because it is therapeutic in a way—it’s an escape.” For the former, improv can serve as a springboard for other pursuits, like acting or stand-up. For the latter, improv is an opportunity to slough off the heavy costume of the everyday and slip into characters more comfortable with the support of your peers.
For nearly all new improvisors—aspiring actors and lackadaisical rookies alike—it very quickly becomes a passion. “Anyone who starts improv is giddy the first two years. Everyone’s like, ‘I don’t sleep any more, I just want to do improv—roommates love that,” Awad says, lighting a fuse of one-liners from the Halls. That initial obsession makes improv classes a practically self-fulfilling subscription: Once a student takes a level one course, they’re a shoo-in for the next three, plus workshops and events, and maybe even future troupes and gigs. That makes improv a pretty profitable industry for those who supervise it—hence, the Asheville Improv Collective.
Clifton was “kind of a theater guy” when he stumbled upon a Dallas Craigslist ad announcing auditions for a sketch group in 2007. He auditioned and made the group, which promptly dissolved after one show. “But the best part of it,” he remembers, “was that I ended up meeting Amanda Austin, and she was starting an improv school.” Austin encouraged Clifton to attend a Level One class, and, as with so many improvisors, the conversion from newbie to devotee for him was swift: “Probably by the second or third class, I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”
In 2009 and 2010 Clifton advanced through the classes as the Dallas Comedy House was born and evolved. In 2011 he took a job managing the bar at DCH between teaching improv classes with the group. So, when he met Dana in 2010, he was a packaged deal: Clifton and improv.
For Dana, improv wasn’t exactly instinctual. “I took a Level Zero, and I was on stage and I was like, ‘Get me the hell off of here.’ We are very opposite,” she says, with a grin at her husband. But as she bore witness to Clifton’s passion, she grew increasingly perplexed—and curious. She finally enrolled in a Level One course to figure out why he was so fired up, and even skeptical Dana fell in love with improv, progressing quickly through all four levels and immediately entering a troupe.
Clifton and Dana also fell in love with each other and then, after their wedding, with Asheville. The duo moved northeast to the mountains of Western North Carolina in April of 2015, bringing their shared enthusiasm for improv with them.
“We knew there wasn’t really much of an improv scene because we had done research before,” Dana says of Asheville at the time. There was one popular troupe (Reasonably Priced Babies) and quite a few with defunct Facebook pages, classes at one of the actor’s centers, and a smattering of interest in something more. “We had always intended that if we moved somewhere, we would either get involved or start something ourselves,” she adds.
“[We were] fortunate enough to watch how that happened in Dallas,” says Clifton, of AIC’s origins. “So, we kind of had a good idea of some of the pitfalls and some of the stuff to avoid, but more importantly, the stuff that really makes it work.” In January of 2016 the Halls began advertising classes, the only long-form classes in Asheville, and soon after, they began their first Level One class: four students in a rented space at the Colourfield art center in downtown Asheville.
“It was tough those first couple months,” Clifton remembers. “Four people signed up, and two could make it to class, and that’s a real hard class to teach with just two people—that’s a lot of reps.” But the duo had faith (and tenacity) that it would work. “We were just kind of trucking along, a little perseverance there, and then magically, we get an email from George here.” He pauses and gestures at his friend across the table.
Awad, as it would turn out, was also an improv enthusiast. “I happened to be in Cincinnati, and the next day a week-long intensive at iO Chicago was starting. I hadn’t done anything—like, nothing. I think I was a theater kid in my head,” he laughs, telling the story of his accidental immersion in improv in 2014. He signed up and found himself among comedy greats: “People from Australia, musical theatre people, all these people were in it. Seasoned improvisers—and me and this Turkish kid who was, like, 18, who had done nothing. For me, it was three days of listening to crickets. And then by day four I think I started to get it.” Awad returned to Asheville with that trademark improv zeal and enrolled in classes at NYS3, taught by Tom Chalmers of comedy troupe Reasonably Priced Babies.
When Awad reached out to the Halls, it was the first tangible thread in what would come to be the larger web created by AIC. Clifton met with George and a friend, who wanted to learn more about AIC, and invited them to drop in on his classes. “There were still days when only a few could make class some weeks, so it was nice to have some extra people to run through exercises and do scenes,” he says.
That eventually led to a partnership with then-new coffeeshop Trade & Lore. Clifton and George helped build a stage in the downtown Asheville café and filled it with improv acts from around town, Greenville, and Charlotte. Clifton made the schedule, booked troupes, and hosted classes in the space; George created fresh AIC graphics and artwork. The impact of their efforts became evident as classes began to gain momentum and show audiences grew from 10 to 30. The business was drumming up interest through social media marketing, lead lists (Dana sent personal emails to potential students, sometimes for months, encouraging them to sign up), and, most importantly, word of mouth. “It felt so good to have a class of 10 people for level one,” Clifton explains, “Even if we just keep half of these people to move on—that’s how [you create] that snowball effect.” With the Halls and Awad sharing success and the stage in improv, it became clear that they should join forces under AIC.
“Trade & Lore was really where the community started to grow,” Clifton says. “It gave us a place to have classes and produce shows, but more than anything it gave us a place to show people what potential the community had.”
Which brings us back to that bar and a proposal to perform improv. When Awad acquiesced, he brought a growing troupe of improvisors with him. AIC soon shifted both classes and shows to Habitat Brewing; it was a move that provided them with the consistency they needed to amplify their audience and their business. “When George told us he had talked to the owners of Habitat, we were very excited at the potential of having a space to keep building on what we knew was starting to get some tractions,” Clifton remembers. “And after we all met with the Habitat crew, we had a lot of confidence that we had found a place we could keep growing.”
Since then, AIC has continued to grow, expanding its offerings and renting additional classroom space, all while continuing to call that same location—now Archetype Brewing—“home.”
Some Class Acts…
Classes are the cornerstone of Asheville Improv Collective, their money-maker and promulgator of clients. For $175, students meet weekly over seven weeks for two-hour sessions; these days, classes are held at the Land of the Sky’s Education Building. They’re joined by about [nine] of their peers (class size ranges from 6-12, averaging 8-10) and a rotating cadre of seasoned improvisors who teach them the skills, rules, and games congruent with their class level. At the end of the course, students take to the stage for a showcase performance. A new “term” begins approximately every eight weeks, so fervent newbies can graduate from the fourth level in about a year.
The four levels of courses are scaled so that students can transition smoothly from one class to the next. Beginners start with Level One: The Basics (which has grown so popular that there are sometimes two classes running simultaneously). In Level One rookie improvisors learn the fundamentals of improv, including many of the basic rules: avoiding questions, establishing a relationship at the top of the scene, stage presence, edits, and when to cut off a scene or go to the next. In Level One, students also begin practicing skills, like listening and being present, that they will revisit again and again throughout their improv education. Through learning and practicing these basics in simple, two-person scenes, students begin to establish that all-important trust with their classmates.
In Level Two: Your Inner Goofball, students expand on the foundation built in the previous level, incorporating more complex character work and emotions into their approach. “You see people really start to open up and kind of express themselves a little bit more and make bigger choices,” Clifton says, of Level Two.
Aptly named, Level Three: Finding That Game introduces students to patterns and games for heightening jokes. “I usually call it Starbucks, Surgery, Hell,” Clifton says, explaining the technique for amplifying improvisation as he does for his students: “If I go to Starbucks and they get my name wrong and I get the wrong coffee, it’s like, ‘Aw, that sucks.’ So, if we’re going to heighten that, if I go in for surgery and they get my name wrong, I wake up missing my appendix as opposed to getting my knee fixed—that really sucks. But then if I die and I go to heaven and they get my name wrong, then I end up in hell for eternity.” Students learn to identify and exploit the areas ripe for that humor boost.
Those who progress to Level Four: Putting it All Together work toward the improv magnum opus: group mind. It’s to group mind that all improvisors aspire, a fluid exchange of offers and jokes so smooth it almost seems rehearsed. “The biggest compliment you can get at the end of an improv show is someone’s like, ‘You guys didn’t make that up, you guys wrote that,’” Clifton says, garnering a nod from Awad. Students practice landing on the same wavelength, predicting their peers’ moves before they’re even made. Given the structure of AIC’s classes and the tendency of new improvisors for enthusiastic dedication, group mind is almost implicit by Level Four. “A lot of times, if you’ve gone through all four levels together, you’re automatically connected like that,” Dana says.
Although the skills and values taught across each class vary and escalate, one thing remains the same: “Something that I push through all the levels is that failure is a good thing, because that means that you’re trying something different,” Clifton says, palms proffered. “You’re challenging yourself. And as long as you learn from it, that’s the best part of it, right?”
Students of AIC’s courses range from college kids to retirees. “You see those two demographics, those two groups, interacting with each other. And it’s really fun sometimes to watch someone bring 68 years of life experiences to a scene with someone who’s got 20 years of life experience, and watching those two create something together. And you watch that kind of meld,” Clifton says, adding with a chuckle, “and sometimes references get lost.”
“In contrast to a lot of other communities, there’s more women than men, which is actually pretty great,” Awad adds. Women almost always outnumber men in AIC’s classes, and their female-led shows (Dana is part of Asheville’s only all-women troupe, Family Dinner) draw larger crowds. In improv, he explains, women tend to get stuck in boxes—mothers, prostitutes—but not in AIC’s community.
The range of teachers matches that spectrum of students, likely because it’s from graduates that many of AIC’s instructors have been sourced. After Level 1, students can begin interning with the business as a way to pay their tuition and learn the ropes behind-the-scenes. Students who graduate from the program and express interest in teaching can become TAs, which gives them the opportunity to observe classes and practice offering insight and suggestions to students.
Many of AIC’s instructors (there are six in addition to the Halls and Awad) are former TAs and students. Rather than take ownership of a class or group of students, the teachers rotate between courses so that students can experience a different instructor each week. “The curriculum is the same, but everyone has a different teaching style,” Dana says. “We kind of want you to experience that, because there might be a teacher you can really relate to, or that puts something in a different perspective than the teacher did two classes ago.”
The Shows Must Go On!
Classes may be AIC’s bread and butter, but their shows are like the peanut butter and jam or ham and mustard that turn the bread into a sandwich. That’s a clunky metaphor, but it rings true: AIC hosts a wide range of shows, from regular resident troupe showcases to special performances to kinesthetic “jams.”
It was AIC’s consistent Saturday shows at Habitat (now Archetype Brewing) that boosted the business over the next threshold of success, and they continue to buoy it still, with attendance that rarely dips below 30. With performances by AIC’s resident troupes (and occasional guest performances by Greenville or Charlotte troupes), the purpose of these twice-monthly shows is twofold—well, threefold: education and marketing; plus, they’re really fun. They serve as a teaching tool for students (who get free admission as part of their tuition), and they draw in new audiences of potential students. The shows usually feature resident troupes, and the profits are pulled back into the AIC pot—though the greatest profit from the shows isn’t monetary. “We’re not making a lot of money on the shows; it’s really so we can keep putting more shows on. It’s like paying it forward,” Awad notes.
Occasionally, resident troupes will venture out to other venues for specialty shows, like the Nanta-Haha Comedy Show at Nantahala Brewing in West Asheville, featuring both improv and stand-up, or performances at Bull & Beggar in the River Arts District.
Students who graduate from AIC’s improv classes are prone to asking the same question: “Now what?” The answer for many is the same: “Form a troupe.”
Whether they collaborate with the students they trained with or other members of the improv community, AIC leadership encourages grads to try improv with different folks and experiment until they land on something that feels right. It was with this in mind that they founded the Workshop (not to be confused with workshops to develop specialties of improv, like character work, which AIC also hosts).
Part open-mic, part platform for practice, the Workshop, which takes place at Archetype Brewing the second Wednesday of every month, is an opportunity for comedians, even those outside of AIC, to try out their act or new troupe. If a troupe wants to get on the AIC roster, the Workshop is like an informal try-out (they’ve already added three groups to their register this way), or you can just use the time to experiment with other improvisors.
That’s also the concept behind AIC’s Jams, a twice-monthly improv open-mic that’s open to newbies and matured improvisors alike. “Everyone and anyone can get up on stage and play, even if you’ve never done it before,” Dana explains. “You break out into groups and everyone gets 10-minute sets and gets to improvise.”
AIC also hosts out-of-town improvisors for workshops and shows—the apex of which is this month’s Asheville Improv Comedy Fest, October 3–5. Thirty-five troupes from around the country will descend on Asheville for the inaugural three-day festival taking place across three different venues. Ashevillian improvisors and visitors alike can attend workshops on advanced techniques, taught by the best in the biz during the day, then settle in for long nights of improv and after-parties. A festival like this one has the potential to escalate the impact of AIC’s regular shows and expand its community to a national level.
But Wait, There’s More….
In improv, scenes advance by exploring and heightening the scene (à la Clifton’s Starbucks, Surgery, Hell). Such is the same for businesses: You start with a concept, then expand and heighten it, then do so again.
That’s certainly true of AIC. In addition to four levels of adult classes and a host of performances, AIC provides auxiliary programming with performers that literally range from kids to businessmen.
AIC’s Youth Improv programming includes Beginner and Advanced classes for teens, ages 13 to 18, where they practice and learn many of the skills taught in their adult classes that are also applicable to real life, like listening, collaboration, creative problem solving, and group dynamics. They’ve also hosted workshops for younger kiddos, a summer program with Zaniac learning center (Dana works for their corporate office), and after school programming with Vance Elementary. With a new director of Youth Improv, Katie Jones, and lead youth instructor, Tim Hearn, AIC has plans to continue expanding the youth arm of the business.
Another facet of the enterprise the group is developing is AIC For Business. Local companies often tap AIC to come in and perform, but their offerings for the business community go far beyond a quick act. (Clifton: “We’re really excited about the idea of showing businesses how improv can help them.”) Improv naturally fosters skillsets desired by most businesses, like team building, collaboration, and comfortable communication, but AIC can adapt the programming to drill deep into specific goals and even to fit the business’ timelines. AIC For Business’ programming encourages employees to open up and speak out, plus it engenders a bond between employees that’s hard to replicate.
Part of what makes AIC For Business so unique is that it challenges many of the outdated structures of the corporate workplace. “Improv is very counterintuitive to being an adult,” Clifton explains. “As adults, it’s like: Ask all the questions, don’t make any assumptions, learn everything you can about it, and if you’re not an expert, don’t speak up. Whereas in improv, we’re like, no, make some assumptions, don’t ask any questions, just go with whatever it is. ‘Just follow your heart, kid—just go for it.’ Because at the end of the day, we explored that idea and nothing was lost. But I guarantee you 99.9 percent of the time, something’s gained.”
AIC has even more in the works, including a Level Five course and a podcast, which will feature local troupes performing sets and then discussing their performance. “We definitely get into a ‘Yes, and…’ mindset and take on too much,” Dana admits, but it’s only a result of the group’s enthusiasm for all things improv. And as the business continues to grow, these multiple revenue streams actually work to its advantage: “My experiences of being a freelancer forever is that it’s always a little concerning when there’s one dominant revenue stream,” says Awad. For AIC, that’s classes, but with such a multitude of programming, there’s always a balance.
Encore, Please: Capital & Play.
Asheville Improv Collective currently sits somewhere between passion project and full-time job. All three partners have careers outside of AIC: Awad as a freelance graphic designer, Clifton as a bartender at Sierra Nevada, and Dana as a franchise consultant at Zane Prep and a MacaroniKids publisher (an online website newsletter with local, family-friendly events). Someday, they’d like the business to have its own space and maybe even afford a sustainable income for them all, but for now they’re happy with the adaptive juggling act that is AIC.
Already, the partners have cultivated exactly what the Halls intended: a local gang of passionate, companionable improvisors.
“I think we really helped to spur the growth of a big improv community,” says Awad, proudly. “We mixed up a lot of people, created a lot of troupes, but also bled into the local acting world and stand-up.” Clifton agrees, adding, “It’s bringing a lot of creative minds together and nurturing that.” Former students are forming troupes, filming movies, and acting in plays, but they’re also rooming together, falling in love, and becoming best friends.
Through play, the Halls and Awad are crafting capital and, most importantly, community.
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