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Theater-person or not, life has an interesting way of requiring most people to use the basic fundamentals of improvisation – saying “yes, and,” and going with the flow. On Saturday, students from Dunbar High School, Cardozo Education Campus, Maya Angelou Public Charter and Kipp DC College Prep Academy showed their improvisational skills at the 2023 inaugural Canady Foundation for the Arts (CFA) Youth Improv Slam.
“I started off as an actor and improv was so crucial to just me becoming who I am, or who I still am becoming,” said Marjuan Canady, CFA’s founder and executive director.
“Improv is everywhere,” said CFA Board Chair Carl Gray III. “I speak on stages a lot and I’m a businessman and I have to do this all the time. So if you can do this today, you can do this in the boardroom, you can do this on the Internet, you can do this anywhere.”
For the past couple of months, students have been receiving improvisation training through a curriculum developed by Chelsea Dee Harrison for the CFA Youth Improv Residency Program.
“Improv is about working with what you have and the young people of D.C. have surely got a lot. Witnessing these young people discover improv has shown me that this city has a vibrant population of young people who are deeply creative, socially conscious, and hungry for creative outlets. Creating and co-facilitating this program with CFA and all the amazing teaching artists gave me a chance to see how vital improvisation is,” Harrison said. “This city and this world needs spaces that don’t require a correct answer— safe, brave places that make us laugh, listen and sit in awe of one another. Improv gives me and a lot of other folks a reason to keep going.”
A celebration of hard work
Harrison, who also served as lead teaching artist, along with Canady, teaching artists Brandon Johnson and Maria Simpkins and Program Director Danyel Watson, have been working diligently to bring this inaugural program and competition to fruition. The day of the improv slam was not only a competition, but a celebration of everyone’s hard work.
With four schools and two teams, The Beautiful Scars and The Firewerks, hilariously competed for the big prize: a trophy and the opportunity to perform at CFA’s inaugural soiree and fundraiser.
CFA is a D.C.-based nonprofit “that uses the power of story to connect professional artists to youth of color through arts education, community, live theater, mentorship and professional development,” Canady said in a statement.
The competition allowed for students to interact with and perform for professional artists including host Patience Sings, a creator, actress, healing artist, vocalist, poet and writer from D.C., as well as improvisational artist Lori Pitts, musical theater artist Alana Thomas-Briggs and comedian Jabari Dortch.
Thomas-Briggs, who has been in regional productions of “The Color Purple,” “In the Heights,” “Ragtime” and “FAME” said she appreciates that improv “is the unknown, but going there with people.”
Using the power of storytelling
“You have to believe in each other and you have to create something on the fly, and there’s no script and you’re just pulling from resources that you have in your day to day life. It’s really scary, but it’s beautiful seeing what can come about,” Thomas-Briggs explained.
While both teams incorporated creativity, great teamwork, projected well with and without microphones and used strong physical acting, at the end of the improv competition, The Beautiful Scars were announced as the winners, while Firewerks finished with 681 points.
In addition to noting the fun one can have improvising, the students shared some of the lessons they have learned from improvisation classes. “Lying to your teacher about something,” and “I never know what’s going on, so I can always improvise,” were some of the wise-cracking lessons the group of budding comedians and actors said.
“Saying ‘yes, and,’ [to life],’” one student shouted she learned, which was answered with a roar of “yesses,” from fellow competitors.