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Inspiration Through Improvisation

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Andrew McMasters (MFA, Drama, 1995) just learned that he got hitched in Vegas. To an inebriated nun. He looks out at a crowd of onlookers who wonder what will happen next.  He’s as curious as they are.

Andrew McMasters

Andrew McMasters engages the audience at Jet City Improv. Media credit: Todd Gardiner

That’s the thrill of performing improvisational theater, where the nun you marry in one skit might be recast as your sadistic high school driving instructor in the next, depending on the whim of the audience. “Improv is immediate,” says McMasters, cofounder and artistic director of Seattle’s Jet City Improv. “It’s exciting. It’s also terrifying, but that’s part of the excitement.”

McMasters’ path to Jet City Improv can be traced back to middle school, where he first caught the acting bug. After studying drama at Temple University, he spent a year working at Atlantic City casinos entertaining customers. “I was a full-on clown, red nose, the whole nine yards,” he recalls. “I was paid to walk around making people laugh. It was great, and actually very good pay. But I wanted to do theater. I wanted to make my own stuff.”

That dream led McMasters to Seattle in 1990, where he joined a short-lived improv group, Train of Thought. He and fellow cast member Mike Christensen founded Jet City Improv two years later, performing in spaces on Seattle's Capitol Hill and Belltown before finding a permanent home in the University District. The theater has been located on University Way, just above NE 55th Street, since 2003.

As Jet City Improv was hitting its stride, McMasters decided to pursue a master’s degree in drama through the Professional Actor Training Program at the UW School of Drama. “I felt that I’d found the limitations of what I could do, and that I was going to run up against this wall until I had a larger bag of tricks,” he explains. He continued with Jet City while completing the demanding three-year master’s program. “The things I was learning in school informed the improv work that I did on weekend nights. Even today, a lot of things I teach are rooted in the work I did at the UW—exercises I worked on in graduate school that I’ve been able to adapt. Without that UW experience, I wouldn’t be as good an improviser, without question.”

Jet City building facade

Jet City Improv Theater, located on University Way in Seattle's University District.

Today Jet City offers one improv show on Thursday nights, two on Friday and Saturday nights, and improv classes on Mondays. Once a month the group presents Twisted Flicks, featuring an old B-movie with Jet City actors redubbing the dialog based on audience suggestions.

The main focus of Jet City is short-form improv—brief skits involving audience participation—and longer 90-minute themed productions with titles like Upside Downton or American Glory: the improvised West Wing. The themed shows involve a director and rehearsals, though the production is still improvised each night. “The easiest way to explain the rehearsals is like practices for a sports team,” says McMasters, who directs many of the shows.  “It’s really about rehearsing things you could do, knowing that it’s all going to change on stage.”

Beyond the classes and performances, Jet City offers workshops in the community. The staff works with teens at a local juvenile detention facility, with youth at a summer camp for children surviving cancer, and with corporate clients wanting to improve staff productivity. Because improvisation requires building on what your fellow performers have said or done, it can be an effective tool in team-building.

Andrew McMasters

"Without that UW experience, I wouldn’t be as good an improviser, without question,” Andrew McMasters says of the UW's Professional Actor Training Program. Media credit: Todd Gardiner

“The biggest lesson in improv is accepting and building on offers,” says McMasters. “One of the things we practice all the time in workshops is getting people to understand the difference between ‘Yes, but’ and ‘Yes, and…let’s figure out how we can use that.’ We’re not preparing them to perform on stage but giving them tools that translate to their everyday work. We have to give them a return on the investment or it’s time that’s been wasted.”

If repeat clients are any indication, the workshops are effective. Several Microsoft project managers contact Jet City each time they reorganize. “They ask us back every time they build a new team, in order to give that team a shared language really quickly,” says McMasters.

Improvisation does have one drawback: it can become addictive, both for performers and audience members. McMasters recalls a couple who attended the Upside Downton show last winter—their very first time at Jet City—and then returned repeatedly, fascinated by how the performance changed each night. They attended six of the ten performances of that show, and then saw it two more times when Upside Downton returned for the holidays. “They just became uber-fans,” says McMasters.

The fascination makes perfect sense to McMasters. “The actors discover what’s about to happen at the same moment as the audience,” he says. “They’re in it together. The excitement of that, it makes it alive.”

For more about Jet City Improv’s shows, classes, and workshops, visit www.jetcityimprov.org. McMasters also organizes an annual Seattle Festival of Improv Theater (coming up February 18-22, 2015) that attracts talent from across the U.S. and abroad, with performances at Jet City Improv and at the Ethnic Cultural Center, both in Seattle’s University District. For more information, visit www.seattleimprov.com.