By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
The central principle of improvisational theater, or improv, is “saying yes” – following the spontaneous suggestion of your acting partner in a performance, no matter how outlandish it is or where it may lead.
That element makes it a great fit with Catholic high school students, says MaryBeth Babcock, who has been teaching improv classes at Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo for about six years.
“There’s an intrinsic Catholic value to it,” Babcock says. “Being kind to each other, being in agreement with each other. The idea is ‘yes, and…’ – you say yes, and you add to it.
“That sense of agreement is so missing in our world today, in our dealings with each other. When you say yes to someone’s idea, they feel valued.”
Babcock is something of an improv authority, having studied with the influential Groundlings improv group in Los Angeles. She worked for several years in California, and toured colleges in the Midwest and on the East Coast performing, eventually moving back to Illinois to raise her family.
So when her sister was talking to the principal at Gibault about finding a director for the school’s drama program, she had a ready suggestion.
Babcock currently teaches drama at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Columbia, and at Columbia public schools, and is artistic director for The Actors’ Attic, a non-profit theater organization in Columbia.
Gibault Principal Russell Hart says knowing of Babcock’s talents, it was an obvious decision to bring her aboard at the high school nine years ago – and to take advantage of her improv experience.
“She’s very accomplished – major companies hire her to lead improv sessions for their employees,” Hart says.
Babcock says the success of the improv classes is a testament to Gibault’s vision. “Gibault is a school that thinks outside the box.”
She teaches two improv classes at Gibault, with a total of about 25 students.
She says about half are theater kids, who participate in all the school’s drama activities. The others can come from anywhere – quite a few of her students this year are exchange students, learning not just improvisational theater but also polishing their English skills.
The classes practice the craft every day, being given a prop or a pose and making up situations and dialogue as they go along. At the beginning of the year, Babcock says, the kids are just learning the basics. “So it’s not fun for other people to watch; it can be kind of painful.”
The magic of improv, she says, is watching that group of students learn each other’s rhythms over the course of the year, coming together as a cohesive acting troupe.
And along the way, they build values like compassion and empathy. As an example, Babcock points to a classic improv exercise in which two people begin a scene, and at some point in their interaction together, a third performer yells “freeze.” The actors hold whatever position they’re in, the third player steps in for one of them and uses that pose to start an entirely new story.
The goal, Babcock says, isn’t for the newcomer to wait for the best pose – it’s to help out a scene that’s starting to flag. “You’re saving your fellow performers when they’re flailing – I love that part.”
Her students love the class, too. “A lot of kids say that everyone should take it,” she says. “It’s so good for people – all that practice can help you feel calm in an interview process, or when you have to stand up and make a speech.”
Hart has seen that difference as he’s watched improv classes in action.
“Kids come here who are so shy and scared,” he says. “They get into her classes, and over the years, they’ve become major players in that improv group.”
Gibault’s improv class has even become a selling point for the school. Babcock’s students visit the local feeder schools to perform, in an effort to build interest in the high school.
Hart says Babcock’s leadership has enriched the theater scene as a whole at the high school.
“Drama and theater have always been a big deal at Gibault, but since she came here, this school has become this crazy-great theater and drama school,” he says, noting that the program not only stages multiple productions during the school year, it provides summer programs for younger kids. “There are kids who come here just because of our theater program, and MaryBeth is providing amazing leadership.”