Improv acting instructor brings life skills to life stage

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Few might consider improvisational acting – or “improv” – to be a practice in life skills or an application of philosophy.

But for Amy Angelilli, an instructor at St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre, the thrill and impact of improv has almost nothing to do with performing. When she got her start in improv 15 years ago, it was a step toward reinvention and rediscovery.

“From day one I wanted to be on stage and that was always my intention,” she said. “But somewhere along the way I discovered there’s so many different uses for improv and that the mindset of saying ‘yes’ opens you up to life in a way that absolutely nothing else does.”

Angelilli had been in Philadelphia when she first started teaching a group of at-risk children as part of a one-week summer camp activity. She said the kids started off “completely unengaged,” making no secret of the fact that they’d rather be elsewhere. But after realizing how fun improv could be, they opened up and became more interactive both on and off the stage.

It was then that Angelilli realized she’d done more than teach them fun acting activities.

“It’s a very positive thing and it didn’t take them long to start to open up, engage with one another and just enjoy themselves,” she said. “They didn’t know they were learning life skills. After the performance, one of the parents pulled me aside and said to me, ‘I’ve never seen my son light up like that before.’ And I saw something bigger – I realized that it was a lot bigger than just performing.”

That’s what Angelilli hopes to pass on to her adult improv students as she teaches them now: an openness to their artistic, social and professional lives through the power of improv acting.

Her Adult Improv classes see between seven and 12 students each Tuesday and Wednesday night at the Limelight Theatre. Angelilli says the class sizes encourage an almost accelerated sense of camaraderie that spans all generations, interests and backgrounds to create a safe space where students can learn and grow together.

For student John Ryan, improv was a way to creatively indulge after deciding to return to school and give up playing music. The adult improv classes taught him a skill that didn’t require elaborate planning, while allowing him to attend school and work full-time.

“I think the biggest impact on my life is having a new creative outlet,” he said. “I can learn and grow and express myself in new ways, and that just makes me a happier person overall.

“Outside of class, I think I just generally feel more confident,” he continued. “I’m less afraid of saying something wrong when speaking to people I’ve never met, which is something I’ve felt in the past. I feel like if I ‘fail’ in a conversation, there is always a chance to recover. Also, that human interactions always involve teamwork. I’m not alone in a conversation, and improv has helped me realize that.”

Ed Siarkowicz, another student of Angelilli’s, said the improvisational activities have helped him in his work as the lead of a storm chasing show based in Flagler County. For Siarkowicz, whose work covers the parts of Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia that fall into a gap on the doppler radar, the ability to speak on the fly is instrumental.

“My group of storm chasing photographers are the eyes and ears of both the National Weather Service in Jacksonville and the Flagler County EOC in the gap,” Siarkowicz said. “Since I’m the lead in the show, I was hoping that the improv class would make me a better speaker and improve my ability to both interview and describe events as they occur.”

In that way, Angelilli’s activities work two-fold: Collaboration is encouraged through games like four-part exchanges, wherein two people take turns speaking and ending their sentences with “yes, and … “ to encourage collaboration, and “freeze tag,” in which two players start a scene that’s randomly paused by another player who takes the place of one of the original two. Students also learn through scene work and stage activities.

The biggest take away, Angelilli says, is informing others of the transformative and philosophical power of improv acting, where the biggest “rule” is approaching life with a sense of collaboration and open-mindedness, a skill that’s as important to practice on stage as it is in reality.

“We’re always telling ourselves and each other ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ mindset opens us up to possibilities,” she said. “Only a very small subset of us will get on that best theater stage, but all of us will be on the ‘life’ stage. If improv classes can open us up, we start to apply that mindset to our real world existence. Then we can change our lives and others around us.”

Angelilli’s Adult Improv classes will continue through May 24 for Adult Improv Basics and May 25 for Adult Improv Basics 2. For more information about the classes and to learn how to register, visit www.limelight-theatre.org.

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