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Prepare to be Unprepared with Impro ACT

Canberra’s own Impro ACT offers the chance to get out of your shell and express yourself through the art of spontaneous improvised theatre. JOSEPHINE HUYNH gets put on the spot.

Drama is not my forte. Just thought I'd put that out there. The thought of acting ties my stomach in knots and triggers an instant breakout of sweat.

When I was assigned this issue's experience piece I was really excited. These stories are always the most fun to write – meeting new people, trying new things, heck last time I got to eat a copious amount of food – but when I discovered that the story was about improvisational acting all my excitement was gone.

The memories I had tried so hard to supress came rushing back like a case of school musical post-traumatic stress. Year 8, Annie; year 10, Beauty and the Beast; year 12, Footloose; and all with one thing in common, the shame of going from potential principal star, demoted to supporting role, down to chorus, to prop team, and then to 'I deserve better so I'm quitting'. 

But the day came when I could no longer avoid the task I had been assigned, so I made contact with Impro ACT artistic director Nick Byrne to set up a date to sit in on a class, appropriately named Prepare To Be Unprepared.

A theatre veteran himself, Byrne has been working full-time in the performing arts sector for as long as he can remember.

"I started as a musician, working piano bars and in rock bands while studying theatre at uni," he says.


Since settling in Canberra 10 years ago, Byrne has performed in and directed a range of productions at The Street Theatre and developed a corporate training business using improvisational theatre skills, as well as operating Impro ACT and running the Performing Arts Services Hub.

"Impro ACT aims to inspire Canberrans from all walks of life to embrace the joy of spontaneous behaviour, and to provide them with classes and performances that enhance their ability to perform on or off stage," he says.

I get to the class early in the hope of making friends so I don't look so out of place.

My first friend is a kind-looking man who resonates with me as a well-travelled free spirit. He tells me that his job allows him to journey around the globe where he finds inspiration for new things to add on to his bucket list, and improv acting is one.

The second is a bubbly lady with an American accent who speaks very fast, and who uses the skills she learns from improv to teach corporate companies effective and creative ways to communicate.

After a few introductory activities, including a fast-paced name memory game and a full-body rhythmic activity, Byrne starts asking for volunteers to casually improvise in front of the rest of the class using a loose opening scenario he would pluck out of thin air. After watching the first group I build up the courage to join in on the second performance.

"You are opening a mysterious door," Byrne shouts at us as we awkwardly wait for direction.

"Oh my god, get back! Is that a bomb!?" one participant yells as he throws his arms in front of me in a gesture of protection.

The class stares at me, waiting for a response.

"Uh um it's ticking! What do we do?" I sputter.

The scene goes on as the four of us take turns frantically scrambling for words and actions to defuse the imaginary bomb.

Each person in the group becomes more spontaneous and animated throughout the night. All the nerves have melted away, until all that echoes throughout the room is laughter.

During the following activities, including one where we take turns at miming and commentating, and another that brings out our inner Shakespeare, I have the opportunity to get to know a few of the other class members.

A friendly woman explains that, as a public servant, she wanted to escape the office life by trying something completely unlike her usual day-to-day routine.

Another is a shy-looking man who unexpectedly transforms once in the improv zone, becoming curious, confident, impulsive and hilariously entertaining. He joined the group to increase his confidence and learn how to think quickly – both valuable skills for his job in sales.

At the end of the class I mention to Byrne that although my initial intention was to come here and confront an old fear, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself. Byrne nods his head as if he's heard it all before.

"Impro ACT is so much more than a theatre group. It's a community of people who are open by nature, and who, by studying improv, learn to listen to each other, to think more about others, to be positive by default," he explains.

"The exercises, games, and skillsets of improvised theatre sustain a caring environment that is so compelling to be around, it's both addictive and an inspiration.

"The very nature of the training and the people makes my role a calling, rather than a job or a hobby."

By the time class finishes it's late, way past my bed time, and as a portion of the group make their way to after-class drinks I walk to the car pleasantly perplexed.

Byrne worded it perfectly. Improv acting isn't a case of performer and critic – it is a bunch of strangers, from all walks of life, coming together on a casual Tuesday night learning and experiencing things they did not set out to discover.