The Improv Lesson

The following piece was presented at Jersey City Writers’ literary event – Superheroes & Supervillains: A Night of Dynamic Dare-do-well and Dastardly Deeds. Please enjoy.

“The secret to doing improvisational theater well is to always say ‘yes, and…’ to whatever is offered to you, to add to the scene. Here’s what I mean.  William, come here.”  The student that Mr. Symmes called upon was one of his drama club kids.  Together they demonstrated the ‘yes, and…’ principle with brief improv scenes involving the tossing of fruit at zombies, the ordering of burrito bowls from distracted Chipotle workers and an exchange between an incompetent car mechanic and Batman.  William responded with ease, the students laughed, and Mr. Symmes smiled: “This is why I teach,” he thought.  

He distributed some of the props from last year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a purple flower, a lion mask, a wizard’s hood – and got the students started on an improv game.  

The voice of the school’s principal bellowed from the loudspeakers: “This is a hard lockdown.  This is not a drill.  Teachers, secure your areas.   This is a hard lockdown.”

Mr. Symmes looked at his students who looked back at him for instructions.  A hard lockdown meant that an intruder had gotten past school security, a clear and present danger.  In a classroom this meant locking your door and moving the students away from the door in case the intruder broke through the window.  

But they were on the stage, in the auditorium. Mr. Symmes couldn’t possibly secure all ten entrances.

In the common area of the school just outside the auditorium they heard gunshots.  

“William, cut the lights in the entire hall.  Everyone, run to the sides of the stage and stand still.”  In the darkness Mr. Symmes rushed to the pull the front curtain closed, “Cheyenne, close the teaser curtain.” She did as told.  

A door opened at the back of the auditorium.  Loud footsteps walked toward the stage.  The shooter clearly knew that he wouldn’t have much time before he was taken down either by the police or himself.  He needed to inflict as much damage as he could in the shortest amount of time.  

Mr. Symmes had staged many productions in this space.  He knew that no one in the audience could hear him whisper on the stage if the front curtain was closed, so he said to his class, sotto voce, “There are side exits behind us.  When I signal, you run out of the sides and to the entrance of the building.”  He couldn’t see their faces to know if they understood him, and there wasn’t time for confirmation.  

At stage right was a switch that lowered a screen before the main curtain.  He lowered it, then flipped on an overhead projector with a remote.  His laptop was on a chair near the curtain ropes.  He plugged in the cord that connected the computer to the projector then quickly put on the lion mask and wizard hood before flipping on the camera.   

The shooter stopped when he saw the screen descend and was intrigued when the projected head of a lion appeared.  He watched.  The lion spoke.  

“You are at the end of your mission, soldier.”

Mr. Symmes could hear the shooter chuckle. He shot the screen once as he laughed.  Mr. Symmes raised his hand so that it wasn’t picked up by the cam but was visible in the glow of the laptop.  He gestured to the students hiding behind him to leave.  He had the shooter isolated where he wanted him.  Students filed out the back exits quietly. Mr. Symmes racked his brain for vocabulary he learned while playing Xbox games with his nephews.

“Having completed this quest, you have earned a special piece of gear.”

“What is it?” the shooter called back, amused.

Mr. Symmes held up the purple flower. “To find out its power, you’ll need to catch me.” At that moment Mr. Symmes cut the lights from the projector and blared “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana at full volume through the speakers, hoping to cause as much sensory confusion for the shooter as possible.  Mr. Symmes’ eyes had adjusted to the dark.  Peeking around the curtain he could see that the shooter stood at the foot of the stage, holding his hands over his ears. He’d set his rifle on the stage in order to hold his head.  

Mr. Symmes lunged at him, his head still covered by the lion mask.  He dove at the shooter’s head and went crashing with him to the floor.  The shooter, lying on his back, was able to see the faint outline of a lion on top of him.  

Frightened, he called out, “This isn’t in my plan!”

Mr. Symmes grabbed the shooter’s ears, lifted his head and cracked it as hard as he could against the floor.  Now unconscious, the shooter was unable to hear Mr. Symmes respond drily:



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