MSU’s 'Together We Will Improvise' offers strong medicine             

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WEDNESDAY, Dec. 1 —  This weekend’s performances of “Together We Will Improvise” mark the 15th annual “Freshman Showcase” for Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre. Since 2018, Sarah Hendrickson has directed the showcases.  And every one under her tutelage has focused on improv comedy. 

“Our freshmen are diving in into an art form few people are comfortable doing,” Hendrickson said. “They have approached the process with enthusiasm since day one.”

Hendrickson should know about being vulnerable in front of a crowd and trying to make them laugh without a script. The Academic Specialist of Improvisation and Acting at MSU has 17 years of professional improv performances in Chicago and around the world. “The majority of my directing experience is in sketch comedy and improvisation,” Hendrickson said.

But her first-year theater students are jumping into task for the first time —and during a pandemic. “They’ve had to set aside their expectations and roll with the punches,” Hendrickson said. “Best-laid plans, as they say.”

Her approach was to make every rehearsal a comedy performance class.  Since Sept. 9, weekly, three-hour practices have taken place for the 24 performers that make up five teams.  Six students operate the lights and sound. “Teams and tech rotate every show,” Hendrickson said. 

“The students have done an amazing job preparing for this show,” she said. “It’s been wonderful watching them all grow closer and bond through the rehearsal process.”

The bonding happened quickly and their confidence continued to grow. “They are encouraged to make bold choices and look ridiculous in front of each other starting the first day of rehearsal,” she said. “Once they realize that vulnerability is met with support, the walls come crashing down.”

“As they became more confident and grasped the basics, I would introduce a new game to them that would eventually find its way into the running order of the show,” Hendrickson said. “That’s how we built the repertoire.”

The result is “approximately one-hour of high energy silliness,” Hendrickson said. “We need to laugh.  Laughter is strong medicine.”

“Laughter brings people together and strengthens relationships,” she said. “Laughter boosts our immune system, relieves stress and improves our mood.”

The most fun of directing “Together We Will Improvise” for Hendrickson has been getting to know the freshmen. “I’m so lucky to get to spend significant time with them in their first semester,” Hendrickson said. “Adapting and surviving in a new world requires courage and imagination, and our freshmen are full of it.”

The most challenging part of the process has been dealing with masks. The performers and audiences for the shows are required to wear them. Last year’s live showcase was cancelled because of COVID.

Audience members will be able to offer suggestions when the performers ask for them. “We are hoping to keep the show family friendly,” Hendrickson said. “Think network TV.”

Going to all the “Together We Will Improvise” shows could be a unique experience each time. “Even though the running order of the games remain the same, the content and the casts change every night,” Hendrickson said. “You could go to all five shows and none of them will be the same.”

Tickets for Together We Will Improvise are $20 for general admission, $18 for MSU faculty and staff and seniors, and $10 for students. Tickets are available online at whartoncenter.com, at the Wharton Center box office, or by calling 1-800-WHARTON.

Performance Dates & Times

*Thursday, December 2, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. (Red and Blue Teams)
Friday, December 3, 2021, at 8 p.m. (Orange and Purple Teams)
Saturday, December 4, 2021, at 2 p.m. (Orange and Blue Teams)
Saturday, December 4, 2021, at 8 p.m. (Red and Green Teams)
**Sunday, December 5, 2021, at 2 p.m. (Purple and Green Teams)

* Post-show discussion on Thursday, December 2, 2021 (Following the Performance)
** Pre-show discussion with the director on Sunday, December 5, 2021, at 1:15 p.m.

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