Among the not-so-favorite memories from high school, standing in front of the class to deliver a presentation ranks right up there. Remember, the clammy palms, racing heart, dry throat and jumbled nerves?
Those symptoms aren’t such a problem for Brigitta Mannino. The 16-year-old junior has been getting up on stage in front of her peers since she was a freshman, trying to make them laugh in shows with Sudden Impact Competitive, the improvisational comedy team at Basha High School in Chandler.
The team is part of National Comedy Theatre’s High School Improv League, along with Campo Verde High School and Perry High School, both in Gilbert, and Agua Fria, Horizon, Liberty and Centennial high schools. The students will compete in a tournament Saturday, May 11, at NCT’s Mesa theater. The winning team — and seven all-star players from the championship — will perform again May 24 in an improv comedy show with NCT pros. Both shows are open to the public.
Mannino, who is co-captain of the 14-player Basha team, says she loves “being able to be completely yourself, doing insane and fun things, and being able to perform an entirely different show each time.”
No show is the same in improv, and none of the prescribed games audiences can ask the students to play on stage ever turns out the same way.
That’s a good thing, says Shira Schwartz, theatre director at Basha High School and advisor for Sudden Impact.
“The nature of improv doesn’t allow them to plan for the immediate future. Improv is literally making up performances as they happen. ... Students learn to keep their attention on their teammates, trust in their own abilities and the abilities of their team, and work with the situation they are presented with. When something unexpected happens onstage, and it always does, they adjust to the situation, find ways to improve it, and make it work,” she says.
The result, Schwartz says, is easy to see: “Improv helps every single student become more comfortable with themselves. Their level of self-confidence skyrockets.”
Krissy Lenz, who owns NCT with her husband, Dorian, can vouch for that. Her comedy career started on a junior high school improv team at age 14.
“I was able to do it all through high school and just kind of never stopped. It really helped me grow and develop and feel accepted — and let my personality flourish a little bit, for (being) kind of a weird kid. Dorian also started in high school, and so it’s always been important to both of us to kind of pass that torch.”
Their Mesa comedy house has run the league since 2008, training high schoolers across the Valley in performance skills and theory, and putting those lessons to the test in competitive comedy shows with other schools in the league. “We’ll send an ‘away’ team to a ‘home’ show, so it’s kind of like a sports game, where you have a visiting team playing against a home team. The kids have that traveling, competitive element of getting to go across the Valley and work with other improv teams at other schools,” says Lenz.
“Typically, their shows are at 7 at night in the auditorium or in the black box theatre room. They invite students and the school community and the public. Basha High School and Horizon are known for big audiences, where they’ll have 100 people there. In fact, Basha does so well now, that they’re able to donate a lot of their admission cost to charity.”
Student teams receive professional training throughout the year from an NCT coach, and the program culminates in the tournament held at the end of the school year.
“It’s very rewarding,” Lenz says, to see kids grow over the course of the program.
“Some of them start out (shy, nervous or hesitant), and by the end they’re really putting it all out there. One of the things we talk about a lot in the beginning and at practices is not being afraid to fail. Practices are the time to really experiment with the idea of failure, so you do things that don’t work and you find ways to do them better. By the time they do a show, they’re well trained and (the show is) sort of engineered to put the best of them on stage. We try to make sure they don’t have those moments in a show where something falls flat — and once that happens several times, where they see things aren’t going wrong on stage, they get their sea legs a bit and aren’t as afraid to try stuff.”
Mannino says she never expected to love improv so much — or that it would teach her skills for everyday interactions off the comedy stage.
“(It’s) made me a more easygoing person, someone who is able to not take life so serious all the time and someone who is not as afraid to be herself. I’m better at thinking on my feet when it comes to most school topics and situations as well,” Mannino says. “… It turned out to be a talent that I love having and utilizing in making others laugh.”
Each of the teams in this year’s tournament has been in the league at least two years. Defending champions Horizon High School have been taking part since the first tournament in 2009.
Lenz says the May 11 event is probably of most interest to other teenagers or school personnel interested in starting an improv team or joining the league. The comedy shows on May 24 will have more entertainment value for the general public.
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