- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

There's nothing funny about the classically decorated antechamber at the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street Northwest. Tell that to the students gathered there, giggling like Robin Williams on a double-espresso bender.

The church's side room is used for the Washington Improv Theater's spring class schedule. The improv troupe known as WIT offers a series of comedy classes designed to bring out the improvisational comic in us all.

A WIT session is one place where class clowns are nurtured, not told to pipe down.

The group's next round of improv instruction begins April 10. Students can select from three different levels aimed at neophytes and those with some onstage experience.

Managing Director Mark Chalfant says his group, which began in 1996, started out strictly as a performing act.

The more comedy it created, though, the more its members wanted to infect others with the joy of improv.

"We realized we wanted to share this stuff with more people," Mr. Chalfant says.

"Stuff" may be the operative word, though Mr. Chalfant and fellow instructor Leah Rader do not treat the material lightly. Taking comedy seriously is part of the mission. There's a method to their unscripted madness.

That doesn't mean the classes exist solely to churn out Improv-ready talent.

"Some people are really interested in performing improvisation," Mr. Chalfant says. "Others like the way it liberates them, personally. It's a total change of pace with everything else in life."

Each class runs for eight weeks, with individual sessions lasting 2 1/2 hours. A class costs $175 and there is at least one instructor for every 12 students.

"Many people understand what improv is, thanks to shows like Drew Carey's ["Whose Line Is It Anyway" on ABC]," he says. "It's been a staple of the college scene for decades."

Mr. Chalfant, 31, says a solid improv comic is someone who enjoys taking risks and is trustworthy. Good listening ability is a must.

"It's essential that everyone in the group feel a part of it," he says. "That it's a safe place to be and expose who they are and let down their airs and not judge it. If you don't feel trust, you can't improvise effectively."

During a recent class, a relatively youthful group of 10 students, a mix of sexes wearing jeans and loose-fitting garb, prepared to be funny.

The students warm up with a series of silly actions combined with nonsensical phrases. Whatever inhibitions the students may have had at the beginning of the course clearly have evaporated.

Sweaters and jackets are quickly removed. Improv can be a sweaty enterprise.

Next, another comic bit dubbed "Slow-mo Samarai" has the students enacting kitschy karate movements as they pair up for mock battle. Mr. Chalfant and Ms. Rader give tips and steer the action, treating the absurdities with reverence.

A tug-of-war exercise strengthens mime techniques while demonstrating the importance of teamwork.

Mr. Chalfant, like a friendly camp counselor, talks of selflessness, of giving the scene's power to one's partner and making sacrifices for the greater good of the sketch. Students should not tell their partners how to act or react, repeat something said earlier to stall, or make a comment on the action at hand since that doesn't allow for an emotional response.

Some of the comedy takes a melancholy tone, including a bit in which two female students act as sisters discussing their parents' divorce.

For every moment that stumbles, one soars and prompts applause.

Ms. Rader lobs questions at the students' characters in mid-sketch to flesh out the roles. No judging, just nudging.

Vanessa Krabacher, 34, of Silver Spring, says a friend had so much fun in the classes she decided to try them herself.

"I am completely not a funny person," Ms. Krabacher says. But the classes offer "interesting skill sets" she says, and the instructors' exercises helped shatter any preconceptions she once might have had.

"Everybody showed up with no set ideas," she says. "We're all nervous. It gave us a [sense of] camaraderie."

District resident Lorran Garrison, 27, took the class on her boyfriend's recommendation.

She wasn't necessarily looking to tweak her funny bone, though.

"He felt it was something I should do and [it] would help me in a personal sense," Ms. Garrison says.

Ms. Garrison had taken acting classes before, but the improv classes' focus on the group proved novel.

"You really have to trust other people as a whole," she says. "You can carry that over to real life."

Ms. Rader, 30, says building trust is crucial to improv.

"This group is now an ensemble, and you need to rely on each other. That's the main point of the first class," Ms. Rader says. "Every class thereafter, we do some exercises that reinforces that."

One past student appeared terrified whenever entering a scene without a plan.

"She was able to break out of that, and start a scene by connecting with her partner, hearing what they had to contribute," Ms. Rader says.

Beyond the classes, WIT hasn't abandoned its performing schedule.

WIT's next round of performances begin at 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays starting April 12 at the D.C. Arts Center in Adams Morgan, 2438 18th Street NW. Tickets cost $10, or $8 for D.C. Arts Center members. For reservations, call the center at 202/462-7833.

For more information on WIT or its classes, visit www.dcwit.com

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