Second City alumna teaches Wilton students how to improvise

Second City Conservatory alumna Heather DeLude has brought improvisational comedy to Wilton.

With the help of Ms. DeLude, ninth through 11th graders will perform improvisational comedy — also known as improv — for the first time at Wilton High School’s Little Theater on Thursday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m., with additional shows on Friday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 8, at 8.

Ms. DeLude, an English and theater arts teacher at Wilton High, worked at the Second City Conservatory in Chicago in the late 90s.

“It was a really exciting time. I was really lucky,” she said. “The class that I was in just happened to be a class that produced a lot of people that work in comedy today.”

Comedian Jason Sudeikis was in Ms. DeLude’s entering class at the conservatory, and well-known comedians of today like Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch were on main stage, she said.

“Being there in the late 90s was a really great time to be there. I didn’t realize how many people I was meeting and how they would end up shaping comedy,” said Ms DeLude. “It was just a mecca — all of Chicago, really, was kind of a mecca for improvisation.”

At Chicago’s Second City Conservatory, Ms. DeLude learned to approach improvisational comedy in “a sophisticated manner,” she said.

While in Chicago, she was also a player at ComedySportz, ImprovOlympic — now known as iO Chicago — and The Annoyance Theatre.

“There were a whole host of theaters. The conservatory wasn’t the only game in town,” she said. “There were about four or five theaters you could work at as an improviser and study the art form. That’s why Chicago was such a place to go in the late 90s and early 2000s.”

In the early 2000s, Ms. DeLude moved to Los Angeles, and later to New York. She started working at Weston High School in 2003.

Not long after, Ms. DeLude began working as an English and theater arts teacher at Wilton High School.

“Wilton has a reputation of having a really fantastic English department, and I had a former colleague who had some really amazing things to say about the department, the town and the culture of Wilton,” said Ms. DeLude.

“I also really liked Wilton High School’s approach to theater. It is very collaborative — there are many, many hands involved in producing Wilton theater.”

Last year, Ms. DeLude had a group of about 10 students who knew and were interested in her background in professional improvisation.

“We started a club, but a lot of people didn’t really flock to it,” she said. “It was really just the core of us, and we started rehearsing about once a week.”

Ms. DeLude taught the students sophisticated improvisational skills she had learned at the Second City Conservatory.

“They were great and very dedicated, but they really needed an audience,” she said. “I told them we would work on that for the following year — this year.”

Needed: an audience


“The audience is like another character in the show because the audience gives the improvisers suggestions,” she said. “There’s really no sense in doing improvisation just for yourself — you need an audience.”

Ms. DeLude and her improv club decided to present Freeplay: A Night of Improv Comedy.

“It will really be a unique theater experience,” she promised. “We will be asking audience members to come on stage. We’ll be using the audience to propel our scenes forward — their suggestions  will be what create the show.”

Ms. DeLude said people who have seen TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? will see similarities to that during A Night of Improv.

“We’ll have a live piano player, we’ll have lights and music in between, but there will also be some more sophisticated ‘Chicago-style’ improvisation,” she said.

Ms. DeLude and her improv club opened auditions to everyone.

“Forty people auditioned, and we cast the main players, we cast the ensemble, we cast understudies,” said Ms. DeLude. “We really just wanted as many people to be involved that would like to be involved in the art form.”

Out of the 40 people who auditioned, approximately 30 were able to fully commit.

Ms. DeLude said a mix of students auditioned for A Night of Improv Comedy.

“There are students who have never been on stage before and students who have been in lots and lots of productions,” she said, “but you won’t be able to tell who’s who because improv is a different skill set.”

Ms. DeLude said a lot of actors and drama kids came into rehearsals thinking the same skills that had served them in drama might serve them in improv.

“Though it is true that a strong voice, an understanding of how the stage works and how to place your body work very well for stage acting, improv is a different art form,” she said.

“In fact, when I was at Second City, very few people had been theater majors. They were engineers, they were artists, law students — it’s a very complex art form where you have to be almost a jack-of-all-trades.”

Ms. DeLude said the students, who have been rehearsing day after day since the second week of December, are excited, yet afraid.

She said, “One student told me that this is the most frightening thing she has ever done — and she can’t wait.”

During rehearsals, Ms. DeLude said, she’s teaching the kids some basic tips, tricks and concepts, and reminding them that “improvisation is about adding information and propelling the scene forward.”

Teamwork


“The ‘yes and’ concept is probably the most basic improv concept,” she said. “What this means is, when you move a comedy scene forward, you are not looking for conflict, you’re looking for agreement.”

Ms. DeLude said agreement is the nature of improvisational comedy.

“When someone makes an initiation or suggestion, the person in the scene with them needs to say yes, and furthermore, they need to add to that,” Ms. DeLude explained. “It’s about creating a relationship. What you wouldn’t want to happen, and what many young improvisers do, is they create conflict.”

By refusing the initiation or suggestions, conflict is created.

“It’s actually not funny and it stops the action of the scene,” said Ms. DeLude.

Students are not only learning improvisational skills, said Ms. DeLude, they’re also building a set of life skills.

“They’re learning how to connect and collaborate with others and create and maintain relationships,” she said. “One of the big things we work on is listening and reacting and not stepping over people’s ideas.”

Ms. DeLude said regardless of the career paths the students decide to pursue, the skills they’re learning during rehearsals “certainly serve a purpose.”

The first night of family-friendly improv begins Thursday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Wilton High School’s Little Theater, with additional shows on Friday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m.

“Since the shows are guided by audience participation, each night will be a completely different show,” said Ms. DeLude.

Tickets are $10 for the general public, $8 for students, and there is no reserved seating.

Ticket information: 203-834-4844, whstix@wilton.k12.ct.us.