The famous first tenet of improv comedy is Yes, and. As in: Yes, we are hauling a heavy load of bricks, and now we are going to juggle them. An improv player’s every choice opens an opportunity for her co-performers, who receive the idea, adapt to it, and move the scene forward. Improv is about magnifying these individual contributions into bigger possibilities. Hence the name of Portland’s new improv theater: Fresnel (pronounced Freh-NELL) Theater is named for the highly reflective lens used in lighthouses and theatrical lighting. Explains Krista Simonis, who along with Matthew Russell founded Fresnel earlier this year: “A fresnel takes a small spark of light and makes a brighter beam, a beacon.”
Located in the basement level of the One Monument Way building on Free Street, Fresnel Theater is dedicated to the proposition that improv and Yes and can “enrich, empower, and entertain.” Its team offers improv classes, corporate trainings, and, every Friday and Saturday night, fast-paced competitive shows, serving as Maine’s branch of the international ComedySportz, which bills itself as “global network of companies that transform the world through improvisation's unique ability to foster collaboration, inspiration, gratitude and fun.”
ComedySportz’s particular brand of improv show calls for two teams of three; a referee, who also acts as emcee; and a sound person, who improvises music content. Using audience suggestions — sports, occupations, things we do on the weekends — the two teams compete through a variety of improv games. Fresnel rotates its team members from a stable of 25 improv performers, so the shows are always shifting and new. In fact, Simonis, says, last month an entire family came to every single show. “We’re excited that we’re already building a community around improv.” she says.
Simonis and Russell, who are also domestic partners, performed and taught with ComedySportz in Sacramento and the other Portland before moving to Maine in March. They saw a gap in Portland’s comedy market, given the 2012 closure of the Comedy Connection, and one of the high points of opening Fresnel has been being able to welcome in existing local improv groups — including Running With Scissors and Stranger Than Fiction — as well as touring performers: last weekend, Fresnel hosted From Justin to Kelly, an improv duo that specializes in a form of “minimalist monoscene.”
Since the early aughts, improv has been ascendant as not just an entertainment, but a tool for cultivating openness, creativity, and adaptability in the business world. Last weekend, for example, found Fresnel instructors working with Google salespeople on retreat in Portland. “Corporate trainings are a passion for us,” says Simonis, who has a graduate degree in Organizational Communication. “We believe that the principles and philosophies of improv can really help in the workplace. ” The skills that improv cultivates — including listening, accepting, supporting, taking risks, and learning to fail gracefully — have benefits not just in the workplace, Fresnel founders believe, but with maintaining relationships, cultivating new friendships, and pursuing personal goals. As Simonis puts it, “basically, your whole life.”
You don’t have to be Google to learn from Fresnel and ComedySportz. Classes on offer include two tiers of adult improv classes and one for youth. Christian Black, a forty-something student in the level-two “Scene Study” class, waxes euphoric about his experience of Fresnel and the improv gospel. “I’ve always been a wise ass, but now they are training me how to use my powers for good,” says Black. “The transposition from class to real life is actually rather remarkable, as I’ve become an active listener in the game of life. Now, instead of waiting for pauses for my turn to speak, I’m learning to build off my counterpart’s ideas and thoughts.” Black sees his improv instruction as having larger social benefits, too, saying his Fresnel gurus “have an uncanny ability to take what it is that makes you you, and teach you to channel that outward for the better of society. It’s like psychic rolfing without the discomfort.”
At a cultural moment where political satire has found especial popularity and purpose, Fresnel’s founders stress the apolitical and inclusive nature of ComedySportz. Its ground rules for audience suggestions are no politics, swearing, or religion, and, as Simonis puts it, “not too many poop jokes.” And if you’re nervous about being called out in the audience and coerced into squawking like a chicken, Russell wants to reassure you that it’s not like that: “We never force people to come up on stage or make fun of people in the audience.”
Recently, at a ComedySportz show, the brick jugglers hauled their bricks forward and in reverse; an audience member moved players’ arms and legs like action figures as they played videogames; and players were thrown from a soundproof room into the action of gibberish-only scenes, then challenged to figure out what everyone was doing — say, playing volleyball with lettuce instead of a net; or knitting with, instead of needles, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
ComedySportz shows continue through the holiday season, an entertainment that might prove especially attractive if any of your holiday guests prove too inured to No and But. And Fresnell has a special holiday show planned, too: an improvised A Christmas Carol, which will be based on an audience member’s story of a terrible boss – that is, on some poor grinch who could probably have used a little Yes and himself.
ComedySportz improv show | Every Fri-Sat 7 pm | Fresnel Theater, 17 Free Street | $15, $12 seniors/students, $10 youth under 12 | www.thefresneltheater.org