Ryan Jackson leads a series of virtual adult improv classes through the Farnsworth Art Museum

How improv gives permission to play in an ultra-serious world

Mon, 02/08/2021 - 1:15pm

ROCKLAND—When creative improvisational master Ryan Jackson gets down to serious business, there are going to be a lot of laughs.

The Rockland native is hosting a series of virtual improv workshops for adults through the Farnsworth Art Museum through April. The class, titled “Improv Reprise! Making it up as you go with Ryan Jackson”, is meant to loosen people up and get them to experience new sides of themselves.

A graduate of the University of Maine with a bachelor’s degree in theater, Jackson had a different career path in mind when he first started.

“Originally, I thought I wanted to go to New York and try my hand at acting,” he said. “I’ve been a performer since I was five years old. It’s my biggest passion.”

But as life plans for creatives often go, Jackson found his calling in more regional locales. He started off working at “Summer Shenanigans,” an arts summer camp in Gardiner as assistant director.

He continued to improve his improv skills by joining Everyman Repertory, a professional theatre group in the Midcoast. After that, he started getting gigs teaching improv classes with adults and kids on North Haven.

As if that weren’t enough, he also is the cafe manager and an employee-owner at Rock City Cafe and works as a site coordinator for after-school programming at the Oceanside Middle School.

“I decided I wanted to stick around Maine,” said Jackson. “There are a lot of wonderful opportunities here. All in all, I couldn’t be any happier where I am today.” 

The whole point of Jackson’s improv Zoom class is to introduce participants to the art of creating on the fly—that is, using imagination to break out of carefully conceived self-perceptions through various games, exercises, and theater-based scene work. 

“You don’t have to be good at acting or theater to do improv,” said Jackson. “I give people a chance to really be comfortable in their own skin. My class teaches them tools they can use in everyday situations to be present in the moment. We’re living in very serious times and the bottom line is I just want people to laugh. Improv allows you to be free and open and I think we can all use that.”

One exercise Jackson likes to do is have his participants imagine they are at some kind of TED talk conference with scientists, doctors, and other professionals.

“I’ll call on someone randomly and say I’m so glad you’re here Professor So and So,” explained Jackson. “I’ve heard you’re an expert on New Zealand cucumbers. Can you tell us a little bit more about them?”

This requires people to draw from their childhood skills of play-acting and nonsense. But, more importantly, it encourages people to stop being so self-conscious.

“The stuff that comes out of these participants is remarkable,” he said. “Usually by the end, I have to pick my jaw up off the floor. They totally own those personas at the moment, as if they are an expert on this nonsense thing and that’s what surprises me most. At the end, I see everyone smiling. And people tell me they haven’t laughed like that in months.”

Jackson’s classes can be joined individually and the next one is on February 18. For more information visit the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Event page.

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com