On a November day in Lakewood, the sand washed bricks of an old theater glitter in the rain. The door opens to the familiar sound of a grand piano playing in another room as people gather outside classrooms and stage doors, studying scripts and reading scenes. It was exactly this particular phenomenon, the kind that brings strangers together, that I had come to examine.
The Beck Center for the Arts, founded in 1929, was originally named the “Guild of Masques.” Ninety years later, students still flock to this epicenter of culture in the middle of Cleveland’s near West Side to try on some proverbial masks of their own. The building is a familiar location to many in this part of the city, and one with which I was very familiar. I had taken classes and performed in plays at the Beck Center as a teenager, and I still remember the opening night jitters and the roar of applause.
The Beck Center is far from just a theater for children. On the contrary, there are many adult classes available. One of the most exciting challenges is the improvisational theater. The services that the Beck Center provides the community can perhaps be best examined by looking at these highly difficult, yet very popular improv theater classes.
I sat in on an improv class taught by Aaron Patterson, a respected member of the theater community who specializes in this type of performance. He is humorous, generous, and adored by his students. He admitted he stumbled into improv completely by accident while working at a management consulting firm and taking a class for recreation. This led him into the field of acting, and he soon left the firm to embrace his unique talent.
The class started with him taking attendance, and each person he called had to name a different pizza topping. This warm-up activity soon led to much more difficult exercises, where students were thrown into sink or swim scenarios where they had to learn to think quickly and flexibly while performing a scene. The absence of a script adds a lot of tension. After I tried a few of the exercises myself with some difficulty, Aaron shared his thoughts on the Beck Center’s role in the community in terms of improv classes and workshops.
“Just from the improv aspect, I think it’s really good for anybody that’s wanting to get better at public speaking or just get out of their shell,” he says enthusiastically. “Before I did all this stuff, I was always the guy that would hide in the corner. It gave me a real boost of confidence.”
Aaron says that much of the students’ motivation for taking improv classes lies in a desire to improve for their jobs, gain confidence, and hone social skills. This gives them an ability that serves them in their daily lives as the takeaways of these exercises help the students grow as individuals after working through these projects as a team.
“That’s what gets them out of their shells,” Aaron says. “That makes them better at their job. And then they go teach this to their friends, and it becomes a philosophy, a way of life.”
“I wanted to take improv classes at the Beck Center to be quicker on my feet in life and in acting,” says Marie McKenzie, a former student of Aaron’s improv classes. “Being able to do improv is such an awesome talent to have. I learned to be more confident when speaking to others. I also learned how to think faster, which spills over into every aspect of life. Doing improv isn’t simple and it’s something we aren’t taught anywhere else. It’s a skill I think everyone should learn.”
The Beck Center fills a much needed niche in the community, and its popularity and merit is most evident in classrooms like Aaron’s. The lessons learned in improv are most often those that the students find buried deep within themselves. They discover and unearth their potential in this process. The value of art is intrinsic, and the benefits are very tangible in the lives of the students. They then carry those skills and lessons into the community.
Want to test out your improv skills? Learn more about classes and other activities at beckcenter.org.