“There was definitely a feeling of the riskiness of improv,” Lisewski said, “from when they would jump out into the crowd or let the audience interact with the players. Anything could happen, and you always had to be on your toes. Everything wasn’t always planned out.”
Lisewski has been physically involved in such risks a dozen times over. Endless trips to Los Angeles; graduation from that city’s Second City conservatory; work with the local National Comedy Theatre franchise; forming and teaching classes in her avocation -- mastery of improvisational theater is one sure road to performance excellence, Lisewski said.
Beginning this month, she’ll try to prove it in Ocean Beach, a setting whose highly eclectic climate is already a done deal.
Lisewski is the founder and executive director of the fledgling Finest City Improv, whose stated mission “is to help develop, promote and showcase improv performers in San Diego. We do this with a little help from each other and our fine friends in that less fine city to the north.”
It’s not hard to figure which city Lisewski’s talking about, even as her longtime turn with Second City Hollywood fueled her passion for theater without a net.
In improvisation, the actor is also the playwright, director and technician, creating scenes and stories with no input from any other source except his or her fellow performers and maybe a few props.
To those in so-called mainstream theater, the potential results don’t often bode well.
“I have a lot of actor colleagues,” explained Lisewski, a New York native, “that are scared of improv because they have nothing to go on. One of my main goals with this is to help them understand how simple improv can be. We look at it more as creating natural, real-life scenes, not necessarily seeing where the plot goes, because that’s still best done with a script. But all kinds of discoveries are made through improv. It’s like if you’re an actor and really enjoy the process of creating a show, you would particularly enjoy watching improv, because you’re seeing some of your own process happen.”
The late Orson Welles once said he believed most writers are actually actors at heart. If he was right, then a healthy feel for improv would presumably lend itself to more efficient playwriting as well.
“It absolutely does,” said Lisewski, who is 42. “When I did shows at the Second City, we used improv to generate ideas, and then we would re-improvise those same scenes into sketches. We then started to have the same dialogue; we’d written a show. That’s why so many people from Second City [in Chicago] were called to write for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ because that process worked so well. If you’re a writer creating a show, improv is a fantastic skill to learn.”
Improvisational theater dates to mid-16th century Italy. The country’s commedia dell’Arte, or “comedy of craft,” would soon take on a life of its own as street performers sought to make theater more accessible. The centuries have been kind to the art form, which is now at the center of an international competition based in Calgary, Alberta (performers in Los Angeles and Ventura have won that competition in fairly recent years).
Today’s improv got a huge popularity boost from ABC-TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, a stand-up comedy show that ran from 1998 to 2004. “Whose Line” is still a great Internet favorite.
This area gets a regular taste of the real thing at its own National Comedy Theatre venue in Little Italy and through visits from L.A.’s Impro Theatre, which regularly performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Lisewski, an 11-year San Diego resident who’s been practicing improv on her own for about five years, got the itch amid the encouragement of local director Lisa Berger. Subsequent trips to Hollywood yielded her passion for the so-called long form, whose stage time rivals that of conventional scripts.
It’s this form that drives Finest City Improv, whose advisory board includes Rachel Romanski, executive director of Hollywood Arts, which provides arts-based curricula to L.A.’s homeless and at-risk youth; Keith Reay, who teaches improv at Hollywood’s Second City training center; and Chris George, who founded San Diego Stage Monkeys in 2008 and has been improvising since 2003.
Austin, which at a population of 820,000 is only a little over half San Diego’s size, has eight improv groups with regularly scheduled shows, as compared with San Diego’s handful. And that “less fine city to the north” has dozens of regular improv performers and sports the first nationally accredited improv theater school in the country.
But Lisewski has seen enough San Diego theater to persuade her that Finest City Improv has a future here. Performers from L.A. and elsewhere, she said, are eager to lend the first helping hand in droves, with Lisewski’s business background taking the company the rest of the way.
Best of all, Finest City Improv’s first classes — for ages 18 and up every Monday from Sept. 10 to Oct. 15 and for teens beginning Saturday, Sept. 15 — will be held at the Ocean Beach Playhouse, which opened only last May and is suddenly the home of the Different Stages theater troupe. Lisewski characterized Ocean Beach like so many before her — “a very eclectic, artistic neighborhood, with lots going on.”
If iconic, settled, quirky, hippie-tinged, ideally suited Newport Avenue can’t absorb yet another theater group, theater as an art form doesn’t exist. Finest City Improv should fit right in in Ocean Beach and everything that surrounds it — as the troupe’s website declares, “We are America's finest (and perhaps funniest) city, don't ya know?”
Finest City Improv is located at 4944 Newport Ave. in the Electric Ladyland building. For more information, visit finestcityimprov.org.