Photo by Andrew Bossi Mark Chalfant may be 41, but he looks 31 and has the imagination of a 4-year-old. And yes, that’s a good thing. See, Mark heads up the Washington Improv Theater, which is currently bringing the impromptu funny to our city via Seasonal Disorder, an ongoing festival of improv shows that draw inspiration from the holidays. And the thing about improv is that it takes an almost childlike playfulness and spirited imagination to make it good. “It’s about letting go of all of your neuroses as an adult and being able to imagine any given circumstance,” said Mark. “If you can’t, it’s going to be difficult. But, at the same time, improv can help bring that skill out in you.” How? Well, read on. We talked about that and much more.
SCOUT: How did you get involved in improv? Were you always a kind of class clown? Or a super extraverted kid?
MARK: No, totally the opposite. I was very much a Type-A introvert, know-it-all Washington guy.
SCOUT: What?! In what world does an introvert want to get on a stage and wing it in front of an audience full of people?
MARK: There are ideas in improv about listening and being open and being agreeable that are really challenging to this kind of aforementioned Type A know-it-all Washingtonian. And I found it really jarring at first. There came a moment when I thought I should either leave this room right now. But I decided to stick around.
SCOUT: And here you are!
MARK: Thirteen years later... It was really a transformative thing for me to dive into improv as much as I did. It really freed me to be more of the self that I could be. It’s definitely made me a more playful person and a person who’s more empathetic, and I can enjoy my life a lot more and a lot differently now than I did then. It’s really awesome.
SCOUT: And here I thought improv was just a comedy show. It almost sounds like a tool for self-discovery?
MARK: I think so. Even if there isn’t some sort of personal revelation for people, improv helps build discreet skills.
SCOUT: Like what?
MARK: Like the ability to really listen, to stop yourself from this knee-jerk interruption that so much of actual conversation is. It’s the ability to pause for a moment to really understand what somebody else is saying to see if you can find a way to build off of that instead of just relentlessly advancing your own agenda. And in a town like Washington… I mean, if I can get a half-day workshop with Congress, oh my God, we could really change things. And I say this with a wink, but it’s actually true. I try to avoid sounding like an evangelist or some sort of crazy improv guru person, but I swear to God it really does help everybody.
SCOUT: …But going from a workshop to a performance, um, how is that not terrifying? What if your audience doesn’t get it?
MARK: We can definitely hear how an audience is responding. And whether they’re super into it and everything is blazing on fire with glory, or whether they’re not responding at all is built into the experience. Typically, what you can do is just reinvest in what’s there. Either what’s happening is that they haven’t caught on yet, or sometimes maybe we go off a little in left field, and we’re still learning all the time.
SCOUT: At the same time, DC is filled with a pretty smart set of people. What do you think of DC audiences?
MARK: They’re smart and it’s always more fun to play with a smart audience because you can be a little more subtle. If you’re dealing with an audience where you have to be clunky and very expositional about everything, you’re taken out of the moment more.
SCOUT: Speaking of DC audiences, what is Seasonal Disorder all about?
MARK: There are different shows that are part of this run – 35 different performances, actually. The shows can be as simple as getting a word from the audience and then creating a show from that, or as complex as creating a full improvised musical. In all the shows, we want to create an awesome experience of a show that’s truthful. Improv is about all of us looking at human behavior and all of us seeing the weird, quirky chinks there are in everybody’s armor and how effed up humanity is, and also hilarious.
Seriously, while you never know what exactly is going to happen, you do know a show at WIT will be a good time, especially when you can get a bomb Scoutmob discount, oh yeah! Seriously, buy a ticket to any of this Friday's shows, use the code 'SCOUTMOB', and boom! Like I said, bomb discount. So, get to The Source on 14th St. to catch a show, or get a little more into improv (and improve yourself!) by taking a FREE drop-in class during the first week of 2012. Check WIT’s website for more information, and keep up with all the theater’s daily happenings on Twitter.