Onstage, without a script. Or a plot.

Photo: Glenn Minshall
Photo: Glenn Minshall
Photo: Glenn Minshall
Photo: Glenn Minshall

Sept. 23, 2016 —

Scene: the bare stage of a theater

Characters: A dentist and her patient. Two off-duty teachers. A pair of popular mean girls.

Plot: Totally up to the characters

No, it’s not an NMH performing-arts production gone awry. It’s just students getting a taste of improvisational theater — improv — with The Purple Crayon of Yale University, a student-run improv group that’s been performing since 1985. Members of the group spent a day on campus, leading an acting class and the cast of the fall theater production in improv games and exercises before a Purple Crayon performance in the evening.

Improv theater is typically comedy, created spontaneously by the performers, with no planning and no script. “What you’re trying to do is react to your partners,” Yale senior Patrick Sullivan, director of the Purple Crayon, told the NMH students. “Don’t feel the pressure to invent something,” added Yale junior Tessa Palter-Poston. “There’s literally nothing that can be a mistake.”

So the scene with the dentist and her patient evolved from a simple check-up into a debate over teen slang and the dentist admitting that she herself doesn’t floss. The two mean girls proclaimed cruel yet hilarious judgements on their classmates. And the two teachers, sitting in a coffee shop, griped vociferously about their students — to the chagrin of Jared Eberlein, director of NMH’s theater program, who participated in the workshop alongside his students. “Just so you know, we do not talk about you guys this way!” he exclaimed.

Afterward, Laura Bertrand ’18, who played one of the mean-girl characters, said, “It’s cool to play along and make the scene happen, even not knowing where it’s going to go.”

“And saying things you’d never say in real life — it’s kind of cool to do that, too,” added Adele Behar ’18.

One of the “pillars” of improv theater, Sullivan pointed out, is the idea of teamwork, epitomized by the phrase “Yes, and …” “You and your partners are agreeing to a reality together,” he explained. “You know that whatever crazy idea you throw out there, it will be picked up and affirmed and added to.”

The Purple Crayon improvisers connected with NMH through Sheila Heffernon, chair of the performing arts department, who once taught Sullivan’s mother, Amy Wheeler ’84, at NMH. Besides leading workshops in schools, the group performs regularly at Yale and tours twice a year. “It’s a really supportive way to interact with people,” Sullivan said. “You might come out onstage and think, ‘I have nothing.’ But someone else will have an idea, and then it starts to happen.”

At the end of the two-hour workshop, the dentist and her patient, the two mean girls, and the rest of the NMH students dispersed, swinging their backpacks over their shoulders and heading off to their next class. “I’m going to go improvise my way through a Shakespeare quiz,” one of them said as she exited the stage.