Joelle Rodriguez, above from left, Bart Voisin, Bryant Collins and Katie Dunn keep the audience in stitches at the DC Improv.
Joelle Rodriguez, above from left, Bart Voisin, Bryant Collins and Katie Dunn keep the audience in stitches at the DC Improv.
Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post

Free Association

By Ellen McCarthy
Friday, January 12, 2007

It's the first viciously cold day in December, and Debbie Tate is standing in a circle with 11 strangers. Across the street, drivers are crawling over the parking lot of White Flint mall. They honk and snarl as the unlucky wait for buses, separate and silent against the wind.

Meanwhile, Tate and her strangers, swaddled in the beige-on-beige of an apartment-building community room, will spend the next two hours playing make-believe. She'll twirl like the ballerina she once was, sweep back her mane of big, blond curls and run as if she's being chased. She'll pretend to be a teenager consoling a wounded friend through an imaginary bathroom door.

The 53-year-old -- who was born in 1953, and isn't that a hoot? -- will feel a little silly, a little ridiculous. Also, she'll look a little silly, a little ridiculous.

Washington is a white-marble town. The buildings are proud but staid, except when they're shabby. It's a working place filled with workers who talk a lot about how hard they work. They jog, and then they finish marathons. They check that off the list. They have important neighbors, but not so important as the neighbors in the next neighborhood over. At parties they say, "N ice to meet you, we should connect. Let me put you in my BlackBerry."

When Tate leaves the community room, she'll get in her car and sit in traffic. She'll throw away junk mail and wait in line. She'll answer her clients, appease her bosses. She'll go on being a mother, a sister, a daughter, mostly via cellphone, sometimes through e-mail.

First, though, she'll twirl.

" Improvisation is getting on a stage and making stuff up as you go along."-- Mick Napier, "Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out."

Every so often, Mark Chalfant starts to sound like Deepak Chopra.

Lots of them do, actually, which isn't something you expect of improvisers. You expect them to be funny. Ha-ha-Second City-"Kids in the Hall"-"Best in Show"-Steve Carell funny.

And they are, except when they're talking about improv. Then they are poet-psychologist-philosophers.

Once they get past the part about why it's fun and full of laughs and a really good time, they'll get to the part about how it's transcendent and magical, how it has changed them or saved them, how improv is like life and if only life were a little more like improv, the world would be a richer, brighter place.

But mostly it's just fun, and they get self-conscious when they start to sound too New Age-y because, really, it's not like that, and, anyway, what they really want you to know is that you should come and hang out and just try it.

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