‘Yes, and…’

Actors improvise the story of Hansel and Gretel during a workshop.

Some of the best stories ever told have taken years to concoct and pen. But local actors are proving some of the most entertaining stories require no planning at all.

At the Opal Center for Arts and Education, Director Howard Hummel is putting together a band of improvisational actors in a series of workshops which, pandemic allowing, may be the launch of a new acting troupe in Cottage Grove.

Howard and his wife Andrea, who has a background in drama teaching, created the group together. 

“My whole life, I’ve done theater,” said Howard Hummel. “And just want to give something back to the community.”

Hummel has taught theater at Cottage Grove High School and directed shows at Cottage Theatre. Outside the area, he’s done work in Seattle, Los Angeles and Florida and had two traveling theatre companies. He’s also directed improv classes at Opal Center during summers.

As the name implies, improv (improvisational) theatre is a form of unscripted, unplanned performance that relies on the spontaneity of performers and, to a degree, the audience.

Hummel is leading a group of about 10 people through improv workshops, setting up “games” for the actors which challenge their on-the-spot creativity.

“The beauty of improv is that it can go anywhere you steer it,” explained Hummel. “The games are just a skeleton. They’re just some rules that they follow.” The rest of the show is improvised, so “every show is different, even if they played the same game over and over and over again, because you get different prompts from the audience.”

There is an entire encyclopedia of games to pick from and they range from simple warm-ups to complex exercises. One game might be as straightforward as taking turns with a prop while another might require a cast of multiple actors on stage fulfilling various roles.

One thing the workshops and games are meant to do is set the foundation for the actors to get the most out of (sometimes absurd) situations they find themselves in.

“Trust. You have to trust one another,” Hummel said of an actor’s skillset. “You can’t be out there and feel that you’re the Lone Ranger. … so these people have to bond. They have to trust. They have to feel that everyone has each other’s back. And that’s a tremendous skill.”

With trust established, players can focus on the moment.

“They’re learning not to plan in their heads,” he said. “They’re learning to be in ‘the Now’. And that’s the most difficult part of improv, being present. … So they’re picking up listening skills. They’re picking up communication skills, they’re picking up things where they’re not denying their partner but accepting their partner.”

The director has been pleasantly surprised with the participants who have made a commitment to the current group.

“The people I have here catch on really fast. I mean, they just go with it and I just have to let them go. I don’t stand in their way,” he said. “There’s a lot of energy in this room for a small group of people.”

True enough, Hummel leads the workshops by offering his insights and prompting when necessary, but can spend a good deal of time leaning back and laughing with the rest of the group at what the players on stage get themselves into.

Hummel has directed improv workshops at Opal Center before, but now looks to make the group a permanent fixture in Cottage Grove.

“I think it is the starting point, because we’re not going to disband,” he said after the first workshop this year.

Previously, other groups would take eight to ten workshops before actors were ready for a stage show, said Hummel, and the culminating show was only put on for close friends and family.

The current group is on a similar path, but Hummel is hoping to eventually show off the actors’ talents to the general public as well because, he said, laughter is the kind of medicine the world could use.

“My goal is to form a comedy improv group and do shows not only in Cottage Grove, but in Eugene,” he said. “I think there’s a market for improv. People want to laugh, especially now. … It takes their minds off of all the garbage they have in their lives. And that’s my goal, is to get people laughing.”

Besides still needing to come up with a name for the group, the main obstacle is COVID-19. Hummel is worried the recent Omicron spread will hamper any public performances.

When Cottage Theatre opens and starts accepting an audience again, which is planned for this April, he said he’d feel more comfortable doing it himself.

The pandemic has created another speed bump for the group, too. Improv can rely heavily on seeing a partner’s cues and these are hard, if not impossible, to pick up through a mask. Not everyone is comfortable with close-quarters, unmasked performances, either.

So, despite a strong start in the year, the group is on hiatus for the meantime — but Hummel ensures that workshops will resume soon.

When the group does start back up, actors will likely still be needed. Hummel said his ideal cast would be around 15 people, meaning there’s room for four or five more. Two requirements, though: commitment and vaccination.

“One of the things I’m asking is for a commitment,” he noted. “If you come sporadically, I can’t cast you. … I’d be happy to hear if people are interested, but it has to be a commitment. And they have to be vaccinated.”

Lack of acting chops isn’t necessarily a barrier, either, as Hummel said he’s willing to show anyone the ropes.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to help people who have never performed before be comfortable on stage,” he said.

Those interested can get more information by calling 541-514-0000 or reaching out by email at [email protected].