Building Community through Improv

Ever since its inception, Formosa Improv Group 佛爾摩莎即興組合 (FIG) has devoted itself to using improv as a means to build community, emboldening the improv spirit in the “Yes, And” positive energy city of Taipei. This piece gives an introduction of what first-time participants can expect at our weekly improv workshops. I sat down recently with FIG’s current workshop director, Liam Fanning to talk in depth about what FIG’s workshops have in store for 2021 and beyond as the group steps into its 3rd year of existence.

Members of FIG after a recent show. FIG is very fortunate to continue to be able to support community workshops and monthly shows in collaboration with 23 Comedy.

“We at FIG believe that improv is a common good, something that anyone can find benefit from. We strive to share lessons and build community by offering a bilingual, guided improv experience for people of various backgrounds and experience levels.” — Liam Fanning

Seen here in motion is Liam Fanning, FIG performer and current workshop director. FIG has an elected board where members cycle through on an annual basis to take accountability for different areas of the group’s operations: administration, finance, marketing, venue, workshops, and an artistic director which rotates amongst performers on a monthly basis.

After FIG established somewhat of a “start-up” rhythm revolving around community workshops, shows, practices, and group gatherings, the performance team felt it was important to build a foundation based on strong core values. Of these 5 core values, one of them states that the group aims to proactively build improv bridges.

The primary way that FIG goes about constructing these bridges with the Taipei community is through its weekly improv workshops. The workshops take place from 7–9pm every Monday evening at 23 Comedy and require no previous improv experience. Anyone who comes to the workshops should come expecting to participate, and not just to watch, as Monday evenings are a chance to interact, engage, and learn. These are workshops, not shows.

“Participants can come expecting something new. Improv is about innovation and communication. We hope to teach workshops that build individual and teamworking skills that participants can use in future improv performance endeavors as well as in their day to day lives. Each workshop covers and reviews some of the foundational aspects of improvisation with a particular focus, and each week a different leader brings a new flair or unique perspective. Hopefully, if its your first or your one hundred and first workshop with us you can walk away feeling both supported and surprised.” — Liam Fanning

“FIG’s community workshops are a fantastic way for beginners to have a fun and exciting taste of improv. All you need is to be ready to have fun! “— Timeothy Yeo from ASAP Improv in Singapore, one of Asia’s premiere improv performance groups. Tim and members of other improv groups such as Beijing Improv, the People’s Republic of Comedy (Shanghai) , 迷鹿即興排練場Milu Impro Rehearsal Space (Taipei-Chinese language), and Skits and Giggles (Taichung), have collaborated with FIG, helping to strengthen improv bridges to build an improv ecosystem.

Workshop Curriculum and Continuity

Each week the workshops will have a different theme in order to help participants focus on a set of skills that are often used in improv. The workshops start from 7pm with a brief introduction to the group and establishment of a safe space for the evening. Once the initial introductions are finished there’s usually 5–10 minutes of icebreaking group warm-ups to get people comfortable with one another, after which the evening’s workshop facilitators will take time to introduce the theme or skill on that particular evening.

Besides FIG workshops, FIG performers also find other ways to participate in 23 Comedy performance such as this one seen here. In the foreground is FIG member and current Marketing Director, Woody, trailed by FIG member and current Venue Director, Andrei Veja. Both have led and translated numerous FIG workshops as well as various stage performances at 23 Comedy. Woody emphasises that FIG workshops are “a great opportunity to be able to connect with our community and a solid way to practice stage presence.” — Woody

From here, the two workshop leaders (one leader and one translator) will take the group through collaborative exercises that focus on that particular skill, normally scaffolding the facilitation so that it culminates in more challenging exercises, and finally giving those participants who wish to take to the stage a chance for the spotlight. All the facilitation is done bilingually in both Chinese and English, and no one is ever forced to get on the stage should they not wish to do so.This year, in order to provide more continuity between one week and the next, the group has put together a curriculum for participants to follow:

Example of FIG’s flexible workshop themes over the course of 10 weeks. Participants can join in at any time in the cycle. Each workshop is led by different facilitators, each with his or her own unique style, but every workshop leader maintains FIG’s high standards.

“Our workshop has 10 different topics covered across 10 weeks. They range from “Yes, And..” to “Scenework” to “Confidence.” These skills are meant to diversify lessons and give participants options so they can choose to attend skill-specific workshops, while also creating a holistic and robust curriculum for repeat attendees. We also feature a week on Applied Improv, where the focus moves beyond just the stage and into our individual lives. The skills we as performers use to create a successful scene or show are the same skills that can help you succeed in a classroom or work environment or within your interpersonal relationships. And finally, every 10 weeks our goal for 2021 is to welcome a guest instructor to give participants a healthy example of the length and breadth of the Taipei (or even Taiwan!) Performance community.” — Liam Fanning

One of the guest facilitators from the greater FIG community is Rosalyn Shih. Her workshop focused on body awareness and the joy of movement. Regarding FIG’s workshops, her “number one piece of advice is to not let feeling mortified at your first workshop stop you from returning again and again.”

Creating a Safe Space

At the heart of improv is the requirement that nothing is rehearsed, written down, or practiced beforehand. There is no script to fall back upon, and so anything can happen. Participants need to come to the workshops with an open mind and expect to interact with people that they may have never met before. Someone who may have been a stranger 5 minutes ago might end up being the ghost of your father, your lover, or a knight in shining armour come to rescue you in the next scene. Participants need to be ready to accept any realities and relationships that may pop up based on the suggestions or choices of the other improvisers.

Because anything can happen, and there are really no limits as to what people could say or think of in a scene, there needs to be a certain amount of trust and safe space created for participants to feel comfortable enough to let go and challenge their zones of comfort. At the beginning of each workshop, the workshop leader and translator lead the participants in a safe space pledge and establish a safe word for the duration of the session.

“Improv is by nature difficult to predict, as is most of life. However, we as a team are continuing to work to build a safe environment for good communication and teamwork to create a solid foundation for safe and sustainable improv. We have moved conversations about consent and safety to the forefront of the group, and emphasise the importance of respect. The safe word helps redirect a situation into something everyone can feel secure in. Improv can be such a tool of empowerment, so we are taking steps to push it in that direction.” — Liam Fanning

Welcome One, Welcome All

One of the main points that FIG wants to emphasise with regards to its Monday night open workshops is the word “open.” The workshops are for improvisers from any levels, ranging from those with zero to little experience to those who consider themselves expert improvisers.

“Improv can be confusing and daunting at first, but you’ll soon discover just how it can help you in so many aspects of life: self-confidence, public speaking, creative expression, welcoming failure, and even finding a supportive community that encourages you to explore every possibility out there. Just take a small step out of your comfort zone and let improv inspire you!” — FIG performer and current finance director, Diana Liu.

For those who come as first-timers, hopefully they will stick with the workshop experience over time and continue to develop their skills and make new discoveries about themselves during the process. For those who have more improv experience, they are welcome to come and join the workshops from a different perspective and help raise the level of the open workshop, perhaps even being invited to be guest facilitators or FIG performers in the future. Regardless of experience, hopefully everyone will leave the workshops with a little more improv knowledge than they came with, as well as getting to know a positive and friendly slice of the Taipei community.

“Our workshops and instructors strive to accommodate everyone. No one will be required to do something that puts them in a tense position. But I would definitely encourage everyone to give this a try. Improv and performance are wonderful creative outlets to express yourself in a way that is difficult or impossible in other parts of life. And our facilitators are highly motivated to make sure that you are able to find your groove and learn strong fundamentals to sustain you wherever your improv journey goes next.” — Liam Fanning

“In addition to our Monday Open Workshops, we are putting together another intensive course! A smaller class size and dedicated instructors help make this course more formalised and gives participants a deeper dive into the world of improv as well as more tools and skills! Stay tuned for more details and follow us on Social media for updates on that and our other endeavours.” — Liam Fanning
Like the rest of the Covid-19 world, FIG has learned to say “yes, and” to the current situation and also switched workshops to being fully online from May to September of 2021.

American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.