(A new monthly column from The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center of Sleepy Hollow)
by Lynne Lori Sylvan
Commuters returning home late Wednesdays to Philipse Manor train station have been peering into the old train depot wondering what in tarnation is going on. Blazing lights illuminate people skipping around the carpet, blowing on zucchini shofars, talking into dog-clicker headsets and exfoliating their foreheads with industrial grade sandpaper. Add audio, and the scene becomes even more bizarre, a parrot trainer with a penchant for pixie stix, a detective doing due diligence in a dog park, ex-lovers whispering furious barbs in the hush of a funeral parlor. These scenarios were created out of thin air by students of Veracity Actors Studio who are taking the six-week workshop, “Comedy for Writers, Actors and Bored People” at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.
One student, Julie Gamache, a domestic violence lawyer, explains the draw of this class: “It’s good to be in the space where you can be free of your day and your stress and just be in creativity mode – finding unexpected new dimensions of creativity that you never thought you had.”
The teacher, SAG-AFTRA actor Lynne Lori Sylvan, whose most recent work includes a principal role on the National Geographic mini-series “I Am Rebel,” strives to create a framework that allows students to create their best work. To start a scene, classmates give each other a bare bones premise to start with – a location, and a relationship (i.e., brother-sister, ex-lovers, mother-son). The rest comes spontaneously. Playing a different role than you do in your quotidian life can be incredibly freeing. Jen Convissor, a busy therapist and mother of two young children, says she looks forward to improv class each week, because she is “excited to be someone else for a couple of hours.”
Various gentle tricks are used to help students avoid the tendency to “self-direct” or judge themselves. One exercise has students doing scenes in pairs while putting on an inside out button-down shirt. Fumbling with the shirt’s many buttons distracts the actor, allowing more fluid and unselfconscious improvisation. “Emotion-Switch” has classmates directing actors’ emotions by showing placards with different emotions. The placards quietly enlarge the participants’ emotional spectra by leading them away from their default “go-to” emotion (whether that be sad, angry, anxious, guilty, or content), and allowing them to practice expressing emotions they usually avoid. Although this class is process focused, the results are sometimes riveting.
The class culminates in a charity benefit performance at the Writers’ Center for Paws Crossed, the no-kill animal shelter in Elmsford. The ticket cost (payable at the door) is one item for the shelter and a tax-deductible donation of $20 or more to Paws Crossed. Items especially needed by the shelter currently are: Clorox wipes, laundry detergent (any kind), automatic dishwashing powder, unopened grain-free dry and wet dog food, and for those with big hearts, a 100-foot heavy duty garden hose. Used towels, sheets and blankets can always be donated, but no rugs, carpets or feather items.
Want to know more about what the Writers’ Center is up to and how you can get involved? A full roster of courses and readings start again in September. In August, the Center hosts two poetry readings on Sunday, Aug. 6 at 4:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m. The monthly open mic night is Friday, Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Give the Center a call (914.332.5953), come visit (300 Riverside Drive at the Philipse Manor Railroad Station), or check online at www.writerscenter.org. The Hudson Independent will be featuring an HVWC guest columnist monthly, so stayed tuned for more.