Marcia & Ahran

Pictured: Marcia Aguilar Kailian and Ahran Lee

To celebrate their new Improv for BIPOC workshop and class, Berkeley Improv did an interview with teachers Marcia and Ahran.

How did you get into improv?

Marcia:  In high school and college I was exposed to improv through theater, and I found my flow.  Improv was a place where I could be myself and be a character.  In my experience in theater – which I love – it could be hard because a lot of times I didn’t fit the role – in my mind, this was because of what I presented as, and how I looked. In improv, I get to cast myself in anything I want.  It gives me that freedom.

Ahran: I love how our improv origin stories are so diverse! I’m one of those players who discovered improv later in life. I have zero stage performance background. Improv came into my life when I was suffering from crippling depression. My ex-husband introduced me to improv to support my mental health. Improv is a gentle outlet to access parts of you that you otherwise wouldn’t have, and it’s all done through play. In improv I don’t have to shapeshift in any way, I can bring all of myself to it, and it’s accepted, and not only that, people really like when I made a mistake.  Something about that process transformed me. For such a long time I thought I had to be a certain shape, be a certain way to legitimize myself as an artist, and for the first time, just being my messy self was the material.

Marcia: Yeah, to piggyback on that, in improv, you can get out of your head and into your body where you are reacting and responding genuinely. In regular life, it’s so normal to be in our heads and overthink things and stress and worry, so when we can let that go, it’s healing.

The two of you are going to be leading Improv for BIPOC at Berkeley Improv. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea to teach this class and why it’s so important?

Maria:  Ahran and I met in a BIPOC class taught by Betsaida Lebron out of Sacramento, and we had great chemistry. The idea of a BIPOC class at Berkeley Improv came from a student in one of my other classes. Right after she asked me, literally at that moment, Ahran is walking through the door, and I said, “Ahran, do you want to teach a BIPOC improv class with me –

Ahran:  YES!

Marcia: Yeah! It  was an enthusiastic ‘yes!” And so here we are.

Ahran: There is absolute urgency for a dedicated BIPOC space for any creative person of color.  What we reckon with is the issue of who we do our art for, and who is the inner critic. This usually tends to be that of a white male; we are constantly making art around that gaze.  It impacts our expression. People of color tend to protect ourselves by shutting down a big part of who we are. You can’t make art that way, you can’t fully express yourself authentically if you compartmentalize. So having a space that is just for Black, Indigenous, people of color, to me, is linked to survival and thriving. If you are in a space where there isn’t that white gaze, our bodies can have a full exhale, and we can completely be relaxed and show up exactly as we are. It’s not just about playing, it’s about having a full-body exhale with other people who have that shared reality.  So it’s imperative that we have this space.

What you are saying is so important. Can you say more about being a person of color in the world of improv?

Ahran: I can say this –  it’s doubly important that there are two women of color at the helm of this. As we all know, improv is a very masculine space so to have women in leadership signifies a lot.

What has your experience been like at Berkeley Improv?

Ahran: Something I felt with Arastoo’s 301 class – the teacher and students that have known each other for a long time. It’s a steady group of people who show up, and it feels like an intimate space.  It feels very homey, like a homey community that I haven’t experienced in other theaters.

Marcia:  I love the class I’ve gotten to teach at Berkeley Improv: Improv for Real Life. It coincides with my mission of bringing joy and improv to everybody.  It’s been like, “yes, this is what it improv is supposed to be like.”  Folks coming to play.

What other projects are getting you excited?

Marcia: I’m teaching Improv for Real Life at Berkeley Improv in January. And I’m working on a solo performance, a one-woman show. Folks can sign up for my email newsletter at my website Cocreatetheater.com.

Ahran: I teach a BIPOC drop-in improv class every 3rd Sunday through Improv college, an online improv theater based in Montreal. And you can find me at Ahranlee.com.

Wonderful. Thank you, Marcia and Ahran!

 

 

Meet RaShaad Leggett

 

We are so happy that you are returning to teaching at Berkeley Improv. It’s been one of the silver linings of this terrible pandemic.

I’m honored to return to teaching at Berkeley Improv. My first time taking improv was at Berkeley Improv, and it set a foundation for my comedy today.

You have a funny story about how you got interested in improv

Yeah! About a year before taking classes at Berkeley Improv I took my first Uber ride, and the driver was a stand-up comedian, and he said, “Come to one of my shows.” That night my friends went to his show, except we walked into the wrong theater! It was an improv show, and I looked at my friends and I said, “I can do this.”

Tell us about your approach to teaching improv.

My approach to teaching, not just improv, but teaching in general (I also teach music) is that I’m always encouraging and looking for opportunities to support my students. That’s what I love about improv – it creates a supportive culture where you are free to explore, take risks, and even fail. It’s okay to make mistakes – it’s improv – you are making it up on the spot and everyone is rooting for you.

What has improv brought to your life?

Believe it or not, I’m very shy and I have social anxiety.

I would not have guessed that!

Improv helped me come out of my shell, and helped me realize that a lot of the thoughts and worries I have in my head really don’t matter. Taking improv gave me the practice to let it flow and allow my true self to show. It helped me socially, helped me develop better communication skills.

And it helped me create. I write songs, and my biggest struggle with writing music is I’d always second guess myself. I wouldn’t finish a song because I’d wonder if people weren’t going to like it and that would just stop the process.

I learned from improv that if you go ahead and let it flow you can get so much more done. You can worry about editing and fixing later, but if you allow those ideas to flow out, you can discover so much gold right out of the top of your mind.

Do you think improv gives back to the larger world?

Yes, absolutely. Two things that I recommend to all of my friends, and that’s therapy and improv! Improv has been so therapeutic for me. It helped me to develop a community – people I took classes with have become friends for life. And improv opens you up to possibilities. It teaches you to allow things to happen, which is a good metaphor for how we can deal with life. We don’t have to be so focused on controlling every aspect. We can listen and observe and figure out what we can bring to our communities and to the world.

What has your experience been of being a Black improviser?

Being a Black improviser – well, it’s interesting, the truth of the matter is that there have always been a lot of white people doing improv. There were times when I was the only Black person. I was afraid to take certain kinds of risks or do certain kinds of characters because I never wanted my race to be a punchline.

You had to have a certain kind of self-consciousness when you were playing that someone in the dominant culture wouldn’t have had to think about.

It is really a part of being a person of color in most spaces that I walk into – I have to have what is called the ‘double consciousness.’ I have to understand my inner person but also track the optics of what I do because it will affect how I’m treated and how people behave around me. Improv really isn’t that much of a different space than the rest of the world in that regard, so if you can find a supportive community like I found at Berkely improv, hold onto it.

Of course we love to hear that! Anything else that helped you in your improv journey?

Well, I would not have been able to pay for improv classes without discounts and scholarships. At Berkeley Improv we will make it work for folks who might have a hard time paying for classes – in my own experience that made it a lot easier for me to continue with improv.

You are going to be teaching a free Intro to Improv workshop for BIPOC kids. What inspires you to want to lead that?

Improv has been so good to me, I want to bring that to people who might not be exposed to it, and I love teaching kids.

What else besides improv brings you joy?

RaShaad: I’ve grown up as a gospel church musician, directing and teaching church choirs since I was 12 years old. I love to sing, play piano, and write songs.

What are your current projects?

RaShaad: I am the head musician at a church here in Dallas called Impact City, and I am part of an all-Black sketch team called FCC Presents. I am also filing sketch comedy with Comedy For the Internet. We recently worked with headcount.org, a non-partisan organization that uses the power of music to register voters.

Thank you, RaShaad!