Not long ago I found myself standing in a circle with six women of a certain age in a spacious room at Lourdes University taking a class sponsored by the school’s Lifelong Learning program. The purpose was not particularly academic; rather, it was to learn something about improvisational performance, also known as “improv.”
At that moment, I was doing an exercise trying to behave as though I was a deli clerk. I was doing it with a Brooklyn accent to get a laugh. When we were done, instructor Diana DePasquale praised all of us, but then gently made the point that improvisation is not about being funny. It ruins the purpose of improv if a participant is too focused on going for a joke, she pointed out.
The goal is: interacting with others in a way that is honest, informal and fully engaged.
Diana should know what she’s talking about. An instructor and member of Toledo’s Glass City Improv, she grew up just outside New York City. In the months following the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, she dealt with personal questions and changes in her life that led her to take some initial improvisation workshops. The years that followed were “the most creative” in her life, and when she moved to Bowling Green for graduate school, she ultimately found the Glass City group.
For Diana, the power of improvisation is not just performance, she finds it has other applications also. “It can be applied to improve your job, education, personal situation and even your mental health status. If you are open to the idea, it is easy to see how improvisation could change your outlook on life. Moving from a place of fear, safety-seeking or looking out for yourself, to a place of openness, curiosity and embracing the unknown–the rewards can outweigh the risks that you take,” she said.
This improv experience would not have found a Sylvania connection without help from the Lifelong Learning program. Dr. Laura Megeath has done an outstanding job building up the program over the past 12 years. It enrolled 363 people in 2019–the last full year of programming before the coronavirus slowdown. Her goal for the upcoming semester has been to broaden the class offerings to grow the number of participants even more. This fall offers 35 one to six-week classes, four monthly lectures, and six special programs. Topics range from Current Challenges in College Sports to the History of the Republican Party, to silk scarf painting.
“We build our classes around current trends, local and world news, history, arts and culture–anything that appeals to the intellectual curiosity of our audience,” Dr. Megeath said. “The programs have a strong appeal to retired people, but also attract workers employed in flex jobs or working remotely from home. While some of the classes skew female, we get lots of men for topics like automotive history and weapons of the Civil War.”
So, getting back to the improvisation workshop, I’m not sure how many of my classmates were ready to change their lives as Diana did, but they all seemed totally engaged and, I think, were having a blast.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said participant Val McVicker. “My granddaughters had taken improv for a while, and they urged me to do it. I surprised myself when Dianne threw a situation at me and I actually came up with something! After being retired and not using my brain for a while, it was refreshing to be challenged a little bit.”
Pamela Rybka was there because a friend is a professional clown and thought improv would offer a similar experience. Instead, the trained counselor and social worker realized how improv might be used to help her clients. “I was thinking how it could get people with social anxieties to open up … where there is no right or wrong. It teaches people how to use their brain and live in the present.”
Linda Furney had a 21-year career as an elected official, including 16 in the Ohio Senate. There, she used the extemporaneous speaking skills learned in classes at Sylvania High School. But that is different than improv, she noted. “In the legislature, you talk without notes but already know what you have to say. Improv is a group effort and you work from cues. It doesn’t require any preparation, you show up, enjoy yourself, and go home.”
In addition to improv, Linda and classmate Shirley Jalso have each taken a number of other Lifelong Learning offerings at Lourdes. They agree that the program offers great topics, excellent instructors, and no preparation or homework. “You just go and learn,” Linda said.
Shirley moved to Sylvania three years ago from upstate New York and finds it’s also a great way to meet new friends. “The people I meet there are interesting, curious and well-traveled. And it’s not just people my own age. It’s nice to be around younger friends, too.”
Summarizing her experience, Shirley also identified the occasional guilty pleasures that make Lifelong Learning appealing. “In addition to improv, I’ve enjoyed programs in history, architecture and Shakespeare. Also, the wine classes are very nice.”
Lourdes Lifelong Learning’s monthly lectures are free, while classes and special events may require a small tuition. For a schedule and more information, call 419-824-3707 or visit Lourdes.edu/Lifelong.
Longtime Sylvania resident Mark Luetke has served on city council, the board of education, and numerous foundation and community boards.