From In The Heights to in the moment

We’ve all been there: It’s opening night, and you’re excited to share your latest role with the audience. The curtain rises, the lights come up—and you forget your lines.

Improvisation is a great way to deal with those now-what moments, but its importance in the actor’s toolkit is far greater. From riffing in a live comedy show to handling the unexpected, improvisation is a skill that will improve your confidence both on and off stage.

Interlochen Arts Camp Instructor of Theatre Improvisation Keith Contreras-McDonald knows this well. His training with the Upright Citizens Brigade prepared him not only for improvisational roles, but also for success in scripted shows such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage show In the Heights and television’s Medium and CSI: Miami.

We spoke with Contreras-McDonald to learn his favorite movies, best tips for young actors, and how improvisation effects his everyday life.

How has improv helped you in life outside of acting?
Improv has helped me develop a quick wit, the ability to stay calm under pressure, and to always think a few steps ahead in all situations. It’s also given me superhuman powers like X-ray vision and the ability to breath underwater.

Who inspires you, and what’s the best piece of advice that they have given you?
I’m inspired by a broad range of comedians performing in different mediums from improv to stand up to sketch comedy and sitcoms. The best advice I was given was find the joy in failure, and don’t take comedy too seriously.

What pieces of media (documentaries, specials, movies, books, articles, etc.) do you suggest to your students?
Improv is better experienced by getting up and doing it, but there are good resources as well, such as “The Improv Handbook,” “Truth in Comedy,” and the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, as well as endless improv shows on YouTube. I think the best media to consume while training as an improviser is anything funny. However, the best improvisers are people who are experts in random areas. For instance, if you knew everything about native birds of the Northeast, and the suggestion was “bird,” the scenes created would be hilarious.

How do you stay sharp? Are there techniques you use to practice improv in your downtime?
I think to stay sharp, you have to keep doing and watching improv. It also helps to live the heck out of life and pay close attention to relationships, status, and what people say with their bodies versus with their words.

When things go wrong or a joke doesn’t land how do you keep yourself from getting discouraged? Or how do you deal with those emotions?
I’ve always said if you think it’s funny, it’ll be funny to the audience. There’s no failure in improv because you are making it all up as you go. If there is no failure, then there’s no reason to be discouraged. A toddler doesn’t feel bad after telling a bad knock knock joke. Instead, the joy and enthusiasm with which they deliver their bad joke with makes all the adults in the room laugh and applaud. That’s the heart of great improv: imaginative, committed, joyful play.

What advice would you want to give now to the teenage version of yourself?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Also, buy stock in Apple and Amazon. I feel like that will work out great.

Interested in learning more about the art of improv? Check out this summer's High School Theatre Improvisation Summer Program, led by Contreras-McDonald.

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