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My Improv Journey

Updated: Mar 3, 2023



I posted recently on social media that it was the 6th anniversary of being laid off from my retail career and that I made a choice to only do what I love moving forward. And that was improv. Folks have reached out and asked me questions about my decision and the path I’m on now. I thought it might be worth documenting my journey in hopes that it will continue to inspire me as well as maybe someone else! Fingers crossed!


Backstory – I worked in retail from 1993 to 2017. I was a store manager since 1998 and specialized in experiential retail like Build a Bear Workshop, Vera Bradley, and American Girl Doll Store. That being said, I felt like I was performing each day in my retail work but knew that was not something I could sustain. I knew my position was being eliminated so I wasn’t surprised when it happened but I wasn’t prepared either.


· I was 48 years old.

· I had only worked in retail professionally.

· I had a degree in Theater.

· And I quickly learned, I was basically unemployable in any other field unless I wanted to take a drastic pay cut.


I decided after 2 months of looking for work, that if I was going to take a pay cut I would do something I love and invest in me. So, that’s what I did but I didn’t know where to start and that was paralyzing.


It was the people in the improv community that lifted me up, supported me and gave me my first opportunity. The first person who guided me to an opportunity was Elizabeth Byland. She got me in touch with her boss and a month later I started working as a substitute Improv and Acting Instructor at a local acting studio. I picked up shifts from other teachers and ran their classes when they had conflicts or illnesses. While I had taught some rehearsals at my improv theater and was a training manager in retail, I had never had an experience quite like that. And I wanted more!


This is where I began to shift my thinking, instead of waiting for an opportunity – I started creating and finding my own. About a month later, we started an adult improv program at the studio. I would teach all four levels in 8-week segments. I created the curriculum in partnership with Elizabeth Byland and we set things into motion. At the same time, I reached out to the owner and was also given a night of teaching Acting I classes. But I still wanted to do more!


I realized that teaching wasn’t going to be enough at this point financially for me so I explored what else I could do around the performing arts world. I had some informal experience in social media so I set out to take this on because I could do it from home and not be in an office. I reached out to the Acting Studio and took on their social media and marketing. The owner had previously been doing it. I reached out to my local Improv Theater and took on their marketing as well. They had not had any formal social media program. Since I had limited experience, I offered up my services for a percentage of ticket sales and class enrollment. It felt fair to both parties and gave us the opportunity to grow together.


After about 6 months, I was able to take on some contract work for social media through our large Performing Arts Center as well. My social media work allowed me to continue to explore and find more teaching opportunities. I continued teaching at the studio eventually teaching 4 nights a week. I started coaching local improv teams. I started teaching workshops at the improv theater and teaching Acting for Improv Classes at the Performing Arts Center. I worked with students preparing for Talent Showcases in Orlando. I taught private lessons. I taught improv to families at local breweries on Saturdays. I started doing marketing for my improv group. I started help producing an improv festival and monthly comedy shows. I had a full plate all revolving around acting, improv and performing.


Realities

· Many of my first opportunities had to be services I offered for free.

· I needed to prove myself in order to ask for more.

· I was working 40+ hours a week and making about half of what I made in retail.

· I was happy and fulfilled in the work that I was doing.

· I kept asking of more despite not having the time of energy to do more.



The pandemic was level setting and put things in perspective pretty quickly. The improv theater and the Performing Arts Center closed, and I no longer had work opportunities there. The acting studio quickly transferred to online classes, and I had to learn how to teach on something called Zoom. And that’s when everything really changed for me.


In May 2020, I taught some online workshops for folks local to my area and began to realize the zoom platform for teaching had tremendous benefits. Queen City Comedy with whom I’d help with shows and their festivals decided to offer online drop in classes in June 2020. These classes opened up the world to me, literally and figurately. Once I realized folks all over the globe were doing improv as well, I sought out classes and workshops from instructors, schools and people I had only dreamed of being in a classroom with. I threw myself into learning not only to grow myself but to source exercises, tools and techniques that I could share locally with my students.


While I had established myself as an instructor in my local community, online I was one of many. I wanted to do more but didn’t know how to. I offered to teach classes for free in several international communities and learned more from them, then they did from me. Finally, two theaters gave me my first opportunity to teach on an international level and get paid for it. Much thanks to Vintage Improv and Liverpool Improv Comedy. After teaching for them, I gathered more confidence and started putting myself out their more. I wanted to offer something different than some of the well known names in the improv community. I started with Acting for Improvisers and an Improv Lab where students chose what we worked on. Some classes were full, some were small and some of them sold out. Regardless of attendance, I kept on offering things and surprisingly people kept showing up.


After about a year, I felt like I had a greater understanding of who I was as an instructor. What my vision and style were as a teacher, and this helped me clarify my offerings and build curriculums that I was passionate about.



In May 2021, while I continued teaching at Queen City Comedy and the local acting studio, I opened my own company Dingle Drama. At the time, my husband was job searching and there was a huge chance we would have to relocate so I wanted to establish something that was my own and I could take anywhere in the world. I built a website myself. It was quite the learning experience. I got myself my own zoom and Eventbrite page and started with one day drop-in classes that were pay what you can. I reached out to people I knew and personally invited them to classes. I dropped info in probably every improv Facebook group. I did what I hate the most – market myself and put myself out there.


And I did all of this while fighting a huge case of imposter syndrome. I was in my head the whole time constantly doubting myself. But the improv community continued to lift me up. Glossop Improv asked me to teach a workshop for them as well as the Nursery Theater. Highwire Improv invited me to run several classes as well as coach one of their teams, The Improv Boost highlighted me as a recommended instructor and I found myself being invited to guest perform in shows and assist with online corporate events. Word of mouth is everything in the improv community and without these folks taking a chance on me, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today.


For the next year, I worked consistently online even after the world began to open up because the pandemic felt like a lesser threat. It was time for me to pivot again. While online improv will continue, the quantity on people online has decreased. I am committed to teaching online for so many reasons but I knew it was time for me to get out into the world. I’d have to balance the two worlds. UGH!!! That meant putting myself out there again, starting over in a way. So, I did. Shortly after, I was given the opportunity to teach at my first festival outside of the US. Thanks to Neil Curran and Improv Fest Ireland for believing in me. That was an incredible experience and like I’ve said before, I wanted more!!


That leads me to where I am today – I want to do more improv around the US and the world. I want to teach at festivals, camps, theaters, corporations, etc… I want to continue to branch out and share my love of improv with as many people as possible. I believe my passion around the intersection of acting and improv while embracing vulnerability and authenticity is a different take on traditional improv comedy. I LOVE what I do! I LOVE teaching!



I am also aware that through Queen City Comedy, we’ve created a global community and a platform. I now have the opportunity to lift others up and give them similar opportunities that were given to me. As the Education Director, I want to highlight more new and/or first time instructors. I want to be just as small part of their improv journey.

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Heidi Drew
Heidi Drew
Mar 06, 2023

Thanks for sharing, Karla. You are an impressive woman. I also want to teach online but have not, yet managed to make it happen. I've taught briefly independently in a small local community in California but I no longer live there and once for a local club here in Wellington, NZ . I'll keep trying.

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