by NATHANIEL NELSON
On Tuesday night, Third Street in downtown Winona was filled with hearty laughter and more singing than usual. For the last four weeks, a group of kids has been bringing improvisational comedy to the streets as part of the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts’ (MCA) Main reACTion program –– a student-focused improv troupe that is in its debut season.
Iris Smith joked about Shakespearean speed dating in a game titled “Story, Story, Die!” in which students continue a story from one person to the next while audience members are invited to shout out “die,” causing them to die a dramatic, humorous death.
“I like making people laugh, and having other people make me laugh,” Smith said of her experience. “I like acting and performing, but I had never done improv before.”
Smith is one of nine students involved in the inaugural program, which was created as a result of the Winona Main Street Program’s Artists on Main Street grant. Katie Deysach, an instructor at MCA, explained that the idea came about as a way to get students involved in what’s going on in downtown Winona.
“Main reACTion is an improv troupe of kids who are using improv theater to explore the area around them,” Deysach explained. “We are using that theater to bring families downtown and kids downtown, because they don’t always appreciate space until they go there.”
The idea stemmed from acting and theater classes at the conservatory, where students often use improv as an acting exercise to practice delivery and creativity.
“The kids really enjoy the improv parts of it, because they don’t get enough outlets for creativity,” Deysach said. “You can see their different personalities come out, and it’s fun for everyone.”
Deysach worked to develop a plan earlier this year and applied for the Artists on Main Street grant, and after the troupe was selected, auditions moved forward. While the program is an MCA production, not all of the students are currently enrolled in arts classes at the conversatory. The auditions for Main reACTion were opened up to the public and only half of the nine students in the troupe are current theater students, Deysach explained.
From there, the students had four practice sessions where they were taught a number of different improv games, as well as skills to be able to take on other people’s ideas and use them in their own way.
Part of the push for improv also stems from Deysach’s own experience, having gone to an arts-focused high school in the Twin Cities.
“I grew up around the theater and the arts,” she explained. “When I was in high school, my favorite classes were theater classes. At the time, I thought we were just having fun, but it actually taught me a bunch of skills.”
Those skills include creativity and confidence, which Deysach added are what the students in Main reACTion are developing in earnest. Some of the students started out shy, and having difficulty even speaking in front of people, but over the season, many of them have become outgoing, contributing heavily in every performance.
“Having it downtown let’s people who are walking down the street to stop and watch,” Deysach added. “They hear other people laughing, and when they hear other people laughing, they know they are doing something really well.”
This was evident at their last Tuesday performance, where the troupe performed in front of the bus station on the corner of Third and Center streets. Groups of people wandered up and stood, watching students like Seamus Schwaba dance around and joke with one another. Schwaba ate up many of the scenes he was in, even declaring once that he was hogging the stage a little bit, but as he danced around declaring himself a gazelle, the audience couldn’t help but crack up.
“It’s really fun to think on your feet,” Schwaba explained. “Normally, when you go up, you stand there and have no idea what you’re doing. You just wing it.”
The first season of Main reACTion has been wildly successful, Deysach said. While attendance varies from one show to the next, the students have been having a blast and can’t wait to do more.
“We have so much interest from the kids and other kids who came to see it that we are adding a school-year version,” she stated
While the school year performances have not yet been scheduled, Deysach explained that getting the children out into downtown has been good for not only their confidence and self-esteem, but also for connecting the students with their neighbors.
“They are part of the community, so being able to take their talents and interests into the community has been huge for them,” Deysach said.
Main reACTion has two more free Tuesday performances for its inaugural season, which will be held at to-be-determined locations on Third Street on July 30 and August 6 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Auditions for the school-year edition will be held at MCA on August 11 from 6-8 p.m., and selected members will perform several performances every month throughout the school year. For more information, contact MCA at 507-453-5500.