Consensual Improv has found a home in the valley

May 11, 2017

Miller Ford, Jeff Patterson and Gerald DeLisser work through a scene while Corey Simpson, Jan Garrett, Cassidy Willey and Nina Gabianelli prepare to jump in.
Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

Consensual Improv returns to Thunder River Theatre Company on Friday. To celebrate their one year anniversary, the group is working on mastering the art of spontaneous long form storytelling.

In 2015, right before the start of the new year, Jeff Patterson had a major realization: he didn’t have enough fun in his life.

“That feeling of possibility that I felt about 15 years ago when I lived in L.A.,” he said.


Before moving to Aspen, he found improv while working as a commercial actor in the city of dreams. Back in the ’90s, Patterson was studying with major comedians in the industry like Chris Barnes.


“I said, 'what would bring that feeling back, what would have me feel that again?'” said Patterson. “And what I heard inside was ‘do improv.’ And I thought, 'oh no, I don’t want to do improv.'”


Being onstage meant being accepted, making his mark, which was feeding his ego. But a few years ago, Patterson started musing on what it would mean to start practicing improv again.


“I looked in the valley and there was nothing so I just thought, ‘well what can it hurt? Why don’t I put a group of people together, share exactly what it is that I want to create and see if they want to play along?’ And that’s how it started.”


One year later, 12 valley actors make up Consensual Improv. Every performance the group’s put on since their first show in November has sold out days in advance. Together they perform plenty of short-form skits — games you might see on a show like say "Who’s Line Is It Anyway?"


At a recent rehearsal, the group is standing against the back wall. One person from the audience makes a suggestion and the group follows it up with a word association game.


This game prompts the actors to pop in and out of the spotlight, connecting stories to the words called out. Eventually, all the scenes are supposed to connect to formulate this greater story arch which is called the herald.


“Imagine a teepee,” Patterson said. “How at its base is far apart and if there were poles in the tee pee and those poles go upward but they start to move together. The farther you get into the herald, the farther along you go, the closer these varying ideas and concepts come to each other until eventually at the very end, they get tied together.”


The group then takes time out of rehearsal to reflect on the scene they’ve just created. This is the process: the actors analyze the parts that worked and didn’t, and measure their success level based on the group’s overall ability to collaborate with each other in the moment.


Nina Gabianelli acts as the Aspen Historical Society’s vice president of educational programming, and has been a leading performer in the valley for nearly 18 years. She said the rules of improv, like for instance saying “yes, and "have given her a structure to go off script with.


“Improv scared the living daylights out of me,” she said. “The absolute lack of control of what’s going to be said to you and then you having to accept that and build upon it.”


Gabianelli learned quickly that her fellow improv actors were there to have her back, but that it’s her responsibility to have theirs too. Because a major rule in improv is to just commit to the scene so that no actor onstage is left hanging in that awkward moment alone.  


Corey Simpson is Thunder River Theatre Company’s executive artistic director. He co-founded the group with Patterson and participates.


“She was terrified of doing improv,” he said. “She shared with me at one point that she used to be that person that before she came out onstage she wanted to know exactly what was going to happen and how. Watching her now, you can just see that her skill has developed so far over a short year and none of that is scripted.”


Gabianelli said there’s both an audience and a talent for this art form here, and the valley as a whole follows the same “yes, and” rule that grounds Consensual Improv.


“It’s that mind, body, spirit philosophy that we call the Aspen idea,” she said. “This valley attracts people that want to work together as a community. I have a saying: 'there are those of us in town with three jobs and then those with three homes.' Those are the two classes. But it takes both of us to be here to elevate each other to be at our best.”


The key, Gabianelli said, is finding voids in the valley with untapped potential to be filled. Like what Consensual Improv has done And judging from the group’s popularity, Patterson’s original vision is alive and well.


The group’s next performance at the Thunder River Theatre Company is Friday, May 12, in Carbondale.