Steel City brings laughs and lessons

By: Fred Blauth | Editor-in-Chief

Features - Improv (cm)
Claire Murray / Asst. Photo Editor – Krish Moham (left), Cason Male (center) and Mary E. Stewart (right) perform a skit at the Steel City Improv Theater in Shadyside Friday.

If you’re anything like me, you are constantly making friends, loved ones, even complete strangers burst into fits of laughter at the comedic genius that you exude.

Ok, maybe not. But regardless of your ability, it’s safe to say that being funny is a positive trait to both possess and enjoy.

More than remembering witty one liners or knock-knock jokes, the art of improvisation is a practice that has always been an intriguing form of comedy to myself.

“It’s comedy that happens as a result of collaboration,” Elizabeth Speed, 34, from Pittsburgh tells me in a back room full of props at the Steel City Improv Theater in Shadyside last Friday.

Speed has been taking the level one class offered at SCIT (pronounced “skit”) since August and says that she’s learned to apply what she’s learned in class to real life situations.

“It’s something that you can take to work, relationships, friendships; it’s a way to constantly evolve and learn,” she said.

Mindy McHale, 46, who has been taking classes at SCIT for over a year now, agrees.

“It was challenging. I’m at a point in my life where I want to confront my own challenges,” McHale said. “You have to be agreeable, you have to be a good listener and you have to get over people watching you and caring what people think.”

“Plus, it’s fun,” McHale smirks while raising a bottle of beer in her hand in between two sets of shows Friday evening.

“Being a good listener” is a part of the founding principles improv students are taught in the beginner classes offered at SCIT.  “Listen. Commit. Play.” is both a motto and a practice Justin Zell, co-founder of the Steel City Improv Theater, teaches.

Moving from New York City after being let go from a previous improv group, co-founder Zell decided with his wife and co-founder Kasey Daley to create Steel City Improv Theater back in 2010.

According to Zell, first you have to “listen to not only what your partner is saying but what you’re saying.” From there you come to the Commit stage, or the practice of saying “yes, and…” to whatever you and your partner decided to go with while also adding to the scene.

“Don’t try to be funny. The funny will happen, you can’t force it,” Justin Baloh, 37 makes a point of mentioning.

After an introverted friend of his opened up more from taking a few classes, Baloh decided to enroll as well and is in the same level one class as Speed.

“I tend to over think things and in improv you really can’t. You don’t have time to, you have just have to react,” Baloh said.

After committing comes the final stage, Play. This stage is more experimental then the others Zell explains. Play is all about “letting go of the things we learn as adults,” such as  “I’m going to avoid not looking good,” or “abandoning anything that I don’t succeed at in five minutes,” according to Zell.

Unknowingly or not, Zell applied the principles of improv to his life.

Originally established in the North Shore, and now presently relocated to Shadysidel in January 2013, Zell and Daley were excited at the possibility Pittsburgh had to offer.

Now offering multiple levels of classes, shows and a weekly “jam” at 10 p.m. each Friday night that allows anyone to participate on stage, SCIT is thriving.

By listening to what life threw Zell’s way, saying “yes and …” to the obstacles he faced, Committing to his decisions and constantly playing or adapting to his environment, the art of improvisation is a skill not just comedians can learn from.