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Posted on Sat, May 7, 2011 : 4:43 a.m.

New improv circle puts skits on YouTube

By Jennifer Eberbach

A new improv circle has formed in Ann Arbor. The group is led by Robert Hughes, a performance artist, improv actor, and videographer. The thing that makes these workshop-like sessions unique is that the group collaborates to film short skits for YouTube and other websites.

The improv circle is held twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesdays from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. (next meeting: May 10) at the Inter-Cooperative Council Education Center (located behind the Luther Coop at 1510-1520 Hill Street near the painted rock). All skill-levels are welcome.

During the first part of each improv circle, participants play “improv games” that “help us warm up and get into different emotional states,” Hughes says. The second half is dedicated to developing and filming short skits that can be shared on video sites like YouTube.

Videotaping is a useful tool, according to Hughes: “Cameras are an integral part of doing this kind of improv. They let you see everything, catch everything that happens in the moment. Afterwards, I can analyze it and find the best parts and see how the different actors are interacting with each other,” he explains. Videotaping improv sessions can also give writers and filmmakers ideas for their scripted pieces, according to Hughes.

Hughes encourages improv circle participants to consider leading a session one day, bringing in their own ideas for skit or improv games for the group, learning how to operate the video equipment, or co-facilitating the improv circle in other ways. He would love for people to join the group who are already working on ideas for skits, scripts for plays or films, and performers such as actors who are already in a production.

However, he makes a point to stress that “all skill levels are welcome.” Anyone interested in either bringing their own ideas to the group or helping others act out and film their ideas are welcome.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who has an idea for some short skits or people already in a production. Maybe they want to get part of that production brought to YouTube. It would be great to have people from local production companies come and do a scene from a play they’re working on,” Hughes gives some examples of people who would benefit from the improv circle.

Besides leading fun and inspiring sessions, Hughes aims to grow the group as a “professional resource” for people who are seeking “career-oriented” collaborators and opportunities to develop their short films and other types of productions.

I dropped in on one of the very first meetings this April and got a chance to play improv games with the group. My favorite game was like an improv version of freeze tag. Two of us would improvise a scene at a time, and a third would call ‘freeze’ at some point and take over the stance and gesture of one of the actors. Then the scene continues — usually moving in a completely different direction in funny or interesting ways. This is one example of the many improv games in Hughes arsenal.

We didn’t end up filming anything the day I stopped by, but Hughes talked about his idea to film a series of “Zen Parables” with the group in the near future. The short morality tales come from the Zen Buddhist tradition, and they are similar to parables found in other religious traditions and literature such as Aesop’s Fables.

View a short film Hughes recently created for Take Back the Mic’s “Fight On” campaign:

Hughes has worn a lot of professional hats, currently spending part of his workday hours as a videographer (among other work). He achieved a certificate as a videographer from the Specs Howard School. Over the years, he has participated in a few different improv groups and has lead a number of sessions.

He says his true passion is performance art. While studying Polarity Therapy at Heartwood Institute in California, the former alternative wellness practitioner “turned my dorm room into ‘the living art project,’ and I’ve had a long term association with myself as a performance artist. It’s my passion, but I’ve never made any money at it,” he explains.

Hughes has incorporated video work into some of his performance art. A video about his performance A Gift for the Beloved, a piece that asks the “what does peace mean to you?”, features a mysterious suitcase, Uncle Sam, and a car covered in messages of peace. One thing you do not see in the video is that the “art car,” a Dodge Colt covered in large green star-shaped stickers, traveled to public gatherings were random strangers wrote messages about peace on the stickers.

Hughes' own personal interests are drama, therapy oriented art and performance, and spirituality. He makes a point to say that “improv isn’t only comedy. It translates to any genre.” He thinks the art of improv is all about “tapping into different emotions and exploring them.”

Email Robert Hughes at View his Youtube Channel, starman2765.