Every Friday, Chris Simpson takes a train to New York City, enters a building in the West Village, and acts out.
Simpson, an Audio Design Editor in the Music Department since 2008, pretends to be something he’s not — an astronaut, maybe, or a carnival barker.
He says outrageous things to people he doesn’t know, and has no idea what he’ll say next.
Chris Simpson is doing improv.
“It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” said Simpson, who’s enrolled at the training center of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), the comedy theater which counts Parks & Recreation star and Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler among its founders.
“I was on stage within three minutes of starting the first class. Classmates throw ideas at you, and you have to work to mold a character, a setting, an idea between you and a partner.”
Improv is all about teamwork.
Simpson and his classmates are concentrating on the bedrock process known as “Yes, and…” in which an actor offers one element of a scene (“I’m the President of the United States”) and others accept it by adding a new one (“yes, and I’d like to sing the State of the Union address.”).
Each new offer propels the action and defines the characters.
“You need a willingness to work with someone and agree with them, no matter how outlandish their ideas are,” said Simpson. “You erase your agenda when you start with improv.”
Simpson, who’s taken acting and voiceover lessons in London and Los Angeles, has a Screen Actors Guild card thanks to a 1-line appearance on the 2003 ABC sitcom Married To The Kellys. He also voiced a line in Everybody Loves Raymond (“WINS newstime is 6:29”), and was a background dancer in an episode of That ‘70’s Show.
“They dressed me up like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and I got to boogie down,” he said. “I still get little checks from these shows—I just got a $34 check from Raymond.”
He’s always been interested in comedy, and decided to try the UCB at the recommendation of a former boss, writer/actor David Koechner (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Office).
“They had a scholarship for differently-abled people and old people –over 35 –and I’m 36,” said Simpson, who was awarded the scholarship after an essay and interview for the 8-week course which began June 3. And those “diff-abilities”? “
“In 2002, I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in the area that normally processes audio,” said Simpson.
Amazingly, a pre-surgery MRI revealed that his brain had rewired itself to process audio on the other side, allowing him to return to work after the removal of a baseball-sized tumor.
Since then he’s had two subsequent brain surgeries, with a minor loss of acuity.
“I have trouble remembering names and faces” — a problem in a place where there are more than 4,000 people employed.
“Someone could shadow me for eight hours, then meet me in the breakroom later and I won’t recall their name.”
As a result, Simpson keys in on personalities.
“If you tell me what a great shadowing session we had, it all comes back,” he said.
Improv has also helped Chris recover his vocabulary after his most recent surgery.
“It’s been great for work—it teaches you how to build trust, create something together, and be quick on your feet.”