JesterZ Improv Theater owner Jef Rawls

JesterZ Improv Theater owner Jef Rawls, left, watches his students perform.

Ten people sit in a semicircle at JesterZ Improv Theater in Mesa, listening intently to owner and improv professional Jef Rawls caution them about the critical voice within. 

“Don’t let your inner saboteur write rules that are not there,” Rawls says. 

The group has signed up for JesterZ’s eight-week Level 1 improv class. The course is designed to teach basic improvisational skills through different exercises and games. 

At the end of the eight weeks, students perform a showcase in front of a JesterZ audience. JesterZ has four levels of ascending classes. 

The Level 1 class is a diverse mixture of young and older students consisting of teachers, a restaurant worker, an IT specialist, a heating and air professional, an empty nester, a 17-year-old who celebrated her birthday at JesterZ, and a high school junior.

 Each has a specific reason for taking the class. For some, it is a desire to step out of their comfort zone. 

Others say that while they feel relaxed communicating with family and friends, they are nervous and introverted around strangers. Two admit interest in improv after attending a JesterZ show. 

While a handful of improv students can advance on to be JesterZ understudies and main stage performers and professionals in other forms of comedy, many students simply experience personal breakthroughs that help them cope with social anxiety and shyness.

Others take the classes to develop work presentation skills and increase self-confidence.

“If you’re looking for confidence, this is the place to get it,” said Rawls, a professional actor for 23 years. “Some are held back in social situations by fear of being judged by others, or they feel they don’t know what to say. 

“The skills learned in improv training help people conquer those fears and make them better conversationalists,” he added. “We can bolster someone’s voice to stand up and share in front of an audience. My goal is to provide tools to assist students in being awesome.”

“I watched an improv show and saw where you really had to step out there and be vulnerable,” explained dietician and culinary chef Michele Redmond, who took her first improv class a year ago. 

“I started taking the classes to get over this self-talk I had about being judged. I was holding myself back because I was judging myself. I feel more connected with people than I ever did before,” she added.

Improv differs from standup comedy. 

Standup comedians perform a rehearsed set of jokes and stories. Improv is live performances where characters and plots are created on the spot with no script or preplanning. 

At JesterZ, audience members suggest different storylines and character names to the performers, who then act out the situation in the moment. 

JesterZ instructors only teach and promote clean comedy. 

Rawls believes improv is learning the art of reacting to others and listening with the eyes and responding to another’s body language. 

“Improv exaggerates reality,” he said. 

“There is comedy within truth, and truth comes from reality. To be funny, there has to be some foundation in truth so an audience can understand and relate to it. The trick of improv is to explore reality, then play with it.”

Pairing the students in dyads, Rawls led them in a game where one pretends to hold a large basket while their partner reaches in to pull out imaginary items and then names them as quickly as possible. 

The exercise is designed to activate idea flow.

“The more you can get ideas out without hesitation and self-criticizing, the better,” Rawls says. “When you’re able to pull many ideas at once, you have more choices to make better decisions. 

“And, what works in improv works in everyday life,” he continued. “You can take that same process and use it in business and in solving problems.”

Rawls said improv teaches students how to be a “yes, and…” person, which opens them up to exploring options. 

“The fundamentals of ‘Yes, and’ are noticing another person’s idea has merit no matter how much we may disagree with it in the moment,” he explained. “That works on stage and in life. Being a ‘yes, and’ person opens up communication and collaboration.”

The next class starts Oct. 16. Information:  480-423-0120, jesterzimprov.com.

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