Improv comedy is not always a laughing matternot when, like Paul Bellos, you're in the serious business of crusading for the cause. Bellos is the founder and artistic director of Ideaprov, an improvisational training and performance group that first took root in Atlanta in 1998. Two years ago, Bellos began conducting occasional workshops in Nashville before deciding to relocate here last fall. Since then, he has been doggedly pursuing his goal "to equip and entertain theatrical and corporate leaders in the tools of improvisation."
Ideaprov has made a local impact in the past six months with performances at Hair of the Dog, Bongo After Hours Theatre, River Stages and venues in Franklin and Madison. Bellos has also launched a training program, which now numbers 20 hardcore students and has produced a handful of fearless improvisers who join him onstage, including magician Scott Cantrell, karaoke whiz Steve Mogck, recent Hillwood High grad Teri Luffman and Bellos' associate artistic director Lori Leigh. "Our students include musicians, film and stage actors, image consultants, businesspersons and people who just want to learn about speaking with confidence or who need a creative outlet," says Leigh, who also runs the drama program at Hillwood.
Nashville's flirtations with improv have yielded interesting performances from various troupes gigging in small clubs and coffeehouses, finding cultish followings and having their share of fun with the art form. Before teaming up with Bellos, Leigh was a performer with One Hand Clapping, perhaps the most successful Nashville improv company of recent years. But none of these groups has managed to last very longa consistent problem that Bellos aims to rectify.
"Everybody understands the value of improvisation," Bellos says, citing TV programs such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and even reality shows for helping to expose elements of improv to the average guy. "But they don't know how to get their arms around it. It's like a greased pig. They approach it with anxiety. Our training is designed to help people develop a level of comfort with the form."
Bellos' adult working life began as a salesman of office supplies, followed by stints as a casting director, corporate trainer and curriculum developer. He has since written more than 25 improv programs, including the book Just Kidding! Communicate Through Comedy, and has otherwise dedicated himself to spreading the improv gospel.
"Improv is a valuable risk to take because what you learn will be useful every day of your life," Bellos enthuses. "I see people walk into our classes with a glum face, but within five minutes of doing a crazy warm-up game, they've snapped into a different reality, and for two hours they get to play and take a break from life. We want to see people connect with what we're doing: to relax, conceptualize and take a systemic approach to creating. Past troupes in Nashville have been performance-oriented. Our goals are larger than that; we also want to train people, to be in schools, be a part of the educational process and be in the business community."
Bellos' master plan revolves around a theater training program called the Cycle, which is based on Chicago-style long-form improv. "Most people know about theater games," he says. "They have their value, and we do short-form improv with integrity: we're not going for the gimmick or the trick. But we're also looking to develop thematic ideas, to think on a grander scale rather than in three-minute clips with punch lines and resolves. One of the draws of doing improv is that it is organically developed right on the spot. A student has to want to develop that spontaneity, either because they feel they need that skill or are simply amazed to experience it happening."
If Bellos is the improv proselytizer, then he has found faithful disciples. Eric Berner, a trucking industry sales rep, has been in the Ideaprov program since last October. "The training forces you to be a better listener," he says. "It's a challenging thing for me, because it does not come easily. But it's helped me both personally and professionally."
Cayman Grant is a Nashville actress who had never previously done improv. "I love it," she says. "It takes me out of my comfort zone. Paul has an effective teaching style. His motto is, 'Don't ask questions, just do it.' He's very strict in his approach."
Dee Dee Ouzts, currently employed with the telecommunications company Convergys, is also an actress and an Ideaprov student who has performed onstage with the troupe. "It's all about the ability to think on your feet," she says.
With weekly classes now based out of Belmont United Methodist Church, and with regularly scheduled performances around town, Ideaprov's framework for establishing itself in the Music City arts scene is in place. Whether the company can advance beyond its local predecessors remains to be seen. But if anyone has the zeal and commitment to make improv a competing entertainment form, it would be Bellos. He's a man in constant motion, investigating networking possibilities, promoting his platform and, like many a Nashville theatrical entrepreneur, looking for a permanent home.
"I love Nashville," he says. "I see Nashville as a huge opportunity for any artist. There's this wealth of talent, financial resources and real estate. We're looking to have our own entertaining and training space. This is an unusual city in that people want to go somewhere that's established within 10 minutes of downtown. If you branch out from that, you're taking a huge risk. We've found that out from performing in different locations. We want a permanent venue that can draw people from the spokes of the wheel."
Bellos' long-term vision also includes operating with a sound financial bottom line, a healthy staff making a decent living, and 250 students per year running successfully through the system. "People have to be willing to invest in this because they are partners," Bellos says. "I don't want this to be a cult of personality. I should be able to remove myself from the performance aspect of what we're doing, so we can push other people out there. My goal is to facilitate for others. I want to be the mad scientist behind the curtain. Furthermore, I'm not concerned if it doesn't take hold right away. We will develop an audience because there's an audience of people out there. How could it not work here if it's worked in every major first-tier, second-tier and third-tier city in the country? If Atlanta can have seven working improv companies putting up shows every week, then why can't Nashville have one?"
For more information about Ideaprov, visit www.ideaprov.com.
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