Funny is a side effect: How Third World Improv is developing people

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Third World Improv conducts classes and workshops on improvisational theatre, an art form where performers put on shows that are completely unrehearsed, unscripted, and created on the spot. Photo by JAY IGNACIO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Dog!” an audience member excitedly yells out among other crowd suggestions.

The group onstage, whose members range from a 13-year-old high school boy to a 40-something former beauty queen, thanks the audience member for her prompt.

Using the word ‘dog’ as inspiration, the group starts to make up a scene on the spot — depicting the fictional life of an American president’s abandoned son who ends up naming his dog after his long-lost father. The scene ends when a bell rings, which is followed by a roaring applause and cheers from the crowd.

The scene I just witnessed is but one of the many improvised performances by one of the student groups under the only improv school in the Philippines: Third World Improv (TWI).

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“At first I was hesitant to watch [an improv show] because I thought it was another one of those comedy shows where they’re making pahiya. But when I watched one, na-adik ako and I got so curious because ang galing-galing nila! Putting things together, being spontaneous, quick thinking, and very funny,” shares Toto Carandang, a TWI alumnus, with a laugh. “Ito pala ang improv.”

Improv, or improvisational theatre, is an art form where performers put on shows that are completely unrehearsed, unscripted, and created on the spot. Using audience suggestions to inspire them, they play games or tell stories that have never been done before and will never be done again. To many, the thought alone sounds daunting, but TWI sets out to equip people with the skills and mindset to jump in and do it anyway.

It’s no easy task to teach people how to think on their feet (and in front of a crowd, no less), but you wouldn’t be able to find a group better suited for the job than Silly People’s Improv Theatre, or better known as SPIT.

Being Manila’s premiere improvisational comedy group with over 15 years of experience, they decided to follow the footsteps of U.S. improv organizations like Second City and opened their own school.

“We felt that a legacy would not be complete if we did not pass on what we learned,” says co-founder and CEO of Third World Improv, Gabe Mercado.

By Jay Ignacio 2.jpg Third World Improv teaches principles that can be applied in real life, such as learning how to say 'Yes, And,' or accepting whatever comes your way and building on it. Photo by JAY IGNACIO  

The organization was founded in 2015, and is the country’s first school for improvisational theatre. From improv 101 and corporate training workshops to a full five-term program, TWI now has over 150 enrolled students and about a dozen improv groups under their organization.

“When they offered to have classes, I decided to take the jump and enroll because I was really curious about [the] process. At the same time I thought that I needed to get out of my shell,” Carandang adds. “I thought that improv would help me become more spontaneous, do something out of the ordinary and different from my usual routine.”

But just like improv itself, there were many uncertain things at the beginning of TWI.

“We honestly did not know the appetite for something like this,” Mercado admits. “A lot of people also still don’t know what improvisational theatre is. And the ones who do know become very intimidated!”

“We didn’t expect anything!” fellow co-founders Monica Cordero-Cruz and Dingdong Rosales add. “When we started, we were like, ‘Kahit dalawa lang mag-enroll sa first class, we’ll still push through.”

And it was exactly this “just dive” attitude taken from improv that has taken TWI from uncertain beginnings to being the trailblazers in the Philippine improv scene.

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You might think that because it’s a kind of theatre art, improv is best suited for people with performing backgrounds, but a majority of Third World Improv students have only ever performed after enrolling in the school. In fact, it has a surprisingly wide range of members — from students to professors, freelance filmmakers to industrial engineers, fresh-grads to titas of Manila, and even one whole family and the occasional foreigner.  

But while all these different types of people are certainly able to perform after the end of a semester, this isn’t all Third World Improv is about. The main focus is helping their students improve themselves as people.  

“When we started the school, it was clear to us na it wasn't going to be a school for performing. It was using improv as a tool for life,” Rosales says.

“It's not about being a star. It's not about being funny. It's about really getting to know yourself and working well with others as you discover yourself. ‘Funny’ is just a wonderful side effect,” Mercado adds.

“The principles of improvisation can really do a lot for the growth of an individual on a personal and organizational level. And coming from our own experience, it has changed so much of us, and later on we saw the effect din sa mga students.”

“They teach you improv — but it's more than that. Beyond the things you learn about the art form, you learn about the people you're with, you learn communication skills, you learn how to express yourself,” agrees Tonchi Mercado, an 18-year-old student and TWI alumnus.

And this is why their tagline, “Developing People,” is at the heart of what they do. Taken from the fact that Third World countries are “developing nations,” TWI wanted to use something that people felt was derogatory and claim it as something better. Third World Improv would take the shame out of “developing,” and make it something to be proud of.

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By Jay Ignacio 5.jpg “You become more original but also more agreeable. You become a team player, you're better able to adjust to the curveballs that life throws at you,” says TWI CEO and co-founder Gabe Mercado on the effects of learning improv. Photo by JAY IGNACIO  

Perhaps a large proponent of Third World Improv’s success is that their students are their product, their proof, and their best marketing.

When a shy young boy suddenly finds the bravery to do something silly onstage, or when a closeted gay man feels comfortable being effeminate in front of others for the first time, people take notice.

“It empowers people,” Pepe Manikan, a TWI teacher, says. “It’s an empowering experience to know that you can do something great…”

 “…just by being yourself,” Monica Cordero-Cruz adds.

And indeed, there are many philosophies of improv that, while necessary to improvise well on stage, permeate into the student’s mindset and help them grow.

“‘Yes, And’ is probably one of the most important principles of improv. It really teaches you to accept what comes your way and just build on it,” Karl Echaluse, a Level 2 student, shares.

‘Everything is a Gift’ is another principle that really sticks to many students.  

“When you say ‘everything is a gift’ that means everything around you is a source of inspiration,” Rayna Reyes, a 29-year-old senior copywriter and Level 4 student comments. “You can never run out of creative ideas.”

But maybe one tenet of improv that has profoundly helped many of its students is the idea of ‘personal truth’ — this teaches you that everyone’s truth is sacred, and when we live by what is true to us, we have everything we need.

“That’s what you go back on when you are onstage, that is what you draw upon. So for me, that is at the core of the community. It's easier to be yourself,” says Toto Carandang.

“Just come as you are, and that’s enough. You are enough,” Karl Echaluse adds.

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And maybe this is why, for a majority of TWI students, improv has become more than a hobby or a class, but rather a way of life. Because ‘life’ itself is a lot like improv — you never know what’s going to happen next; TWI students are also equipped with skills to navigate through their day-to-day obstacles.

“You become more original but also more agreeable. You become a team player, you're better able to adjust to the curveballs that life throws at you,”  Mercado says.

Besides more practical applications, several students have found that Third World Improv has helped them with more personal, emotional struggles as well.

“Improv helped me a lot, especially because I’m undergoing depression and it really helped me alongside my therapy,” shares Viola Nuñez, a TWI alumnus. A few other Third World Improv students who have opened up out their mental health have also shared the same sentiment — some of whom use it as their main outlet to interact, connect, and express themselves.

For several others, they found it easier to be more open about their sexuality within and because of TWI. For some, it has helped them cope with stressful experiences, overcome fears, and take on new challenges.

Elyss Punsalan, a freelance video producer and cancer survivor, tells me about her experience.

“I was coming from a dark place,” she shares. “I was coming from cancer and chemo, and I wanted something to bring back joy. Once I recovered, parang ‘Okay, I’ve been given this new chance to live. What do I want next?’ And the first thing that came to mind was: I want to be happy again.” And it was then, she shares, that she turned to improv. “I don’t remember laughing as hard as I did during improv.”

By Aih Mendoza.jpg Many students fall in love with improv theatre because of the community it’s surrounded by, which is often regarded as a safe space for all. Photo by AIH MENDOZA

You could say that improv is a lot like leaping off a cliff and building your wings on the way down. The good news? You don’t do it alone. Trust and teamwork with your scene partners are integral — and this spirit of camaraderie bleeds into life offstage.

So beyond the actual art and craft of improv, many students fall in love with it because of the community it’s surrounded by.

“It's really refreshing and wonderful to be with people from TWI because I feel like you deal with real people and they have no qualms doing silly things,” Carandang shares. “We’re with a bunch of people who are actually brave enough to be vulnerable on and off stage.”

Exactly because we’re taught to be vulnerable and expressive of our personal truths in class, a true and irrevocable sense of trust is created. In fact, many students of Third World Improv have come to regard it as a safe space.

“I'm getting to know other people like my classmates, and nag-deepen ang relationship namin sa isa't isa. It's a really good support group to have,” Viola adds.  

Within the course of TWI, they’ve even staged all sorts of different “themed” shows put on by different sub-groups within the school — an all women’s show, an LGBTQ pride show, a tita-tito show, and several fundraiser shows. There’s even a group that stars boys all named “Jason.”

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With all that being said, I still often times ask myself: Why do I improvise?

And the answer remains to constantly be that it has given so much to me, and continues to do so. Not only is it where I and countless others have grown to be better versions of ourselves, be it through creativity, communication, or confidence, but it’s also where we find community — bonds that can only be created through diving into the unknown together and coming out the other side with newfound self-discoveries and unapologetic honesty. Not only is it magical and exciting, but you get to do all this while having an insane amount of fun too.

You can only ever say yes.

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Third World Improv is holding an Improv for Couples Workshop on Feb. 4, an Improv Camp (Improv 101) in Baguio on Feb. 16-18, and an Improv for Families Workshop on March 11. They will be accepting regular-term Level 1 students in April. Visit the Facebook page for more details.