She’s describing the guidelines to performing improvisation. Doing extemporaneous acting, you work to create a sense of place (she refers to Viola Spolin’s book Improvisation in the Theater), and this place impacts behavior. For instance, she points out that you act differently in a library than you do in a crowded Italian restaurant. “You set up a ‘where.’ Within that ‘where,’ you start to build the scene. Two people just talking are like talking heads in nowhere space. You’ll just talk, talk, talk and die; there’ll be a trapdoor that’s going to open, and you’ll just go through it.”
The actual rules to doing improvisation are even more specific. The actors don’t ask questions, which she says is a habit very hard to unlearn. “When we ask questions, we stop the forward movement. Instead, you agree and move forward. And you never are negative. You add information, a gesture, an attitude; you give to the other player.”
All this is in reference to her improvisation troupe, Improv Nation, which will be performing at Shadowland in Ellenville on April 30 at 8 p.m. Seven members of Actors & Writers have been working together since 2006, presenting their unscripted evenings of comedy and drama at Unison, SUNY-Ulster, the Rosendale Theatre, RAG, the D & H Canal Museum and at the Odd Fellows Theatre, home stage of Actors & Writers in Olivebridge.
Dillon studied with Spolin, and while a cast member of Saturday Night Live she worked with Del Close, co-founder of Second City Improv. She admits that improvisation is not for the faint of heart. “A lot of actors are frightened of improv,” she says. “It’s dangerous: There’s no script, and you could look like a fool – or not.”
Improv Nation boasts a cast of bravehearts that includes Nicole Quinn, Jason Downs, Sophia Raab Downs, Mikhail Horowitz, Davis Hall, David Smilow and Dillon. One of them (you guess who) has tagged the troupe a “company of gibberish-talkers, conceptual tightrope-walkers, off-the-cuff scene-makers and ridiculous risk-takers.” It’s an entirely collaborative venture. “We do theater games like ‘expert’ and ‘gibberish interpreter,’ ‘freeze tag,’ ‘first line/last line.’ The audience is very much participatory. We go into it knowing what games we’re going to play, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” says Dillon.
When she’s not onstage with Improv Nation or Actors & Writers, the Tony-nominated, award-winning actress teaches improvisation and drawing to young people, and curates art shows in her own gallery, the Drawing Room, in an 1840s house in Stone Ridge. Dillon moved to this “anti-Hamptons” (her term) enclave after visiting friends in the area over the years.
“I was such a city girl…never really fond of the country. I lived in Manhattan and Hollywood for years. After 9/11, my priorities shifted and I rented a one-bedroom cottage in Atwood. The country brought out another aspect of my creativity: my artwork. I never really honored that aspect of me until the country. Now I have an art gallery. I really think it’s a creative vortex up here in the Hudson Valley. One is given one’s privacy, and the physical environment is stunning.”
Dillon teaches improvisation in the local schools, and talks about working with children as being constantly surprising. “The younger the child is, the less afraid. They amaze me. I never know where they’re going to take me. Kids will throw you a curveball. Personally, I think it’s valuable for anyone. Improvisation teaches you how to be relaxed when you’re right in the center – it’s very Zen – how to be relaxed when you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen; to listen and not go into your own head; to hear everything; to learn how to trust and be silent. Sometimes the best response is no response.”
Improv Nation has been preparing for Shadowland since February. “When my company meets to rehearse, we’re not rehearsing what we’re going to do. We’re learning more trust, more give-and-take, and how to listen, how wonderful silence is. All I have onstage is my other players. And if I fall back, I want to be caught. It’s not standup comedy; I’m not out there alone. I’m only as strong as the whole group is. We have the added advantage that we know each other; we have a sense of each other. And the more refined you get at improvisation, you know there are no mistakes. There’s just moving forward, being positive, agreeing and building a scene. ‘Create an object, say a line, create an object.’”
She talks some about her move to Stone Ridge in 2004. “As an actress, I’ve done theater, television, movies, even some standup comedy. I feel that these past few years, when I’ve focused on improv and my art, they feed me.”
The Drawing Room reopens on May 29 with a group show. “I wish I could turn my whole house into a creative center for children,” she says. “They draw because that’s what they do. No one tells them they can’t draw; they just do it. My own work has a kind of childlike quality. I try to keep the wonder of a kid in my life.”
Shadowland audiences can anticipate the thrill of watching something being invented right in front of them this Saturday night. Admission is $12 and reservations are recommended. Tickets are available at the Shadowland box office or by phone. For more information or reservations, call (845) 647-5511 or visit www.shadowlandtheatre.org. And watch for Improv Nation’s appearances at the Rhinebeck High School auditorium on June 10 and at the Maverick in Woodstock on July 3.