Embracing the fear

By Matt Watson

Nancy Syburg started doing improv because she wanted to accomplish six challenging things to celebrate her 60th birthday. Sara McCarthy, 42, signed up for dance classes after she pledged to do something in 2011 that scared her. Matt Wexler, 31, wanted to go out and experience a thrill before the birth of his first child.

They are all students of the Fear Experiment, an innovative performance-based project created by Saya Hillman, owner of Mac ’n Cheese Productions, 3320 N. Ravenswood Ave. The premise behind this venture is to bring strangers together by pushing them out of their comfort zone. Forty applicants were selected to take an improvisation or dance class of their choice from January until March. The sessions cost $185, and the performers will show off the skills they learned in a performance on April 9 at the Park West Theatre, 332 W. Armitage Ave.

Hillman required applicants to have no professional background in performing arts and explain why they were afraid to try something new.

“Saya likes creating a community by going through new and uncomfortable situations together,” said Pete Aiello, improv instructor for the Fear Experiment. “The combination of personal growth and community building is a great environment for getting to know people because we’re all making a fool out of ourselves together, so a lot of inner walls and personal barriers come down.”

Hillman emphasized the focus of the classes and final show is to learn an unfamiliar skill and create new relationships and network with people outside of their normal environment.

“Obviously, you can give back to the community in Chicago and volunteer places,” Hillman said. “You can take improv or dance classes and meet people through Match.com or any type of site, but I don’t think there’s anywhere you can do those all together.”

The participants also work with underprivileged Chicago Public Schools students.

Hillman, who teaches interactive media at CPS on the South and West sides, included her students in the experience. The dance participants went to the students’ school and taught them their routines. Hillman also showed them how to videotape and edit the performances and is in the process of making a documentary out of it.

“These are very isolated communities, and these kids don’t get opportunities like that very often. So it was really cool to bring them to the theater and show them a world they otherwise would not have known,” Hillman said.

On Jan. 31, this now tight-knit group of people stepped into the Mac ’n Cheese studio for the first time and awkwardly introduced themselves to each other.

Three weeks later, they chatted after rehearsal ended and discussed what bar to go to. According to Hillman, the group’s dance instructor, Christina Chen, is now dating one of last year’s performers, and many other close friendships and relationships have sprung from the exhibition.

“I met so many great friends, and I got this cool experience,” said Jen Swanson, who performed in the 2010 Dance Experiment. “I will always be able to say I danced in front of hundreds of people.”

The Fear Experiment is a spin off of the Dance Experiment, Hillman’s first foray into producing performing arts. As part of her 2010 to-do list, she wanted to perform a hip-hop dance on stage. She decided to gather 16 people she knew, hire a choreographer and get to work.

Hillman knew all of the participants in the Dance Experiment, but made sure none of them knew one another, which was essential to her quest to get people to step outside the box, she said.

“I wanted to keep the theme that you can’t sign up with friends because I find that when you do something with people you know, you don’t usually push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Hillman said.

She also wanted the teachers to be inexperienced, adding to the level of experimentation. Neither Chen, who was a dancer, nor Aiello, who performed improv, had ever taught a class before the Fear Experiment.

The group rehearsed from January to March 2010 and performed two shows on April 8 and 9 at the Pegasus Theatre, 1145 W. Wilson Ave.

The people involved in the Fear Experiment have no desire to be famous. For the performers, the opportunity to be in the spotlight for one night was appealing, Hillman said.

“Having people pay to come see you is reserved for rock stars, not for regular folks like us,” she said.

The shows last year sold out, so Hillman decided to expand this year, adding the improvisation act. When she sent the notification to sign up for the exhibition, the response was overwhelming, she said.

“I can’t believe this grew out of some random, stupid concept I began last year,” Hillman said. “I had to turn away about 30 people for the dance and 20 for the improv this year. People have already started signing up for the next installment.”

The Fear Experiment has evolved into a dynamic, multifaceted production. With the addition of the improv experiment, performances will switch back and forth between 5- to 10-minute dance numbers and improvisation sketches and a dance performance by CPS students.

“In this day and age, people have such short attention spans that they need things to be changing all the time,” Hillman said.

The improv and dance groups now practice two days a week for two hours each. With every successive session, they venture farther out of their comfort zone. According to Aiello, the improvisers already moved on from basic improv into scene and character development. Chen said after she saw what last year’s performers were capable of, she raised the bar for the dancers.

At their Feb. 21 rehearsal, the actors performed improv games such as “tag it.” Five improvisers got on stage and pretended to be an advertising firm solving a problem, with the audience shouting ideas on different topics, such as “noisy corduroy” and how nothing rhymes with “orange.”

The actors must work together and come up with a dialogue on how to solve the problem. They rigorously agree with one another, no matter how ridiculous the idea and keep going until they come up with a marketing tag line.

“It’s a great escape from my normal life,” said Greg Christian, an improviser who runs a consulting firm. “I’m pushing 50, and I don’t want to start slowing down. This is a way to speed myself up.”

The performers all have day jobs outside of performing arts. Getting out of their homes in the dead of winter and jumping headfirst into the unknown was a risk that produced well-earned rewards, Christian said.

With Chicago being a national destination for aspiring improv actors, Aiello said the Fear Experiment sets itself apart from established venues like Second City and Improv Olympics by removing the serious and competitive aspect of improv.

“Improvisation in Chicago is a strong and vibrant community, but a lot of people come to Chicago to make it professionally in improv,” Aiello said. “It’s really refreshing for me to be part of a group of people who only want to have fun. There are no other underlying motives for people except to have fun and stretch themselves.”