Improv spreads to Oak Harbor

Gail Fleming and Kent Junge practice during a class by Michael Barker in Freeland.  - Photo courtesy of Erin Hildebrand
Gail Fleming and Kent Junge practice during a class by Michael Barker in Freeland.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Erin Hildebrand

Every Wednesday, a group from South Whidbey practices being less analytical. That’s why Erin Hildebrand recently found herself yelling “bunny, bunny, bunny” and placing her fingers above her head.

“There’s a lot to be said about how it applies in life and creativity,” she said.

Hildebrand is talking about improvisation theater, a scene that’s developing and gaining fans on the south end of the island. Pretty soon, this scene could spread to Oak Harbor after improvisation teacher Michael Barker begins his new class May 1.

“I hope it’s met positively and met with laughs,” he said.

Improvisation, or improv as it’s commonly called, is the art of making dialogue up on the fly. Improvisers take to the stage with no idea how the show will turn out. Some people think improv is just coming up with jokes, albeit quickly. But that isn’t usually the case, Barker said.

“Sometimes being witty and having clever one-liners is a downfall. What you want to be is spontaneous,” he said.

A resident of Freeland, Barker has been trained in improvisational theater over the last 35 years and taught improv classes in Los Angeles. Since his move back to the Northwest, Barker wanted to develop ongoing groups that would perform and eventually “compete” with each other. His South Whidbey troupe, called “Wake Up Laughing,” performs every few months, and he has a second South End group forming now. Oak Harbor was a likely next step for Barker.

“Although some Oak Harbor diehards currently commute to Freeland every week, why not make it easier for the North Enders?” Barker asked rhetorically.

Though ad-libbing might seem scary for the uninitiated, there are many advantages. Allan Ament of Freeland, a former lawyer and current classroom instructor, said he takes the lessons he learns from improv into the classroom.

“Laughter is one of the most important teaching tools we have,” said Ament. “Improv helps you be more agile and to think more quickly on your feet.”

In improv, students often move out of their comfort zone and learn not to over-think but to just do. Barker’s troupes sharpen their skills in listening, confidence and saying the word “yes” more often.

“If I say, ‘Bonnie, do you want to go to a picnic?’ They say, ‘Why yes, of course, it’s a sunny day.’ You can’t say ‘no’ because then the improv is killed,” said Barker. “It’s different from life. We say ‘no’ often to survive. But in improv, the guns aren’t real.”

The style Barker is going for is similar to “Who’s Line Is It Anyway,” a show that came to America from Britain in the late nineties.

It’s common for people to use improv to improve their acting skills, but Barker said the shows and classes won’t be limited to “actor-types.” The South Whidbey troupe, for example, brought in a judge, lawyer, doctor, carpenter, speech therapist and three engineers.

“I’m looking for diversity,” he said. “An engineer is very detail-oriented, whereas a professional speaker is talkative and poised. It’s also great to intermingle teens with people in their 60s and 70s.”

Barker will begin ongoing classes May 1, every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Ultimately, he said the class allows people to cut loose in an environment where people love and accept you for being foolish. Ament added that it’s a good way to overcome shyness.

“When you’re rolling around on the floor making animal noises, you’re just not shy anymore,” Ament said.

The workshops will be at the Whidbey Playhouse and are open to all people ages 16 and up. The cost is $50 per month. Contact the playhouse at 679-2237 for more information, or send Barker an email at

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