Dont sit back and relax at improv: Engage

There will be plenty of opportunities to sit back and be entertained at Israel in the Gardens — but Debra Schifrin and the Improv Artists have something a little more interactive in mind.

“A big part of what we love about improv is that it’s really collaborative, very playful,” explains Schifrin, the producer and artistic director of the seven-person troupe, which will be performing at Israel in the Gardens. “When the audience is involved in creating a scene they become that much more connected to the action. It’s exhilarating.”

The Improv Artists will be the keynote performers in Israel in the Gardens’ first-ever “Theater Zone,” from 12:30 til 1:45 p.m.

Improv artists (from left) Patricia Pearson, Pamela Hawley, Debra Schifrin and Channing Clarkson do their shtick.

Schifrin formed the troupe in 2009, when curators at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco wanted a live theatrical program to go with their “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian-Jewish Theater” exhibit. (Schifrin’s brother, Dan, is the director of public programs at the CJM, and asked for Debra’s help.)

Drawing on actors she knew from her longstanding involvement with San Francisco’s improv community — people she’d met while working with troupes such as Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and the Unscripted Theater Company — Schifrin pulled together an ensemble for a unique show at the museum.

The actors projected images from the exhibit onto a screen and asked audience members to call out words and settings the art brought to mind, and the improv players used them as a jumping-off point for crafting comedic scenes.

“Sometimes just saying ‘What do you see in this piece? What character stands out to you, or what’s a relationship you see here?’ can yield some really interesting results,” says Schifrin. “The thing with improv is to always focus on questions.”

That show was such a success that the CJM asked them to prepare versions of it for two more shows, a fall 2009 exhibit on the art of Maurice Sendak, and a 2010 exhibition of New Yorker covers by artist Maira Kalman.

This will be the troupe’s first appearance at Israel in the Gardens, where Schifrin says instead of art, the audience will be asked questions about “fun cultural Jewish stuff” so improv actors can riff on their responses. The performance is appropriate for all ages.

In her non-theater life, Schifrin works as a researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She turns to improv as a creative outlet, she says.

“The fact of the ensemble coming together to create something, and the fact that it’s new every time is really what makes improv magical,” she says. “We’re just excited to share that with as many people as possible.” n

Improv Artists
perform 12:30 p.m. in the Theater Zone. For more informtion, visit

Emma Silvers