Gretchen Shull finds fulfillment in improv

Lynlee Derrick

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Framed by red curtains and highlighted on stage by blinding lights, senior Gretchen Shull takes the lead in a sketch on stage during practice.

As co-captain of the FHC improv team, Gretchen’s untouchable talent and prior experience help to enrapture her teammates. Her perfectly delivered jokes and ability to keep up with the other members provoke uncontrollable laughter from the others. 

While smiles and bubbly laughter fill the auditorium during improv practice, it’s not as easy as Gretchen makes it look. The improv team focuses on the ins and outs of the theatrical technique of improvisation. There are no scripts, and you have to think on your feet. This raw improvisation allows for a flow of creativity that Gretchen uses in many aspects of the arts, such as ballet and tap dance classes at Ada Dance Academy.

“I like tap better than ballet,” Gretchen said. “Tap is my favorite. It’s more rhythmic, and I find that it’s easier for my body to do. I can hear the beat, and I can replicate it easily.”

The rhythmic dancing helps to add to Gretchen’s numerous talents. A lot of what she learns in dance classes, along with her vocal lessons, is applied to theater. For musical theater auditions, having the added experience in dance and an exquisite voice makes Gretchen stand out.

However, during the fall season, most of her time is consumed by her passion and dedication to the improv team. This love for performing started when Gretchen was in a theater camp that magically connected her to what would soon turn out to be her future passion.

“I really loved just playing the improv games,” Gretchen said. “I did a theater camp at [the Civic Theatre] in the summer, and we would always play improv games. I noticed I was okay at them, so I decided to take a class, and I really liked it. Then I took another class, and it all kind of snowballed from there.”

Without this snowball effect, Gretchen would have never joined the school’s improv team that has connected her with similar-minded people– those that share a passion for comedy and acting combined.

The passion that connects the improv team is important when on stage. Due to the nature of improv, you have to keep a scene going to entertain a crowd. Everyone has to come together to make sure the show is engaging and fascinating.

“The [improv] team always get super close just because we know that we have each [other’s backs] if we mess up; we can catch each other, help each other out, and make each other look good,” Gretchen said. “So, I’ve met some really great people through it. The team this year is great; we’re really close. Last year, we were really close as well.”

At every practice, it’s evident how much the team gets along.

“[Improv team] is just like hanging out with your friends,” Gretchen said. “Practicing is just fun and funny. Improv is fun to do, and to find people who are also interested in comedy and having fun [is great].”

Gretchen’s own interest runs deep. To her, improv has played an important role in her life for these past three years. While that may not seem long enough, it’s enough to form a connection to the art of improvisation even outside of the team.

“[I love] just improv [as a whole],” Gretchen said. “I love it because it allows you to make mistakes and then fix them and not have them even be mistakes anymore. They’re just funny parts of your scene. I love how [improv] allows you to goof around and be funny.”

Her interest in comedy has led Gretchen to the bustling Windy City. Opportunities surrounding comedy are abundant in Chicago, and Gretchen has gone twice; both times, she has been immersed in theater.

For a two-day trip with the improv team, Gretchen was able to see everything from an improv Shakespeare show to the Navy Pier; however, she’s also had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Chicago at a comedy camp. There, she was around kids from California all the way to Ohio who were brought together over their shared passion while learning all of the ins and outs of what it takes to make the crowd smile.

“It was really interesting to learn the almost equation behind a stand-up set,” Gretchen said, “or learn the different types of sketches that you can write and how to write them easier. It was really interesting to learn some new information on the more informative side.”

These theater-based experiences have opened up Gretchen’s eyes. Having such a dedication and love for being on stage has been powerful enough to leave a big impact on her.

“I’ve noticed that I think about things differently,” Gretchen said. “If I’m in a problem in life, it allows me to think of different ways of how to solve it. I can see which one will maybe turn out better than the other, or it just honestly helps in normal daily life and conversations. It’s just nice to have.”

Having such an applicable tool under her belt has given Gretchen a leg up in life. While audiences only see comedy sketches and improv shows on stage, the performers are exercising useful skills for everyday life. Keeping this tool in her life is something Gretchen values.

As a senior, she has been faced with the unknown oblivion that is life after high school. Yet comedy and improv have always been a must, and Gretchen hopes to major in it while attending a college in Chicago. Despite how hard people claim the show industry is to get into, Gretchen has the support of friends, family, and teachers.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Don’t try to go into comedy’ or ‘Don’t go into theater as a job,’ ” Gretchen said. “If I didn’t have my parents supporting me as much as they do, I don’t know if I could feel comfortable enough to go ahead and try [theater].”

With an army of dedicated supporters behind her, Gretchen has been able to delve into her passions with talent and vigor. While enjoying all aspects of the arts, Gretchen is sure that it will always remain in her future, and she will always remain dedicated.

“Improv isn’t just getting up there and acting silly,” Gretchen said. “There are certain things you can do in a scene that’ll inherently make the scene die out or just make a scene boring. You have to ramp it up. You have to work for it.”