Slice of Life: Mark Chalfant, improvising his way through life

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to

WASHINGTON – Mark Chalfant’s early theater career didn’t consist of late night comedy routines or intense studies of the theories of acting. It didn’t even occur to the 42-year-old D.C. resident that improv would be his career until 15 years ago, when he was suddenly struck with the acting bug in the middle of pursuing a career in foreign policy.

Today, Chalfant is the artistic and executive director for the Washington Improv Theater, affectionately called WIT by its members, a small but intimate improv theater organization located near U Street.

Chalfant has become an active part of the theater, expanding his improv career as a participate in one WIT ensemble, and teaching classes to those newly initiated into the world of improv.

You’ve been doing improv in D.C. for 15 years. What did you do before that?

I was here trying to build an international career. I was a language studies major in Russian so I was working at an international organization in D.C. I thought I was going to go on some path toward, I don’t know, foreign policy, foreign service, diplomacy — that kind of thing. Then theater kind of came along and whopped me on the side of the head.

What made you change your mind?

I just really fell in love with improvisation, with this art form. And I guess I really fell out of love with international organizations, and bureaucracy and the man, as you will.

You became a bit disillusioned with the D.C. politics?

Yeah, it just wasn’t a place where I wanted to spend my day every day.

So why the D.C. theater community specifically?

I came here initially was because my family was here. So that’s what started my roots here. But once I started doing improvisation in Washington, I found that it’s a really special circumstance here that makes improv fit. There’s a really high level of intelligence in D.C., like there’s some super smart people. So what those people bring to improv is really incredible; it’s not like dumb fart jokes, it’s like really clever social commentary that just sort of comes out of their mouth and really brilliant things happen.

And then also D.C. has this crazy workaholic culture where everybody is dedicating so much time to their jobs and their careers, and many people to causes that they believe passionately in. And unfortunately that really burns people out, because you’re just on all the time and you’re focused all the time, and you don’t get that sort of reset that you get from play. So improv for those people really replenishes their reserves and charges their batteries in a cool way. So I feel it’s like a public service to be sharing improv in D.C.

Did you do improv or theater before, like in college or high school?

No not at all, I was incredibly introverted and shy as a high school student. And in college I took one elective in college. It was the requisite fine arts elective. Everyone took acting, because really how could you fail, you know? And it was fun, but at no point did I think, “Oh I should spend my life doing theater.”

But now you’ve done it for 15 years.

That’s right. Improv especially is a different kind of theater because it really does crack you open as a person. There’s no script that you’re following, so all of the choices that you’re making, in some level they’re coming from you. And that’s incredibly scary at first, and then ultimately it’s incredibly liberating because you realize there really is an infinite amount of creativity inside of you, that you’re never really at a loss for what to do or what to say. And that discovery, I think, is what really made me fall in love with improv as an art form and that ability to sort of show you yourself in ways that are sometimes really cool and sometimes really scary. You’re like, “Wow, I can be really horrible.” It’s not hard. And just to gain that level of self awareness, it’s really powerful.

So how do you personally approach improv?

Every improviser has their own sort of default. And mine is definitely the responder. I tend to really engage in scene work when my scene partner has made a strong offer, and I can immediately triangulate with them and figure out a different, interesting sort of angle. I’m not always the first person onstage, to declare the first piece of information or to make the initiation as we’ll call it in improv. I like to respond, I like to help sort of build the emotional stakes. And in a group situation, with all this information flying around, and the plot — which we don’t really focus on in improv, but it’s always there in the audience’s mind — when the plot is getting really confusing and the story is feels like it’s going to go off the rails, I tend to be really good at making sense of it. Making a connection here or there so that the audience can kind of relax again and go, “Oh OK, that makes sense, I get it.”

When you first started doing improv, were you nervous at all? Because you’d never really done it before.

Oh I was petrified. I was actually involved in play-reading group where once a week we would just distribute copies of scripts. And whoever was the leader that week would designate who was reading what roles. And we would do what was called a “cold reading”

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