FOR ACTOR AND IMPROVISER ALEXANDRA DICKSON ’99, who performs and teaches at New York’s famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, it all began in an introductory acting class during her mid year at Taft. “A lot of what we learned was improv-based,” she remembers. “It was all really fun, and it never made me nervous or felt scary or hard.”
She continued to study acting over the next three years and even joined the school’s improv group. Then, after graduating in 1999, Dickson found herself at Emory University, where, despite not studying theater, she made sure to follow an important piece of advice from one of her favorite Taft teachers. “Mrs. Fifer was always really supportive,” Dickson says, “and when I was looking at colleges, she told me that she didn’t care what I studied—I just had to keep improvising.” As a member of Emory’s improv team, she traveled around the country, performing and taking workshops, including at Chicago’s The Second City.
“At Second City, I realized that I could actually be doing improv as a career,” she recalls. “Up until that point, I had thought that it was just something that was fun but that I would eventually stop doing. Then I saw that there was a place where I could actually do this professionally.”
Dickson ultimately moved to Chicago and was soon cast as part of Second City’s touring company. After a few years with the ensemble, she relocated to New York, studying traditional acting at the Circle in the Square Theatre School. “I really missed improv, though,” she admits.
So a year after graduating, she started doing shows at Upright Citizens Brigade and quickly flourished there. “Acting school had made me a much better improviser, and since I already had experience with improv from my time at Second City, I came in with a good level of confidence,” she says. Dickson also has a pretty strong work ethic.
Now, Dickson appears every Friday night as a member of The Stepfathers, a five-person ensemble of improvisers that has been performing for nearly 15 years. “I joined the group in 2015, and I really believe that it is one of the best teams in the country,” Dickson says. “Over the years, a lot of really talented people have been in the Stepfathers, like Bobby Moynihan from Saturday Night Live and Zach Woods, who was on The Office.”
She’s also been part of another show called Improvised Seinfeld. The show has four improvisers who play Elaine, Jerry, George, and Kramer every time. “I play whatever support characters come up— George’s girlfriend, Elaine’s boss, Kramer’s pizza delivery guy, etc.,” Dickson says.
Dickson points out that, unlike the short-form variety of improv found on most college campuses, “with long-form improv, there are no games. The scary thing, and the hard thing and the great thing, is that we don’t have a gimmick. It’s just unscripted theater, and that could mean 30 minutes of a bunch of small scenes, or it could mean 30 minutes of one long scene, like a one-act play,” she says. “It really can be so many things.”
The second half of every Stepfathers show always begins with an audience interview. Dickson and fellow performers conduct an impromptu interview with an audience member, building an entire set around that conversation. “They don’t have to be funny, they just have to tell the truth,” she explains. “Sometimes they tell us a funny story, and sometimes the responses are very truthful but maybe dicey. No matter what, we’re always trying to pull the comedic idea from it.” Whether interacting with a packed theater or a single scene partner, this quality of improv—its ability to connect people—is what brings Dickson the greatest satisfaction.
“Truly, my favorite thing is that it only works when you’re honestly connecting with someone,” she says. “You have to hear them. You have to see them. You have to be affected by them and take them in. And when it’s really good improv, it feels so great because you’ve put yourself out there, and somebody across from you genuinely connects with you.”
—Christopher Browner ’12