‘Everybody has a home here’: VCU theater instructor reflects on the impact of improv

Members of Running AMok, one of three improv teams at VCU.
Members of Running AMok, one of three improv teams at VCU. (Courtesy photo)

Growing up in Cincinnati wasn’t always easy for Elizabeth Byland, the director of VCU Improv and an adjunct professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Theatre. Byland spent her childhood training as a competitive gymnast, hopeful that she would make it to the Olympics. However, an injury waylaid her competitive ambitions.

By the time she was a sophomore in high school, Byland started cutting classes.

“My sophomore year I got my report card and I had all N’s, which an N, at that time, meant no credit, not even failing,” Byland said. “I was lying to my mom, telling her I was going to school and then I just wouldn’t go. And the reason was because I just felt like I couldn't fit in. I just felt like I didn't know who I was at school.”

Recognizing the need for change, Byland took her first speech and drama class.

“I remember my first improv class,” Byland said. “All of a sudden, being in a space where it was OK to be quirky and it was OK for me to raise my hand, it was OK for me to just speak up — I felt like I was starting to discover who I was and learning how to implement that voice in all these other social situations that I was really struggling in.”

Path to VCU


By the end of her junior year, Byland knew improv was the career she wanted to pursue. That made choosing a college an easy decision. She picked Northern Kentucky University solely because it had an improv team that traveled around the community and performed.

I remember my first improv class. All of a sudden, being in a space where it was OK to be quirky and it was OK for me to raise my hand, it was OK for me to just speak up — I felt like I was starting to discover who I was.

After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting at NKU in 2008, Byland went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts in performing arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2012.

While at SCAD, Byland met Sharon Ott, now chair of the theater department at VCU. In 2018, Ott contacted Byland with an opportunity to foster a community that Ott saw forming in Richmond.

“I brought Elizabeth in from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she had been living [and] working,” Ott said. “I knew of her great work at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I was a professor, then heard about her work on starting an improv festival in Charlotte, and also working with a group of senior citizens on improvisation.” 

Byland accepted a position as an adjunct professor on the condition that she could provide a platform for all students at VCU to further their learning outside the classroom and have an opportunity to participate in the art of spontaneous creation. Shortly after moving to Richmond in August, Byland wanted to create her own VCU improv teams, similar to the performance troupes she had seen in Chicago.

“You go to Chicago and you go to Second City or ImprovOlympic and there's not just one performance team, there's many performance teams,” Byland said. “Every performance team is made up of several different individuals with ... many different strengths, backgrounds, and that's what makes each team its own unique identity.”

The art of spontaneous creation


Once Ott gave permission to create the teams, Byland held auditions. To her surprise, students from across campus were interested.

Two of those students were theater majors Liam Joseph Finn and Chelsea Matkins. Without anyidea of what being part of an improv team meant, Finn said he went to audition primarily because of his long-time interest in improv. Matkins was inspired to join because she had played improv games with Jeff Darland, a VCU improv instructor, and she had friends who were on Darland’s student-led improv team.

In September, Byland created two teams — Running AMok, comprising 11 students from varying disciplines including Matkins and Finn, and Folie a Deux, a team starring VCU alumni Marcia Cunning and Hunter Madden. In March, Darland launched VCU’s third team, Children At Play, made up primarily of first-year students.

Both Running AMok and Children At Play perform long-form and short-form improv.

“Long-form is just where we are creating stories consisting of several different scenes that may or may not correlate,” Byland said. “It’s all inspired by one suggestion given to us by our audience. The duration of a long-form [performance] can be anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour of nonstop scenes — almost like a play except it's all improvised. No script.”

Short-form improvisations are similar to the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and consist of short, game-like scenarios with their own rules that actors try to abide by, Byland said. Short-form improv also has a higher audience participation rate.

“We do a bunch of warmups based on different strengths that we have to use during the whole thing,” Matkins said. “We also do environment building where we have to create one environment like a McDonald’s, or ... make a big object like a pizza, and everyone has to make that pizza come to life.”

Walk into my improv class and you will see 16 or so students, eight of which are performance majors, the other eight are nonperformance majors. I have students that are coming to me from the Department of Psychology, Department of Medicine. I have dental students in my classes.

‘Improv saved my life’


Since the launch of both teams, Folie a Deux performers Cunning and Madden have relocated to Chicago to continue their work. The Running AMok team has performed at local theaters such as ComedySportz, Coalition and TheatreLab as well as the Baltimore Improv Group college tournament.

This month, Folie a Deux and Running AMok will perform at the 2nd Best Comedy Fest at Coalition Theater and Running AMok will perform at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

Byland said any VCU student is welcome to sign up for the university’s improv classes.

“Walk into my improv class and you will see 16 or so students, eight of which are performance majors, the other eight are nonperformance majors,” Byland said. “I have students that are coming to me from the Department of Psychology, Department of Medicine. I have dental students in my classes.”

Students interested in joining one of VCU’s improv teams can audition in the fall.

“With our improv program that we're developing, again, everybody has a home here,” Byland said. “Everyone has a seat at the table and that can be very empowering for an individual that is learning who they are. It gives them a place to define and refine their own individual voice, their identity, and learn how that can further other people.”                                                                         

Byland said she is thankful she found improv.

“I firmly believe that improv saved my life and I think that if it can save my life, it can save other people’s lives and I’ve seen that,” Byland said. “I’ve seen that happen time and time again in my students and I think that’s a really powerful thing.”

In fact, many students have told Ott that Byland has changed their lives.

“EB, as they call her, is always enthusiastic, always finding new directions for improv,” Ott said. “She's quickly become one of our most beloved faculty members.”

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