Trying something new can be intimidating for most everyone. As parents nudge or sometimes pressure their children to try out a dance class, participate in a summer camp or try something new, it can be somewhat hypocritical—as adults struggle immensely to do these things. Tim Shoji, a financial advisor in Orinda, is among a growing number of parents and adults who are calling themselves to task on that. When he signed up his 10-year-old daughter for a children’s improv class at the iconic Town Hall Theatre—which has been alive and well in Lafayette for nearly a century—he got more than he bargained for.
“I randomly found an adult improv class—called Yes, And Wine—and decided to sign up, and I’m having a lot of fun,” Shoji says. “I realized I had stopped trying new things. I’m a financial advisor, so I talk to people about money for my day job. Doing this lets me exercise a different part of my brain.”
Now, every third Sunday night from 7-9pm, Shoji and a growing cohort of others ranging in age from 21 to 80 can be found—and heard laughing—at the Lafayette Town Hall Theatre, having fun in much the same way that children participating in a theater camp might. The class comes with two alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, on-the-spot exercises, community connections and countless laughs. It costs about the same as having a few drinks out on the town—$30—and scholarship or partial-scholarship opportunities are available. Shoji says he’ll be at the class for as long as it’s offered.
“I think it’s important to have something like this—not just here in Lamorinda, but everywhere, for all age groups and disciplines,” Shoji says. “There’s so much pressure to learn skills like math and science, but I also recognize that art nurtures the soul, so we really need a robust program within the community to help people nurture that side of themselves.”
Lisa Anne Morrison is at the center of the Yes, And Wine adult improv class. She seems to have just as much fun as her intergenerational crowd of students. The classes’ title stems directly from the foundation of improv—“Yes, and …”—and the wine, for those who choose, can be the social lubricant to lean in.
“I feel like I’m pretty good at putting people at ease,” Morrison says. “Sometimes they come in nervous, and by the end of class they’re surprising themselves. They’re taking that step toward being creative while playing with improv, and really enjoying themselves.”
As an actor with experience—including roles in the films This is Not a Film (2003) and The Princess & The Marine (2001)—and the mother of someone who was involved with Town Hall Theatre, Morrison knew for certain that she didn’t want adults to be left out.
“Teaching adults is something that I feel passionately about,” Morrison says. “There’s all this programming for kids. But adults would drop off their kids, and wonder, ‘Why don’t I get to do theater and play like I used to?’” Morrison set out to fill that void. “I wanted to give parents and adult community members who work so hard a place to come and meet new people and laugh.”
Neja Diani, another participant, found herself in class when she accepted a birthday gift participation package. “It’s super intimidating at first, but I’m loving it. We’ve had so much laughter in the past few hours,” Diani says after reflecting on her first class. “Improv specifically gets people out of their comfort zones. It makes everybody more creative.”
As house manager, Trisha Kelley greets the adult improv students each month and pours them drinks. Kelley has been the theater’s house manager for eight years, but her time with Town Hall Theatre dates back to the 1960s, when she did ballet, and then continued as her own children became involved with programs at the theater.
“As we get older, we forget to use our creativity and imagination,” Kelley says. “That’s why I love seeing some of the people who are older back in here using their brains to get lighthearted. There’s nothing better than sitting below the theater and hearing people interact and laugh.”
Behind the bar that Kelley staffs hangs a sign which reads, “Have your drinks everywhere.” Kelley says that sentiment is part of what makes the Town Hall Theatre the place it is. “We want people to feel like they can come here for a fun and quaint night out. We’ve kind of got a Cheers vibe going on; it’s meant to be fun and relaxing, and it is,” she says.
Dennis Markam, the managing director, says community engagement and community involvement is not just a part of the vision of Town Hall Theatre but a part of the building itself, which was built in 1944 during World War II. “This was built as a gathering place, and the company itself was founded by mothers who were looking for activities to do with their children,” Markam says. “The first year was all women—our first production was a Christmas show. And it’s grown from there.”
The pandemic hit the theater hard, causing attendance to drop and a lapse in participation. Still, Markam is optimistic that with programs ranging from summer camp for kids to back-porch music concerts to new voices plays to traditional acts and adult programs like Yes, And Wine, the seats will fill up again. Markam hopes that people who have always wanted to try out for a play will do it, and that if they have a creative idea for another program, they will do that, too.
“There’s something for everyone here,” Markam says. “Anybody is welcome to audition for parts in plays or participate in any of our educational or engagement activities. We have opportunities for seasoned professionals as well as for people who are new to acting, and lots to offer appreciators of theater who want to come out for a good time.”
The monthly Yes, And Wine class takes place the third Sunday of every month. The next class is at 7pm on Sunday, Oct. 15. For information about the class, audition opportunities for all ages, upcoming shows or programs for children, visit townhalltheatre.com.