June 23, 2008

Improv Teacher Stresses Importance of Playfulness

By Geri Parlin, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jun. 23--Dennis Kern's life has been one big improvisation.

On the road to a career in theater, the oddball boy from Independence, Wis., has taken a circuitous route back home to the Coulee Region, where he is now teaching others the benefits of improv and the merits of being an oddball. It began for Kern in Independence, which is small enough that oddballs stand out.

"I was always the weirdest kid in town," he said with a laugh. "I was in puppet shows at 4 years old, using orange crates as a stage. Other people were into softball and sports, and I was the guy who liked to sing."

That singing and puppetry landed him at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where he studied theater with the late Robert Joyce. He would go on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, work at Second City in Chicago and co-found Ark Improvisational Theatre in Madison.

But a few years ago, he landed in Gays Mills, Wis., -- yes, the place that floods and floods and still the people return -- and he found a good connection with local folks. He started teaching improv, and soon he had troupes in Richland Center, Viroqua and La Crosse.

"He's an interesting guy," said La Crosse actress Vicki Elwood. "I've been taking his class through the La Crosse Community Theatre, and we're forming a troupe here in La Crosse. He's very avant-garde."

Maybe that's just another way to say "oddball," but over the years Kern has given it another name. He has a Web site -- www.playfulself.com -- where people can check out his philosophy. Mostly, it's about being connected to the playful part of yourself. It's not about performing, Kern said, because some of his students never get up on stage and perform.

What he teaches is more about realizing your potential and doing what works.

"It's about what is going on and the awareness of what is happening with people when they're doing it right. I work that into workshops and expose them to awareness of intuitiveness. It's a craft just like anything. You have to evolve things into your subconscious."

Think of a golfer, Kern said. A golfer must first learn the right swing. But once the golfer learns the mechanics of the swing, he no longer has to think about how he does it, he just does it. "As you become adept you don't think about that."

The same is true of improv, he said, and he has seen people transformed when they get it right.

"So I keep coming back to improv. I find it is the best place to reach and discover that intuitive spot. There's nothing to hide behind. I call it my playful self. I'm inviting people to meet their playful self."

As we grow up, he said, "They lose track of playing. They drink or drug, and that's how they move into playing."

Kern teaches a more conscious form of play, and he says people are really responding to it locally.

"Frankly, it's a dream come true. We find who we are and what we want to do. I'm 58 years old, and this is what I want to do."

And he has found where he wants to be.

"I didn't think I would end up back here, but I grew up in the Driftless Area, and Gays Mills felt good. It's all just life experience, and it takes life experience to learn that."

Geri Parlin can be reached at [email protected] or (608) 791-8225.


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