So who is this guy?

 

Marks warms up his introductory class with memory games and warns, “I’m very competitive. I want to win at everything.” Yet he doesn’t take part in skits, preferring to observe and comment, or perform onstage. Says Woods, “Paul doesn’t have an ego when it comes to teaching. He does not need to be the center of attention.”

 

He came to North Carolina from the Boston suburbs at 12, when his mother started a nursery school in Charlotte. And for a while, Marks followed a conventional path: graduation from Myers Park High School in 1983, a political science degree from the UNC Chapel Hill in 1987, a few years of work at a bank.

The 1990s were a good decade: He wed Kelly, with whom he now has 10-year-old daughter Madison, and he failed as a stand-up comedian. Well, they did: He says Kelly and he are “a team, 24-7,” so she was part of that amateur night stumble.

“I never wanted to memorize lines,” says Marks. But he’d enjoyed emceeing shows in Chapel Hill, and he came across improv principles that acting teacher Viola Spolin laid down more than half a century ago. (Her son, Paul Sills, used them to create the troupe that led to Second City.)

 

And thus a second career was born.

 

He likes teaching adept performers to roll with the “get,” the audience suggestion that sets up the scene. Even more, he enjoys helping quiet or insecure folks find their tongues in his classes: “Some are never going to make the acting team; they just come to be stimulated,” he says. “One man has taken class over and over, because he likes being there Sunday nights.”

 

The hard parts of his job

 

Some things never get easy, of course. Audiences lean toward naughty “gets,” and Marks wants to keep his show at a PG-13 level. “Sex,” he says, “is sort of a default for comedy; you can always go to it. But my rule is, ‘Be clever, not crass.’ ”

And like any coach, he sometimes has to cut players who give their best: “Someone may be good at ad-libbing, but the team has grown beyond them. Perhaps they’re not good with object work (basically, mimed movement), and that can be 40 percent of the stage effect. I’ve had people cry when I dropped them, because it’s like asking them to leave a family.”

 

Fort Mill’s Joel Burns, a senior financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, has been part of that family almost since the start. He jokes that “People who do improvisational comedy desperately seek the approval of others. (Maybe) they confuse attention with validation. I have that horrific character flaw, as do all the friends I’ve made in this group. That’s why we take it so hard when something we do ends up bombing!”

 

Yet he knows improv’s deeper value.

 

“In a lot of cases, you don’t try something new because of fear of failure. Improv helps you get over that fear and handle the surprises that are always going to come up. Let’s say I’m doing a seminar, and someone spills a soda. That would be distracting, but I’m not flustered. I can turn that moment into a strength. I was doing improv first because it was fun, but ultimately, it has helped me.”

 

Republished from the Charlotte Observer

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com