The Oberlin Stories Project

On bonding over Boredom, a semi-improvised drama

Shawn Roggenkamp ’08

“My other friends couldn’t believe that we had Saturday night rehearsals, but the cast would have all spent Saturday nights together regardless.”

Shawn gives a piggyback ride to a friend.

We lie on the floor, a tangle of arms and legs, heads on stomachs, bodies next to bodies. It starts with a sigh, someone tapping on the floor, or some quiet humming. As each person adds to the music, it builds to a roar of improvised harmonies and irregular beats. This is my cast, my family, the collective loves of my life. And as we sing together, we are creating more than just this wild music, we are pooling our souls and mixing them together. And each of us gets back more than he or she started with.  

How did this all get started? For me, it began with an audition. I’m not sure what possessed me to try out for this show. I was a theater major with dreams of serious acting. I didn’t do improv. But I was feeling lost in the theater world and the search to find my place in it led me one rainy night, like Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to an odd studio. There, I was initiated into the crazy ride that we called Boredom: Semi-Improvised Teen Angst.

Boredom was a high school drama modeled on Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. It was about the losers at a school banding together: the art nerds, the stoners, the kid who gets kicked out of school, the ones who wear black and sit quietly at the back of the class. Coming in, I felt like one of those kids, out of place and just hoping not to make a fool of myself.  

The first day of rehearsal, I looked around the room and only recognized two faces. We were nervous through the initial few weeks of planning and cast building. We fleshed out our characters, but we were still very uncomfortable with each other.

It all came together the night we sat in a circle and each of us said out loud what our characters thought of each of the other characters in the circle. Suddenly, I had a place. I had a best friend, a buddy I looked up to, and a history. From these sketchy beginnings, my new life took shape. 

In millions of ways, Boredom was unlike any show I had ever been in. Like other shows, we did check-ins, when everyone goes around a circle and shares his or her state of mind with the group to let go of troubles outside of the rehearsal. In normal shows, check-ins take maybe 10 minutes. Boredom check-ins were often half an hour or longer. In the group, I always felt like I could share anything. We dropped our fears of others’ judgment and opened up. People shared their happy moments and frustrations, and more than a few tears were shed. 

Once check-ins were done, the show took over.

In format, Boredom was like a television show: a serialized story, starting at the same time every week, with actors always playing the same characters. The difference was that Boredom was live and, of course, improvised. To create each show, the directors, Moon and Erin, spent several days building a scene-by-scene summary of the episode. The cast would wait with bated breath by our inboxes, waiting for the new breakdown to appear. The working script was usually four to five pages long, which we would then turn into an hour-long episode. At practice, we assembled to build our improv skills and work through some of the trickier parts of the script. On Mondays, the show was on!    

Life and art intertwined seamlessly, to the point where one of my friends once noted that if he saw one of us in the dining hall, he could be sure that the rest weren’t far behind. My other friends couldn’t believe that we had Saturday night rehearsals, but the cast would have all spent Saturday nights together regardless. We had come in as relative strangers, and we left as a family.    

The central tenet of improv is referred to as “Yes And.” In “Yes And,” you accept what your scene partner gives you and add to it, giving something back. We took this idea and made it a part of our lives. It’s a simple formula, but it can be magical. Boredom helped me learn to face my fears, accept them, and say, “yes.” But it also taught me to look for what I could bring to the situation, the “and...” of life.  

In some ways, Boredom was a perfect encapsulation of Oberlin. We came in as a group of strangers, all at some sort of crossroads in our lives. We explored parts of ourselves that we were afraid to tap into, giving us a community of people who understood us and helped us through. Oberlin brought us together and gave us this forum to grow in.   

At the end of the year, the show was finished but our friendships lived on. We aren’t actors anymore: we are living our parts.