LAFAYETTE -- Colleen O'Keefe believes succeeding in the art of improvisation can be summed up in one word: Trust.
O'Keefe, who takes drama courses at Diablo Valley College, said that it takes courage and having the right mindset when you're on stage to be an improv performer.
"You're nervous before the show because you don't know what's going to happen," said O'Keefe, a Pleasant Hill resident. "But you have to trust the other performers you've been working with for awhile. You've gotten to know them and trust it will work out."
That's the nature of performing in full-length improvised plays -- there's no script but plenty of room for improvisation based on suggestions from the audience, said Kenn Adams, artistic director of Synergy Theater, a new performance and training program focused on the art of improvisation. The program is based at the Manzanita Hall of the Lafayette Community Center.
Synergy Theater will kick off a slew of shows and classes with "Play by Play," an improvised, no-script two-act play at 8 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Lafayette Community Center that depends on audience suggestions for the title and characters -- then Synergy Theater performers take care of the rest.
"It's kind of hard to mess up with improv because good performers will take whatever you think is a 'mess up' and build it into something great," O'Keefe said.
Besides the interactive nature of improvisation, O'Keefe said that this kind of performing keeps you on your toes.
"It helps to pay attention to what's on stage and to stay in the moment," she said. "You get to perform, act and direct a play -- use all portions of your brain, then just go with the flow."
Adams, a Lafayette resident, has mastered the art of improvisation since his days as a student in New York City studying playwriting and acting. He developed the "Play by Play" improv format years ago in the hopes of bringing it to the stage as a full-length play -- minus a script.
Beyond the Jan. 26 show, Adams also will teach improv classes for adults and teens.
"I give people an understanding of the classic dramatic structure, how good plays are built from beginning, middle to end," said Adams, author of the book "How to Improvise a Full-Length Play."
Previously, Adams, who spent three years as Director of Education for Willows Theater Company, worked with local schools and theaters to introduce children to improvisation blending entertainment, fantasy, adventure and education through interactive performances.
Even though improvised plays rely on audience suggestions and interaction, performers still need to rehearse, Adams said.
"When improvisers rehearse, we practice and develop the skills that are necessary to perform," said Adams. "We use drills and exercises to practice the three rules of improvisation -- be spontaneous, make your partner look good, and build on your partner's idea."
The performers also use team-building activities to develop their ensemble and use theater exercises to build their skills as actors, directors and playwrights -- all necessary in order to improvise a play, he said.
"Also, we explore the particular body of knowledge that we need for a given show," Adams said. "For example, if we're going to improvise a play in the style of a famous playwright, then we'll spend time at rehearsal reading and discussing that playwright's work. It's very much like the way a professional basketball team has ongoing practices in order to build their skills and develop the team, even though they don't know what's going to happen in the actual game."
Mike Stauber of Concord has been improvising for 10 years and has worked with a number of professional groups. Stauber heard about Adams and Synergy Theater through his wife, Ashley, who also performs with Synergy Theater.
"Kenn told us about his vision for a theater group that improvised full-length plays, and it sounded incredible," said Stauber. "After one rehearsal, I was hooked."
" 'Play by Play' has been the most challenging yet rewarding experience that I have ever been a part of regarding improv," said Ashley. "This show is for theater lovers and improvisation enthusiasts alike, and it'll amaze you what can unfold in front of you in two hours."
Stauber said he invites people to watch a performance they will never see anywhere else.
"Every night we bring new characters to life and tell new stories that are completely original," he said. "You never know if it will be a drama, a farce or a love story. It's a completely unique theater experience where anything can happen, but the stories will always be genuine and heartfelt."