Isaiah Wilder, one of the seven members of the new youth-led Black improv group Kode Switch, described learning the art of improv comedy as transformational, the lessons granting him a newfound confidence that he’s been able to carry off of the stage.
“My father always tells me that sometimes you need to be a little uncomfortable to make changes,” said Wilder, who joined cast member Coral Pierson and self-described “momager” Miki Gotoh for a late-April Zoom call. “I’m not good at talking to people, or at least in front of a lot of people. … And now I’m not shy about asking questions anymore, and I can talk to a whole group of people and be fine with it. It’s basic stuff I thought I couldn’t do before and that I’m proud to say I can do now.”
Joseph Moorer had this kind of transformation in mind when he first proposed the idea of forming a Black youth improv group to Gotoh in January, having hit on the concept in the months before the coronavirus broke. “And then COVID hit and blew up his plan,” Gotoh said of and . “When he reached out, he was like … ‘I need help,’ and it was perfect for me, because I love the kids. It was like, ‘I’ll momager the heck out of these things.’ … I’m the biggest cheerleader. If you’re my person, I support you a million percent. It’s just the perfect place for me.”
In starting Kode Switch, Moorer leaned on Gotoh for filling out the roster, which includes Pierson, Kris and Isaiah Wilder, Yoshi Parker, Nina Wells, Brielle Jolie and Greg Shelton. The group members range in age from 18 to 24 and includes complete novices alongside some who have taken improv classes in the past. Pierson, for one, recalled taking a class with Moorer at age 10 or 11, participating in one exercise in which the students had to act out emotions, and another in which they pretended to be passengers in a car.
“And it was like, ‘Okay, now I want you to drive, but you have a McDonald’s cheeseburger in your mouth,’” Pierson said. “They were games that were fun and easy to follow, but also helped you learn how to play a character and to add in elements to your acting that weren’t necessarily there before.”
Despite the relative newness of the performers to improv, Pierson and Wilder said the chemistry in the group was apparent from the earliest rehearsals, helping create a safe, dynamic space in which the youths have been able to explore different dimensions of themselves.
“My improv group is the only group that really gets to see the inner me,” said Wilder, who will join his Kode Switch mates for a sold-out show at Up Front Performance Space on Thursday, April 27 (an encore performance ). “For me, personally, I always kind of wore a mask. … When I went out, I’d be shy and closed-off. But the at-home me is the me I’ve been giving to our improv group. The happy me. The outgoing, loving, charismatic figure that I hide from everyone else. It’s nice being vulnerable with this. Everyone needs a space where they can be vulnerable every once in a while, because if you bottle it up it hurts. So, I’m glad I have a group now where I can share that side of me and not be judged for it.”
“For me, I know I’m always second guessing how I’m going to be judged by people,” Pierson said. “And because of that, I’ll find myself acting differently in certain situations. … Knowing every time [we rehearse] that I’m just going to be with my friends and we’re just going to be hanging out, it helped me to feel more comfortable. … It’s a group of people you’re going to love at the end of the day, even if you are literally screaming at each other about laundry, which we did at our practice on Sunday.”
At this stage in the group’s development, there are no clearly defined roles, and the seven members can adopt myriad personas depending on the scene, whether leaning into sarcasm or creating cartoonishly over-the-top characters. There’s also an evolving understanding about how the individuals play off of one another, and a scene featuring Pierson and Shelton will generally have a completely different dynamic if the latter is swapped for Wells.
“I never know how it’s going to unfold if it’s Isaiah, Kris or Yoshi onstage, because they’re all so different,” Pierson said. “And knowing everyone’s personality also adds to it, because you know they’re going to be themselves, but you have no idea how that will play out in the scene.”
Those moments when everything clicks, and all of the players are operating on the same wavelength, can be euphoric, Pierson said, with the scene picking up a nearly audible hum.
“It really feels like we’re in our own little world,” she said. “And sometimes there will be a second where I’m thinking, ‘That was so good. That was so funny.’ And you’re just in this perfect little bubble with the funniest people you can think of. … You almost can’t describe it, but it feels absolutely wonderful, and I hope our audiences feel the same way.”