Catholic actor says improv performances offer life lessons

Joseph Lemmo leads improv students, from left, Debbie Veith, Scott Bagwell and Cheryl Crutchfield during an Aug. 8 warm up in Woodstock, Ga., with an exercise meant to get them thinking and connecting ideas. Lemmo teaches the adult improv class through a program run by the Archdiocese of Atlanta. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

by Andrew Nelson

WOODSTOCK, Ga. (CNS) — It’s a pre-eminent rule for performers under the bright lights: Make the other actors look better.

That’s solid advice for life, says improvisational actor Joe Lemmo.

This Catholic funnyman mixes his stage skills and faith with young people on retreats for life lessons, laughs with engaged couples as future brides and grooms stretch their communication muscles and emcees parish events to make people grin. He also leads a class of students in the craft of improv comedy.

A fifth-grade teacher in the Cherokee County School District by day, Lemmo takes to the stage as part of the iThink Improv Troupe after hours. He performs in Woodstock, where he lives with his wife, Justine, and their toddler. He also performs at The Basement Theatre in Atlanta, and other venues.

Comedy began for the Pennsylvania native with the ability to find humor when out with friends.

“Something happened, I find the comedy in it, I went with it,” he told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Lemmo joined the nonprofit iThink Improv to channel the humor. He is now a director.

“It’s theater, without a script, based on audience suggestion,” he said talking about improv.

Audience tips challenge the 41-year-old to play a portfolio of characters, create scenes out of nothing but a chair on a stage and also experience uplifting moments.

His first stage show was in 2010 and he remembers “love at first laugh,” he said. It’s hard to beat the feeling of being on stage, said Lemmo, where he can make “a choice in the moment that creates an eruption of laughter.”

Asked what makes a good show, Lemmo said he’s a bad judge since he has left shows feeling he bombed, but with others thinking it was great. The reaction taught him to think beyond himself.

“I’ve learned that I can’t focus on my own performance when determining whether a show was good or not because it’s not about individuality,” he said.

He looks at “The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon as a model. The comic seems to be filled with joy and entertains all guests as if they are the best guests ever to appear on the show, Lemmo said.

With a bearded face and wearing a plaid shirt in the basement of the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock, Lemmo repeated a fact of stage life to be lived off stage, too. Put other’s success in front of your own, he said.

“The more you make the people around you look better, the better you, in fact, will look,” Lemmo added.

Lemmo entertains in what he called “clean comedy.” Off-color humor can have its place for adults but crosses a line for him when actors make it crass.

“Most of our conversations in life are appropriate. You are looking for something unusual that becomes the comedy of the scene. I feel like most of the time in the real world, funny things that happen to us are less based on inappropriate language, but funny, awkward situations. You are looking for the creative connections of things,” he said.

Jason Wilson worked with Lemmo for the several years as a performer. Asked for three words to describe his colleague, he called him “kind, humble and silly.”

“Unlike many improv artists, Joe doesn’t go for the cheap laugh but truly works the art form and cares about the audience experience,” he said.

This past summer, Lemmo’s Catholic improv troupe was a surprise for teenagers at St. Joseph’s Church in Marietta. Their work was so impressive, the actors were invited back for another teen event in September. The troupe also entertained a crowd at the annual Knight of Columbus auction at Lemmo’s home parish, St. Michael the Archangel Church in Woodstock.

Lisa Fiamingo, director of youth ministry at St. Joseph’s, booked Lemmo and the Catholic troupe of performers twice during the summer.

“One of the keys to keeping teens Catholic is to facilitate solid life-giving friendships at church,” Fiamingo said in an email. “The improv troupe helps a new group to break the ice and begin laughing together.

“They also fit teachable moments into their act that have a big impact. The teens walk away inspired to develop a moral compass in their own humorous exchanges,” she added.

One of Lemmo’s goals is to collaborate with parish programs to share improv as a tool for faith education and fun.

Lemmo recently led a workshop for the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s “Joy-Filled Marriage” program for engaged couples. He likes to add fun with improv games so couples laugh at each other.

Improv requires actors to focus on the moment. Couples who spend too much time living in the past or focusing on the future can miss amazing moments happening now, he said, in relating the skill to marriage.

Improv works the best when following the rule of “Yes, and.”

Every improvisational scene requires the actor to listen, acknowledge what was said and then build on top of it, he said.

A good relationship is built on listening and then enriching it by contributing, he said. The same goes for a relationship with God. Lemmo said people pray, but with God, believers steal from themselves with conditions on the relationship by saying “yes, but.”

“We need to say ‘yes, and,’ which means we accept and trust the opportunities and situations God is presenting to us, and we act on them appropriately.”

Copyright ©2018 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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