Erin Kay Van Pay believes that the skills learned in improv comedy are also applicable and important to everyday life. She’s worked with Madison’s Atlas Improv Company for four years and plans to move to Chicago to take classes with Second City after she graduates.[/media-credit]

Richard Simmons, the flamboyant man known for his “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” fitness videos and striped shorts, should be proud to know that he not only influenced thousands of people to lose weight, but also dramatically changed the life of one Green Bay native, Erin Kay Van Pay.

While attending a friend’s birthday party at Comedy City, Van Pay, then 13, was chosen to be an audience volunteer for a guessing game in which she had to illustrate Simmons and a toothbrush using only pantomime and meaningless gibberish. She had never done improv before.

“I raised my hand and went up … and [Comedy City] approached me afterwards and asked if I wanted to be in the high school league. I said, ‘well, I’m only 13’ and they said ‘we don’t care, you can be in it,'” said Van Pay. Two years later, once she was able to drive, she joined.

Van Pay fell in love with improv and sketch comedy and went on to attend the University of Wisconsin in hopes of becoming a professional comedian. She will graduate in May with a degree in English and a degree in creative writing.

“I’ve gotten in trouble so many times for being the class clown, I figured I might as well make a career out of it,” she said.

Van Pay’s English and creative writing majors gave her a strong background in storytelling and fiction. “The workshops expanded my mind. It’s always good to read the tradition, to find out where stories and where tradition stands today and how things are passed down,” she said.

As part of her creative writing thesis, Van Pay wrote a one-woman show that she plans to re-work and perform once she gets to Chicago. The plot follows a dance recital and takes each genre of dance, such as jazz, Broadway and point ballet, and shows the characters and dances in a satirical light.

“I danced for years and years competitively and we had around five recitals a year. There are just certain tropes that are engrained in you, like the studio mom and all sorts of dance recital clich?s,” she said.

She will also write and perform a show as part of her education at Second City, a very prestigious comedy theater in Chicago. She got into the program last year, but deferred in order to finish her education and her four-year stint with Atlas Improv Company in Madison.

The Second City program lasts about a year and will hopefully give Van Pay the connections and training to allow her to succeed as a professional comedian.

“A lot of people from Saturday Night Live have come from Second City,” Van Pay said, naming Tina Fey as a prime example.

Fey, Amy Poehler, Maria Bamford and Amy Sedaris are some of Van Pay’s idols. Van Pay really admires women in comedy and would like to see more women bending gender roles and stereotypes.

“There are prejudices about women in comedy. Some people think that women aren’t funny. [I think] it’s not really a competition; it’s about what you can bring to the table. Everybody has a chance at being the best and being the funniest,” Van Pay said, adding that she encourages any woman interested in improv and comedy to try it out. 

Starting improv at 15-years-old helped Van Pay to gain confidence and self-esteem. She said that improv has not only helped her confidence onstage, but in life as well. Van Pay cited an instance in which she wore a leotard to a party, and a few girls came up to her and asked her how she had the guts to do it. She was amazed because it had not occurred to her to be worried or self-conscious about what she was wearing.

Improv has also helped Van Pay learn how to listen to others.

“The whole concept of ‘yes, and’ [from improv] helps you in everyday relations. Somebody puts something out there and instead of saying ‘no,’ you go along with it and through your responses in everyday situations, you learn how to make people feel good about themselves and how to really have a conversation and how to communicate,” she said.

According to Van Pay, the important thing is to “follow the fear” and allow yourself to fail. Failure is bound to happen in the arts and there are going to be people who are against you, she said.

“What you’re afraid of – I think it’s a sign to you that if you overcome it, you’re gaining something. You’re gaining something really big and there’s a reason you’re afraid of it,” she said.

One of the biggest and scariest steps for any creative person to take is to move away and attempt to make a living solely on their art. Van Pay is not worried about the move because she has strong ties to Chicago, thanks to a semester in Chicago with program called Comedy Studies in fall 2010.

As for making a living from comedy, Van Pay knows it will be difficult, but has accepted the challenge.

“In this day and age, you aren’t going to make money doing anything except being an engineer or a doctor, and that’s totally fine because those people have their own visions and I respect them greatly. But people who are artists? If that’s what you want to do, get a job being a waitress and do your art or get a job being a server and do your art. You are going to be so much happier.”