Artist Review Bellingham Herald

Sheila Goldsmith uses improv to teach creativity to people of all ages

Bellingham Herald, The (WA) – June 26, 2012


Section: Artist Profiles

Sheila Goldsmith came to Bellingham in 1968 when her mother began to teach at Western Washington University. A Sehome High and WWU grad, Sheila’s background in counseling, psychology and group facilitation is integral to her work at Improv Playworks, her full-time job.

Her company presents an intergenerational showcase featuring students ranging in age from 16 to 95 at 7 p.m. Friday, June 29, at St. Luke’s Educational Center, 3333 Squalicum Parkway. Admission is by donation. For more on her classes, go to

Question: What’s your background in theater and improvisation?

Answer: I have always loved theater, but never formally studied it until I encountered improv while living in San Francisco, where on a whim I took an improv class at Bay Area Theatresports.

My background was in psychology, but it wasn’t long before I was hooked on the art of improv, and quickly discovered its many applications beyond comedy and entertainment. I watched people transform effortlessly, first in myself, then in others.

By nature I am very shy, and have found that improvisation offers a metaphor and a practice that has renewed my vision and cracked open my heart to unexpected insights. It has quite literally changed my life. When I returned to Bellingham from California in 2001, I established my improv school and eventually co-founded and designed the Upfront Theatre. I have since branched out and founded my current company, Improv Playworks.

Q: Who are some of your mentors?

A: Two of my main mentors and teachers are Keith Johnstone, author of “Impro,” and Rebecca Stockley, one of the founders of Bay Area Theatresports. As a teacher, I seek to create an atmosphere of trust, respect, safety and play in order to connect us more deeply with our creative possibilities. I have become skilled at adapting improv to fit groups of all ages and levels of ability.

Q: What might the audience expect at the show Friday?

A: I will be directing a student showcase that features games, storytelling and scene work. The audience will participate by offering suggestions when prompted; the players will then use this input in their work on stage. My students and I want to share with the community the fun and creativity that come when we embrace the unexpected, trust our own voices, and change our attitudes toward making mistakes.

The show will feature a variety of students from my weekly classes, which includes a group of seniors from The Willows (who have been taking improv for more than a year on a weekly basis). Students initially come out of curiosity and quickly develop into a tight-knit community, discovering the many layers of improv.

Q: What can people learn from improv?

A: As we age, the world can start to become narrow and serious; many people lose touch with their capacity for delight and play. The seniors, and all my students, find improv to be energizing and inspiring. It takes your mind off of everyday living and puts you in a different state where you are present and can access your imagination.

Improvisers come from all walks of life and develop, over time, the skills of confidence, humility, listening and teamwork. We find that imagining can be as effortless as breathing. We remember how to play, and change our attitude toward what we consider failure. Improv teaches us to use what we have and to make an artful life from what comes to us unexpectedly.

Q: What’s the scoop on your company, Improv Playworks?

A: The scope of my work includes teaching daytime and evening classes, both in my studio and throughout the community. I facilitate outreach programs for local schools, businesses and other organizations. I also direct, produce and organize performances, private functions and parties. In all these areas of outreach, I use improv to inspire confidence, the ability to think on your feet, leadership and teamwork skills.

Q: What else keeps you busy?

A: Some of my other interests are photography, video, film, travel and garage sales. You never know what thrifty props are lurking in our nearby neighborhood sales! My work is always growing and developing in ways that I could never have imagined.