Jeff Asbell calls himself a novice performer, but in reality he had been practicing improv for decades before being cast as a member of the New York City improv troupe the Grown Up's Playground Theater Company last year.
Asbell had abandoned an early childhood love of the performing arts in favor of a more practical career. While working toward a master's degree in counseling psychology in 1968, he realized that before he could become a guidance counselor in the New York school system, he would have to be observed working with students. Asbell felt self-conscious about "performing" in front of his peers and professors, so to prepare himself for his time in the spotlight, he enrolled in a year of improv and scene study classes at HB Studio.
"To me, people who did improv were able to mentally fly by the seat of their pants and do verbal acrobatics," he says. "And I thought, 'If they can do it, I can do it.' But I just needed a little teaching and coaching, an opportunity to interact."
Asbell worked in the public school system and alternative schools for nearly four decades, utilizing his improv skills and love of performing creatively throughout his career as a guidance counselor. For example, using a technique called psychodrama, he would have his students role-play and act out their personal stories in a group setting in order to articulate their emotions. He also ran performing arts programs and assemblies to let the students "connect with more-positive energies."
Asbell retired about eight years ago and has worked intermittently since, acting with local theaters and in TV commercials. When he saw a Back Stage casting notice for the Grown Up's Playground Theater Company last year, he called artistic director Joy Newman to request an audition. It involved a diverse group of more than a dozen people—auditioning performers and established troupe members—performing improv exercises, theater games, and cold readings.
Says Newman about Asbell's first performance, "He might have been a little nervous, but he had such an amazing stage presence and he has such an exuberance about him that when he got on stage, it was just this infectious positive energy. I try and pick people who are more ensemble-minded, so it will be conducive to doing generous work, rather than having somebody who wants to be the star of the show."
Asbell was impressed by the ensemble's diversity and the childlike joy he felt performing with them. "One of my highlights every week is the improv class and the performances," he says. "I really love the group. It's a very warm, wonderful, and talented group of souls."
The Grown Up's Playground Theater Company performs every other Saturday at 6 p.m. at the New York Comedy Club, 241 E. 24th St., in Manhattan. Asbell is currently taking a leave of absence from the troupe to undergo treatment for prostate cancer, but he hopes to return to the stage soon.
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