Elizabeth Byland, director of VCU Improv, believes that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in improvisational theatre. Byland’s class is open to any VCU student who wants to try improv, which she considers a transformational experience. It requires teams to work together spontaneously, build on diverse strengths and bring to life a scene that draws in the audience. Her students have gone on to join local theaters in Richmond and even pursued careers in Chicago, a hotspot for improv performers and the training ground for many famous comedians.
To learn more about Byland and how she fell in love with improv, VCU News reached out to the professor:
“I remember my first improv class,” Byland said. “All of a sudden, being in a space where it was OK to be quirky and it was OK for me to raise my hand, it was OK for me to just speak up — I felt like I was starting to discover who I was and learning how to implement that voice in all these other social situations that I was really struggling in.”
By the end of her junior year, Byland knew improv was the career she wanted to pursue. That made choosing a college an easy decision. She picked Northern Kentucky University solely because it had an improv team that traveled around the community and performed.
After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting at NKU in 2008, Byland went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts in performing arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2012.
While at SCAD, Byland met Sharon Ott, now chair of the theater department at VCU. In 2018, Ott contacted Byland with an opportunity to foster a community that Ott saw forming in Richmond.
“I brought Elizabeth in from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she had been living [and] working,” Ott said. “I knew of her great work at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I was a professor, then heard about her work on starting an improv festival in Charlotte, and also working with a group of senior citizens on improvisation.”