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Improvising a Business: Bovine Metropolis Brings Improv to the Masses

A performance by some Bovine graduates on 16th Street Mall this summer.

Bovine cast puts on a private performance at Colorado State University.

A level four class on stage at Bovine Metropolis Theater.

Bovine Metropolis Theater owners Denise Maes and Eric Farone.

When the husband-and-wife team of Eric Farone and Denise Maes established Bovine Metropolis Theater in 2000, they left the stability and benefits of their corporate jobs to take a leap of faith toward a mutual dream -- to create a training theater that would develop Denver's improv community and bring the art of improv to the masses.
Yes, and…
In improv there is a rule known as "yes, and." It means any idea offered must be accepted and then something else added, so that people are building a scenario together and never blocking the flow of creativity.
It seems like Eric Farone and Denise Maes have applied this tenet to Bovine Metropolis Theater, working together for the past 13 years to graduate over 60 improv classes and to help create and educate Denver's improv community and produce quality performances.
Once called "Theater Row," Curtis Street featured a considerable lineup of theaters with throngs of patrons and glowing marquees. But by 2000 when Farone and Maes opened the Bovine Metropolis on 1527 Champa Street, the neighborhood looked a lot different. 
In their charming, cluttered office overlooking the street they have watched transform, the pair does some tag-team storytelling. Through fits of laughter and funny voices, they add to each other's anecdotes while reminiscing about the downtown Denver of 2000: the abundance of pawnshops, the squatters in an adjacent hotel and the potentially shady business operations of a since-condemned restaurant.Bovine cast puts on a private performance at Colorado State University.
In 2007, the city designated the area around 14th and Curtis streets, in which Bovine Metropolis Theater squarely sits, Denver's Theatre District and began investing in it and changing the streetscape considerably, making the location more attractive to theatergoers.
A marriage of art and business
Farone is waggish with an expressive face fit for the stage. But instead of pursuing fame, he headed back to Colorado after five successful years learning and playing in Chicago at Second City, Improv Olympic and The Annoyance Theater.
Farone and Maes are Colorado State University alumni who met though mutual friends and quickly realized a shared passion for theater and business. Maes, who dabbled in theater and music as a child, has a vibrant personality and infectious laugh. Both bubble with enthusiasm when discussing the theater's mission and purpose.
When they started the theater, Farone conceived of a community night where improvisers from all over the state could perform together. He credits this open-stage concept, which became the theater's hilarious and longest-running show, Improv Hootenanny, with generating excitement about improv theater and the Bovine. Every Monday, improv troupes from across the state perform at the theater in any improv style they choose.
But despite common misunderstandings about improv, it's not just about being funny, says Farone. Although humor is a common byproduct, a fact demonstrated by the raucous laughter emanating from the theater on show nights. Each student learns something different from their classes, and that drives Farone's passion to teach more people about improvisation and hopefully enhance their lives.
"The first day, we ask you why are you taking classes," he says. "People say for fun, or to be a better writer. I had a philosophy professor tell me it was the best philosophy class he ever had. You get out of it whatever you want. Why should I impose my agenda on you?"
Juliet Noory, an on-air host for PBS and current Bovine student, says improv makes her listen more attentively and notice emotion, intention and point of view in others, in addition to improving her self-confidence.
"You leave improv class believing in yourself and your own ability," she says. "Not to mention, you get to have fun and play."
A level four class on stage at Bovine Metropolis Theater.The next phase
Seeing the profound effect improv has had on their students at the Bovine and in corporate training, Farone and Maes knew the skill set would translate well to a business environment.
They aren't alone; improvisational acting is garnering attention among top-tier business schools at Duke, UCLA, MIT and Stanford that now offer improv classes to help students increase collaboration, creativity and risk-taking.
To feed the growing demand for these types of classes, they launched Applied Improv Institute, which offers 12 weeks of biweekly instruction focused on the basic theories of improvisation as they apply to business. 
Farone says the coursework is powerful, because it focuses on action rather than contemplation.
"The homework is to embody the skills you learn and then report back how it affected your life. Did things improve? What were your challenges?" he says. "And people have these wonderful epiphanies."
As they embark on this new venture, they are leaning on the community of leaders they have shaped over the past 13 years, people like Kent Welborn, the managing director at Bovine.
A celebration of improv
Welborn, who manages the classes taught at Bovine and corporate training events and produces shows, says the quality of Denver improv is as good as anywhere; there are just fewer improvisers, a fact he hopes continues changing, as new talent is developed.
Welborn also sits on the board of the GroupMind Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes the Denver Improv Festival taking place in Denver Oct. 16-20.
A celebration of improv in Colorado, the festival includes about 25 performances and workshops from improv troupes across the state as well as those from New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Up next: The Denver Improv Festival is in Denver at various venues, including the Bovine, Oct. 16-20, 2013. The next Level 1 class at Bovine Metropolis Theater  starts Oct. 22, 2013.

Read more articles by Maribeth Neelis.

Maribeth Neelis is a Denver-based freelance writer who covers health, business, art and culture.
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