Arts and Entertainment

Penn State faculty and staff bring improvisation to State College

Three faculty members and one staff member seek to create a community of improvisers in Happy Valley

Happy Valley Improv consists of, from left to right: Sam Tanner (Education), Andrea McCloskey (Education), James Tierney (Liberal Arts-Economics), and Nathan Rufo (Global Programs) Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How does one begin an improv group? If you’re three Penn State faculty members, the answer is obvious: in the basement of a church. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, to be exact.

Andrea McCloskey, associate professor of Education, had just recently attended camp Improv Utopia in the fall of 2016 and had become interested in improvisation. Soon after, she found James Tierney, economics lecturer, and Sam Tanner, assistant professor of education at Penn State Altoona, and the trio began running improv practices at the church. In January 2017, they were joined by Nathan Rufo, who had moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to join Penn State’s Office of Global Programs — and Happy Valley Improv was born.

Happy Valley Improv practices longform improvisation, an art form which was founded by Del Close in Chicago. This style of performance has spread across the nation, inspiring theatres like the Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City and improvOlympic.

“We like to say it’s like 'Whose Line Is It Anyway,' but also not like that at all,” said Rufo.

The group seeks to create a local improv community through performances, community events, and corporate and community workshops. Workshops can be specifically designed to engage diverse audiences, from high school students to adult professionals and everyone in between. Workshops can emphasize team-building and effective communication. No prior experience is required — Happy Valley Improv prides itself on providing a low-stress and learning environment.

“We believe improv training can do a lot for anyone, but especially for people who find themselves in public speaking roles, teaching roles, or even just running a lot of meetings,” said McCloskey, founder of the group. “I know it’s made me much more flexible and responsive in my classroom teaching.”

“We’re really dedicated to creating a community here, above everything else,” said Tanner. “We want to create what we’ve been able to be a part of in other parts of the country — Minnesota, South Carolina, California, and New York.”

The group is looking to build on its successful first show, which was held in front of a full crowd on Sept. 28 in the Attic space of the State Theatre in downtown State College.

“We were shocked, frankly,” said Tierney. “But also excited. We think longform improvisation has a lot to offer to the community, and we’re thrilled that they seem to have responded to it so well.”

More information on the group, including upcoming performance dates, can be found at

Last Updated October 12, 2017