Last July, Aneesa Folds took a 4 a.m. train from Massachusetts to New York to audition for the scheduled Broadway outing of the hip-hop improvisational group Freestyle Love Supreme. Folds, who was performing in the musical Freaky Friday at North Shore Music Theatre at the time, needed to be back in Beverly, Mass., for the opening night performance. The audition went well—and then her return flight was delayed by three hours.
“My stress levels have never been so high,” Folds recalls. She eventually landed in Boston and hightailed it to the theatre in a cab, doing her wig prep and makeup en route. “I made it onstage for my first entrance,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Something good is going to come of this because the universe is with you!’”
Something good indeed. Folds would make her Broadway debut in Freestyle Love Supreme just three months later, in October. Her ability to perform under pressure and her positive attitude—sustained even throughout the stressful expedition of planes, trains, and automobiles—certainly aided in her ultimate journey to the Booth Theatre. But she was also primed for the role, having been through the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy last spring. Wracked nerves and living on the fly are parts of the FLS skill set.
The improv troupe—founded by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Anthony Veneziale in 2004—performs a fusion of freestyle rap, hip-hop, beat boxing, improv scene work, and musical theatre. The group’s foray onto Broadway is an outlier among this season’s offerings, as audiences offer up words and phrases that are spun into hilarious scenes and on-the-spot songs.
Last fall FLS members codified their performance approach into an eight-week course as part of the Freestyle Love Supreme Academy. “I signed up for it not thinking anything would happen, and now I’m on Broadway,” says Folds with a laugh. Her audition materials included a hook she created about Hamlet for an English assignment in college.
FLS Academy students learn about the history of improv, how to establish group dynamics, craft hooks and verses, and to “rock a rhyme.” The first class, called “Welcome to the Cypher,” outlines the tenets of the FLS practice. There are no prerequisites for the FLS Foundation course, and applications are accepted on a rolling basis.
Sullivan, a.k.a. “Shockwave,” is one of the troupe’s beat boxers, and has been performing with FLS since its inception. He’s also one of the FLS Academy teachers. “We’ve taken people into the class who’ve had no experience onstage or freestyling or improvising or singing, and just have the drive and the nerve to be part of the class,” says Sullivan. “That’s really all it takes. Improvisation and having fun is at the center of it all.”
Folds brought her background of musical theatre to the Academy, which is put to use in a segment of Freestyle Love Supreme where the cast craft a song verse. (On the night I attended, Folds impressively made up a tune inspired by the word “Russian.”)
“Aneesa brought her own skills to the table,” says Sullivan, who was her teacher. “It’s not just enough to have skills, but it’s about being able to be open and receptive, to make mistakes, laugh it off, and to grow with a smile on your face through the difficulties and challenges.”
The challenges of performing in Freestyle Love Supreme would be plentiful enough in any event, but since audience members play a big part in steering the show and the cast changes night to night, the level of difficulty is that much higher. In addition to the “Russian” sequence, the show I attended featured a scene about a group of friends traveling to India and riding elephants, and even a skit about cheese.
The cast often features Veneziale, Folds, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Chris Sullivan, and Arthur Lewis. Other members of the FLS group spontaneously appear as special guests, a group that includes Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, and Bill Sherman, among others.
Learning to work together and trust your cast, whoever it may be, is part of the FLS practice. Sullivan says that the Academy takes special care to put together the classes, and the instructors do their best to make each cohort as diverse as possible. “We believe a rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “Each person in the group has something to teach each other. We work hard to foster an environment where everyone feels safe, accounted for, heard, and receptive to listening, learning, and growing.”
Unlike in other improvisation training programs, there’s no hierarchy of classes or levels here. Graduates of the Freestyle Love Supreme foundation course are invited to perform in monthly rap sessions to keep working on their improv and performance skills. “It’s definitely rewarding to see the group spread out and share the love,” says Sullivan, noting that many alumni have gone on to create groups of their own.
Folds, who leveled up to the Great White Way, brings her learnings from the training, particularly the trust exercises, with her onstage every night. Before every performance, the cast taps each other on the back and says, “I got your back!”
“I learned to trust my craft and what I bring to the table, and that it’s enough,” says Folds about her takeaways from the course. “I learned that I really do have something to bring, and I feel blessed to be part of this.”
Moving forward, FLS Academy hopes to introduce more fans and audience members to improv through its academy. FLS Academy hosts summer camps for kids, and hopes to expand its offerings to include year-round weekend workshops for young folks interested in learning improv and beatboxing. A row of kids in front of me at Freestyle Love Supreme squealed when Christopher Jackson came onstage, and they enthusiastically offered up words for the performers throughout the show. (In a sobering moment, a tiny child shouted “climate change” in response to a request for things that are scary.)
For those who don’t go on to freestyle for a living or even a hobby, the FLS Academy also serves as a lesson in public speaking , creativity, and collaboration. In addition to hosting camps, FLS Academy also offers companies the opportunity to learn freestyling and improvisation as team-building exercises.
“We know that we’re really doing something great because of the feedback from the students afterwards,” says Sullivan. “We’ve fostered a lot of friendships with unlikely people, and that is really rewarding.”