Thursday, August 3, 2017

It's All About The Where by Michael Golding


 

I recently conducted a teacher training workshop at an improv festival, where most of the participants were unfamiliar with the work of Viola Spolin, the mother of improvisation.  This is not uncommon.  However, in a discussion about the choice of games the teachers use in their workshops, most were Spolin based. They just learned them under different names. Also not uncommon. I recommended Viola’s book “Improvisation for the Theater” as an essential resource and for re-indoctrination.



David Shepherd also attended the festival, where he quickly became known as “the ancient one.”  In 1955 David created Compass, the first professional improv theatre in North America with Paul Sills, Viola Spolin’s son. Sixteen years later, David created the Improv Olympics with Howard Jerome, a format that was designed as a loving celebration of Viola’s work. David is a Spolin purist and when he brought the Improv Olympics to Chicago in 1981 it came with a letter of understanding for the players acknowledging Spolin’s games as the inspiration for the format.





An impromptu forum was arranged for David, which I moderated for the staff and volunteers of the festival.  During the forum David was asked what he considered to be the most important aspect of improv.  David replied “It’s all about the where!”  The audience smiled, but there was no follow up question and silence followed. Since many in the audience were seasoned improvisers, I didn’t want to insult anyone by asking “You all know what the where is, right?” It‘s possible that they were intimated by being in David’s presence and were waiting to see if he was going to add anything. 



I asked David if I could elaborate further and he replied enthusiastically “of course!” Sharing knowledge that David bestowed upon me 45 years ago, I presented a 30 second overview of the where; “The where, which is also called the location, setting or environment, is created by constantly discovering details. Through those details, you connect with how you feel, which is expressed through the use of imaginary objects and activity which become more realistic when endowed with qualities (temperature, texture, weight). The where connects you with other players and keeps you in the moment.” Smiling, David turns to the audience and says “This is a very smart man!” 

Impromptu forum with David Shepherd (middle) and Michael Golding (right)

As the result of preparing David Shepherd’s improv archives for delivery to Northwestern University, I’ve been able to monitor the evolution of David’s formats. My first exposure to improv was on David’s Responsive Scene radio show, where the who/what/where scene structure was set up as; WHO is in the scene? WHAT is the scene about? WHERE does the scene take place?  Once I started playing in the Improv Olympics the WHAT was changed to WHAT are you DOING? In the Responsive Scene the WHAT was story based. In the Improv Olympics, it was activity based.

That shift solidified my focus in a scene. I already knew who I was, what I was doing activity wise, and I had a where to explore. Everything that followed story wise was based on the here and now and built on the foundation of collaborating with my fellow players through agreement.

I teach my students to enter scenes with a strong activity, which helps in the exploration of the where. Surprisingly, I have to provide them with examples of what an activity is. Most of them come up with passive choices – watching TV, texting, reading. When I ask for suggestions for an activity that two people can do together I get fighting, sleeping and intercourse.



As I slowly transition into old school improv dude who screams at the millenniums to get off his mainstage grass I’m developing a few crotchety impressions of the next generation of improvisers. Not all the necessary improv skills are utilized on stage. A lot of talking. Not much exploration of the where.  On Facebook improv pages  the work tends to be over analyzed.  I found this skill page from one of David Shepherd’s training manuals. For me, it’s all there. Nine simple sentences. Wisdom from the ancient one.

From a David Shepherd training manual



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.   

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Character Hot Seat Interview by Michael Golding




Character Hot Seat Interview is a game I employ during the first few sessions of my college high school outreach workshops with at-risk populations. A student plays a person they know well (parent, teacher, friend, relative) who is interviewed first by me, then by the class. It’s an effective game. Opens up possibilities for future scenes, provides insight into the player’s world, trains students with the type of questions they need to ask to learn as much as they can about a character, and makes them aware that they already have an arsenal of personas at their disposal.

This is a game I often participate in, usually playing someone I have a great deal of love for (my father, David Shepherd, Ed Asner).  In a recent workshop, my students had a request. They wanted me to play my wife. I balked at this request because I’ve been separated from her for almost two years, a fact I have yet to share with my students.  As honest and open as I try to be about myself so I can gain their trust, I initially felt this information would be a distraction for the students and painful for me.  It took a year before I could take my wedding ring off. Once I did, I still stuck to the narrative that my wife and I were together, and used a film role playing a single person as the excuse for why I wasn’t wearing it.

My wife and I at a workshop after she played her mother in a Character Hot Seat Interview, 1986
Photo: David Shepherd 


Anxiety started to rise in me, and I tried to dismiss the request as something I would do at another time so that we could move on to something else. But the students were adamant and reminded me of what I stress during the first few sessions; “there’s nothing I’m going to make you do that I’m not willing to do myself.” 

So I sat down in a chair as my wife would have, took a deep calming breath, exhaled and looked out at the class and told them to proceed with their questions. The questions were pretty much what I expected. How long did my wife and I know each other? How did we meet? What did we think of each other’s parents? Do we have kids? After saying that we didn’t have kids, but had a cat (Gizmo) for 17 years, the students were amazed that a feline could last that long. This resulted in a slew of questions about Gizmo; where did you find her? Did she ever go outside? Did she have kittens? Will you ever get another cat? They were also fascinated by my wife’s Canadian nationality, and a slew of questions focused on her perception of the difference between Americans and Canadians, what she misses about Canada and what she likes and dislikes about America.

The legendary Gizmo, 1984 - 2001. Photo: Jody Cherry


While I was admittedly stiff and hesitant during the first minute or so of questioning, I eventually relaxed and got into my wife’s vocal rhythm and answered as I felt she would. My inner improv monologue was whispering “relax, take your time, and get into it.” I played her listening skills – the way she would take in a question, ponder it slowly, seriously, and give a response directly to the person who asked it, often with a follow-up question of her own.  The students seemed to enjoy that. There were thirty one in attendance, and she had their attention.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t a particularly torturous experience for me, although I was relieved when it was over. I played her as sincerely as I could, with the uncomfortable awareness that I wasn’t being honest with the students about the present state of my marriage. There was still forty minutes left in the workshop and I didn’t want to spend it shifting the focus of the class on to me.

As I got out of my chair one of the students said “Wow. I really like her. She’s cool.”  That comment stunned me, because I was concerned that any anger, heartbreak and resentment I still harbored might seep through in the characterization. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. I felt good that my portrayal came off in a positive way. Perhaps I'm finally moving on. And yeah, she is cool. 

In my experience with at-risk populations, being married is viewed as a positive aspect of my character and my wife is an ongoing topic of conversation in workshops. It provides the students with a comforting sense of normalcy about me, which comes in handy when I have to persuade them to try something that is not perceived as normal.

Ed Asner once told me that no one ever died from getting separated; everyone experiences heartbreak from the end of a relationship and eventually has to move on. Perhaps being honest about that aspect of life with my students will provide a stronger unifying bond in class than being married. "Otherwise Michael, you'll turn into a Mopey Gus and believe me, nobody wants to be around a Mopey Gus!"

Who am I not to heed the wisdom of a man who has been married and divorced twice?  


Receiving wisdom while on Ed Asner's lap.



Postscript:  A week later I’m warming up the class with “Tirades & Endorsements,” a game where a student can either talk about something that angers them (a tirade) or something they’re passionate about (an endorsement). Camille, one of my more passionate students chose “married men who don’t wear their wedding rings” as a tirade. Standing up she instantly exploded; “if you’re married and you don’t wear your wedding ring that only means one thing – you’re sniffing around, period!” For the next thirty seconds Camille‘s volume and indignation escalated as she listed the bullshit excuses she heard from married relatives who didn’t wear their rings. When she finished her tirade, she sat down with her arms folded and glared at me. Her face was seething with anger.

The room was silent. I walked up to Camille and softly said “I’m separated. Is that a good enough reason not to wear my wedding ring?”  Surprised by my answer, she looked down at the floor. “Yes. That is a good reason.” I had expected an avalanche of questions from the students to follow, but there were none. Camille raised her head;  The anger on her face was replaced by sincere concern. “Mr. Golding, who is going to look after you when you’re old?”

I don’t think I’ve ever been more moved by a student’s comment. Perhaps Ed was right.




Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.   

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lone Wolf By Michael Golding




Enrollments for my high school theatre appreciation courses where students receive college credit, are typically high at the beginning of the spring semester.  Not unusual to have thirty-five to forty students in my workshops. Taught primarily through theatre games, I’ve developed a structure that can accommodate a large group; warm-ups, improv formats, small group assignments and a closure exercise for the whole class.  Crowd control is an issue and it is difficult to focus on students who are reluctant to participate without having momentum grind to a halt. I often feel like an emcee that has to keep the show on schedule in fear of losing interest from the audience.

A small portion of one of my classes


Towards the end of the semester attendance becomes erratic due to overlapping student commitments; track and band practice, clubs, field trips and projects for other classes.  Attendance can suddenly dwindle to twelve to eighteen students. As the summer recess looms, the temptation to ditch a course that runs from 3:30 to 5:20pm is hard to resist, especially when it falls on a “half-day” where school is let out at 1pm.  Hanging around the campus for two and a half hours isn’t all that enticing.  For the seniors in the class, by the time May rolls around, they’re pretty much done and if they show up, it doesn’t guarantee their focus is on the workshop.

I tend to do my best work during this time because the smaller sized workshops enable me to focus more attention on students who need it.  Victor is one of those students. Shy, reclusive, introverted, he would often come to class late, timed perfectly to avoid the group warm-up and immediately try to blend into his surroundings. Pressed against the wall in the back of the class with his hoodie pulled down over the front of his face, he was invisible to the rest of the class, unless he got up to charge his phone.

Frequently I had to cajole Victor into participating. Often, he would just shake his head no. He would reluctantly join a group format but made minimal effort and barely spoke above a whisper.  Since my enrollment was 33 students, there was only so much time I could spend on encouraging him to participate.  But I knew this was the class for him. Peripherally I would catch him smiling at a game students would be playing or laugh at something that resonated with him. Our eyes would meet at such a moment and he would revert back to his introverted, sullen state.

When the class size was small, between 15 to 20 students I was able to involve Victor a little more, pairing him up with students he was comfortable with.  I found that he would seize up in formats that required an immediate response, but was more relaxed in ones where he was able to take his time to explore and discover.

Only 10 students showed up at a recent workshop. Victor was one of them. As a final project students are required to bring in a theatre game I have not done in class and conduct it. Five students brought in games and all required group participation. Victor joined in and he seemed to enjoy himself. Perhaps it was because his peers were in charge where they suddenly had a sense of ownership in the class, or there were fewer eyes on him.  It was a very relaxed, intimate session free of the usual ambient noise that made conducting a workshop difficult. 

One of my students conducting her final project.


With a half hour left to the workshop I decided to put Victor in a game called Lone Wolf with two other students, Breanne and Mike. In this game, which was taught to me by David Shepherd (co-creator of Compass and Improv Olympics) only one player can move and speak at a time. There is also a Viola Spolin game by the same name, but the emphasis is on multiple concurrent scenes. The class suggested a park as a location, with Victor, Breanne and Mike discussing how they felt about school.

Chairs were set up as a bench and the scene began with all three sitting down. One at a time, Victor, Breanne and Mike would stand up, say something, and then sit back down. The class laughed at how the game was being mocked, which is often the case when the rules of the format seem unreasonable or difficult.

I directed the three to get off the bench.  Breanne got up and created a water fountain, but exaggerated drinking from it to elicit laughter from the class. Victor got up and reprimanded her for making a mess. Mike got up and slipped on the wet ground from the water Breanne was wasting.

My next direction was for them to explore the environment and find details. Be as specific and realistic as possible. Victor examined a tree which had initials carved into it. He felt the coarseness of the tree against his hand and the indentation the carvings made. He was committed and focused on the discovery. Mike picked up trash from the ground and put it in a nearby garbage bin.  Breanne found a discarded kite and started to untangle the string attached to it.

The scene went on for almost ten minutes. Through a slow, thoughtful pace, a lovely scene evolved where Victor reveals that he is going to drop out and Mike and Breanne talk him out of it. All of this transpired as the exploration of the space continued, with specific environmental details making it more vibrant to the class.  The scene ended as the wind picked up, temperature dropped and it began to rain.

While I was proud of all three for working together and taking their time to create a realistic scene with humor that sprung out of the situation and characters, I was thrilled that Victor was able to commit to a format that required discipline and patience. It was the most natural I have ever seen him in class and from the expression on his face I knew he realized that he just had a breakthrough moment in the class.

I knew it was just a matter of time. I just had to be patient. 

After class Mike confided in me that Victor was actually thinking of dropping out due to feeling isolated and unenthusiastic about school.  As the result of two new friendships he developed from my class, Mike and Breanne, he decided to stick it out.  I choose Breanne and Mike to play with Victor because I knew he felt comfortable around them, without realizing they had developed a relationship outside of class and were about to embark on a scene that realistically reflected their dynamic.

With the right game and chemistry of players, it’s amazing what can be accomplished. 



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 










Wednesday, May 10, 2017

From the Archives: David Shepherd’s Improvisational Theatre Notes





I was in Ottawa recently for the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games (CIG), a nation wide program for high school students who perform improvised scenes in teams based on suggestions from the audience. During the school year, teams participate in regional tournaments. The winning team from each region then goes on to the National Festival and Tournament held in Ottawa in April at the National Arts Centre. CIG was created by Willie Wyllie and Howard Jerome, inspired by the Improv Olympics, created by David Shepherd and Howard Jerome. Along with Paul Sills, David Shepherd was the producer of North America's first professional improvisational theatre The Compass, which was the forerunner of the Second City.



A week before the National Festival this year, I spent a few days at the home of Howard Jerome in Hamilton, so that we could attend a CIG fundraiser together in Toronto. While I was at Howard’s home, I dug through his improv archives to see if there was any material I could add to David Shepherd’s collection, which is now housed at Northwestern University. Most of the material I came upon was from the Improv Olympics, including the Spring 1976 issue of Nous Journal, a local Ottawa newspaper. Howard Jerome and David Shepherd were in town at the time to conduct Improv Olympic workshops at various high schools and Howard convinced the editors to devote their Spring issue to improvisation.



The issue includes descriptions of the Improv Olympic events (Time Dash, Emotional Hurdles, Character Relay, Space Jump, Silent Wrestling, Sound Swim), warm-up games and educational tips. What I found particularly fascinating about the issue, which I am sharing, is an essay written by David Shepherd which serves as both a history lesson and the foundation of his philosophy about why we should all be improvising every day – (which we do whether we’re aware of it or not). Enjoy.



Improvisational Theatre Notes
By David Shepherd


Improvisation is one of the oldest kinds of theatre. Five hundred years ago families of Italian Players made their living going from town to town doing “Commedia.”  This was a live soap opera – all improvised in parks, streets and festivals. If the players managed to keep their characters interesting, then the public would come back day after day. When people stopped paying, the troupe moved on.

Each players studied a couple of handbooks about his character – one full of speeches he could use, the other full of “bits” he could do. These books were handed on from mother to daughter (or father to son) as young people in the family got old enough to play the standard parts of Doctor, Captain, Servant, etc.  In his youth, Moliere played in a similar group.

As soon as the troupe arrived in a town its members would collect as much local gossip as possible about the people they’d be playing for. Each show was based on a situation invented for that audience. If after a few minutes this idea led nowhere, the players simply stopped. With no embarrassment they said to the audience: “Sorry. Our improvisations didn’t work. Let’s try again.” They huddled, invented a new situation, and stared all over.

When a player got in trouble he fell back on what he’s learned from one of the two books. The Captain, for instance, might start telling the audience how he was about to die! …. For the love of a farm girl. Arlechino the servant might mime a fly buzzing around his head. He’d track down that imaginary fly until he caught it in his cupped hand and then – ate it!

Improvisational theatre exists today in Toronto, where the Second City Troupe knows how to take a suggestion from the audience for an improvisation about our Canadian life. They also do a show based entirely on scenes that were first improvised, then memorized and set.  

Improvisation works best among people who know and can trust each other. It does not work on conflict. We have to cooperate in many ways in order to play:

We must agree on where we are (for instance, if I decide that a giant safe is against this wall, then you can’t walk through that space).

We must agree on who we are (for instance, if you say you’re my mother, then I have to accept you as my mother).

We must agree on what we’re doing together.

In improvisational theatre there is no need for a painted set.  Nor do you need a script. You don’t have to have thousands of watts of stage lighting. You don’t even need a stage. And in fact, improvisational theatre works better if you don’t have stage, lights, set and curtain. Because without these limitations, you have the freedom to explore.

In this issue of NOUS JOURNAL, you’ll see how to do three things:

1.     experience the freedom and fun of improvisation (this takes only a few minutes.)
2.     use improvisation to write a group scene that’s half prepared, half improvised (this takes an hour)
3.     use improvisation to put on a show for yourselves or for the class next door (this takes two hours)

Remember: there’s nothing new or strange about improvisation. You’ve been doing it all your life:

For instance, if you’ve ever pretended you were angrier than you really were – or sadder, or happier – just for the fun of it…..

If you ever pretended you were a hockey star or a finicky grandmother or a down-and-out bum (with no script to tell you what to say)……

If you ever imagined (with a friend) that you were in some jungle hideaway or rocket ship or fancy party….

If so, you were improvising. It’s natural to play a feeling, character or place that you don’t usually experience. It’s healthy to relax once in a while, let your hair down and your feelings out. Live without concentrating on being yourself. Enjoy stepping into another’s shoes, onto another planet, under another feeling. 

  





Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 
     


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Missed Improv Opportunities by Michael Golding




This semester through the Compton division of El Camino College’s offsite program I was assigned to teach Theatre Appreciation at two inner city high schools in Los Angeles; Firebaugh High School in Lynwood and Compton High School in Compton.  Students receive college credit for attending the courses which run from 3:30 – 5:30pm twice a week.  Two weeks in, both courses were canceled due to low enrollment. This is a common occurrence for adjuncts who work with high school students. The disappointment cuts deep this time out. The students at both schools were excited with my learning by doing approach, which relies more on participating in improv games, formats and group collaboration, than listening to lengthy lectures. I was stimulated by the creative possibilities both classes offered and was already strategizing how to alter my curriculum to accommodate the specific needs of the students.

There were students in both classes who have previously taken Intro to Acting with me, where I take the same hands on approach, although there is a scripted element to the course where scenes and monologues have to be performed. In that course, I give the students the choice of finding a scripted scene or monologue to perform, or developing one through improv and creating a script based on it.  Since those students were already familiar with my style, it was forcing me to search out new ways to engage them so they could not anticipate outcomes. What I found endearing was that these students understood what was going on in the minds of the students who were working with me for the first time and discovering in a joyful way, I’m unlike any instructor they’ve had before. The learning by doing approach catches on quickly, and nothing gives me a greater satisfaction than monitoring the looks of new students engaging in the work for the first time, where I know they’re thinking “Where has this type of class been my entire life?”  It is a welcome outlet after being cooped up in school all day for them.
.
At Firebaugh High School in Lynwood, I had fourteen students registered and eleven at Compton High School. Smaller classes work better when it comes to at-risk populations where I can give more individual attention. But the college has a minimum requirement of twenty two students.  Sometimes I can sway the administration to extend the registration deadline, and make a case that the students attending will become ambassadors for the college. Canceling a course that they’re into will only diminish them, resulting in leeriness when contemplating signing up for future courses at the college.  My case fell on deaf ears this time out. Essentially the administration told me “Better luck next time.” Tell that to my bank account or the students who were on the precipice of a new exciting journey. 

Firebaugh High School

Francisco, a short, muscular, eighteen year old fireball of kinetic energy, confessed to me at my first workshop at Firebaugh High School that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He was always seeking out the comedic edge with anything he participated in. When I asked for a suggestion for an activity he offered “crucifixion.”  An activity that a group could do together, he proudly exclaimed “circle jerk.” He frequently got cheap laughs from the class by mocking the games. In many ways he reminded me of what I was like at fourteen, when I first started taking improv classes and I was looking forward to slowly changing his mindset from “it’s all about me” to “it’s all about the group.”  He developed a kinship with Donotus, a tall, lean, and lanky seventeen year old who fearlessly volunteered for every game, without paying attention to what the rules and objectives were and was frequently crestfallen when his noble attempts failed.

I paired the two up for  “Try that on for Size” where an activity, such as washing the dishes is given, and the players have to come up with different explanations while pantomiming the same motion for the activity; (Example: “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to raise the dead. Try that on for size!”). After a few failed attempts, Francisco and Donotus clicked with the game, and were thrilled with how they were bouncing off each other and developing a rhythm.  As I drove home after class I spotted the two walking together on the sidewalk, plotting away with the possibilities of future collaborations. 

Compton High School

My Compton High School class had nine female students and two male, one of which was a dapper seventy year old man named Lawrence. The offsite program allows adult students to attend high school courses if the schedule fits their needs better. It’s an interesting dynamic. Depending on the age gap, frequently the adults take on a paternal role with the teenagers. Lawrence had a thoughtful, soothing effect on the other students, who readily accepted him. In my experience, inner city students have a more respectful attitude towards elderly people, usually because their grandparents often live with or are raising them. It was a joy to watch Lawrence immerse himself in “Tableau,” a game where players freeze in a pose that creates a picture of  a location, such as McDonald’s, the beach or a bank. Now retired, Lawrence wanted to pursue the college degree that eluded him in his youth and I was eagerly looking forward to becoming part of his journey and the various roles he would play with the students in scenes. 

As I torment myself with might have been this semester, I hope that the four two hour workshops both groups had with me was enough to inspire an interest in the work and future theatre courses. For the adjunct instructors, the offsite program is an admirable endeavor, designed to inspire high school students to consider college, what will be required of them and envision a life beyond high school. But the reality from the perspective of the college administration is it’s all about money and numbers. Pack them in, espouse the virtues of the college then send them on their way. Ideally, the college would love for me to have forty students in each class, which I have at times.  Even though I have developed a successful structure that involves group warm-ups and collaboration exercises, often the momentum of the class slows down due to crowd control when the class is that large.  Twenty two is the way to go. Even better if it’s less.

The ongoing uncertainty of committing to a semester followed by the disappointment of an abrupt cancellation has forced me to decide whether I want to continue with this program. Aside from the financial hardship, there is an emotional toll, because I cannot teach without bonding with my students and I’m already feeling the loss over the missed opportunities of this semester.  It was neither the fault of the students nor I that the classes were cancelled. What we’re all feeling right now is anger, with no one to direct it to.  I love what I do, but my heart has been broken so many times in the past with this program that it’s beginning to develop scar tissue.  There is no closure when a course is suddenly cancelled and I don’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to the students. At least I had two great weeks with both groups. We were connecting and I know that I was opening the door to new possibilities for the students. That’s something to be proud of.      

That said, imagine what I could have accomplished with both groups if I had them for three months.

Workshop director suddenly at liberty.



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 
   
     



Monday, September 26, 2016

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Shepherd's Community of Improvisers



In 1971 after taking a five year break from improvisation, David Shepherd (co-creator of Compass with Paul Sills, and the Improvisation Olympics with Howard Jerome) formed Community Makers in New York City. The organization was set up to correct ailing communities by using improvisation as a people’s theatre. This article was originally published in Dramatics Magazine, December, 1971.
 

COMMUNITY MAKERS: RESPONSIVE THEATRE
By David Shepherd




Suppose that the third reel of a film was destroyed accidentally in the projection room. The whole show would be cancelled, naturally.

Suppose for a moment that the Living Theatre is late for a performance (or any other touring company). Imagine that their bus breaks down in a snow storm. It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night. There are 500 customers waiting in the theatre and in bars along Main Street. Is the show cancelled?

What’s to prevent some of these 500 from putting on their own show?

This is a question that I’ve been struggling to answer over the past year. Put it this way: What prevents people from creating their own entertainment IN THEIR OWN HOMES?

Is the answer lack of leadership or inability to communicate? Ignorance of one’s own roleplaying potential? Unwillingness to draw attention to real concerns? Or are we living in a basically passive society, where most people are not willing to exchange canned entertainment they could create, or the sports they could play?

Of course during blizzards or celebrations, people do try and do succeed in creating entertainment – through jokes, dancing, charades, discussion and debate. People do go somewhere – so that the very change of setting is a kind of entertainment. For instance, they go from their living room to a bar, or to Coney Island, or to the park.

But the living room entertainment that I’m talking about doesn’t require a taxi or a beach buggy or even a stroll down the block. This kind of “organic” entertainment makes it possible for you to go on a trip without moving from the room where you are together with your group.

I’m talking about a way of making conversation part of a performance. And making conversation as easy as just talking to someone at a party.

This, it seems to me, is one possible theatre of the future – an activity that people can do in their homes just as easily as they play Monopoly or plan a dinner party or put on charades.

I call this activity “Responsive Theatre” because this name encourages an idea of theatre that responds and that is relevant to what people feel at any one moment.  To go back to the 500 people waiting for a touring company in a snow storm on Saturday night, Responsive Theatre would reflect how they felt about the snow storm, the disappointment of no “pro” show, the fact that it is Saturday night – time to improvise.

Responsive Theatre would be 100 percent improvised, a way of presenting the collective talent of the audience to itself – without rehearsal. A way to explore the concerns of the audience. A way to satisfy its needs.

Let me sketch the rough design. I’ve discovered by creating “responsive settings” over the past nine months – in homes, discotheques, churches, classrooms and auditoriums.
 
My design begins at the door to the Responsive Setting. Instead of being met by an usher or Maitre D, the participant is met by a player. The participant can also be given the opportunity to choose – let’s say between soft lighting and bright lighting, or between rock-and-roll and country music. He becomes involved in his own entertainment at the door. (If the normally passive player makes a choice, he’s entering a program that may lead him directly into the playing area by the end of the evening.)  

Next the players helps the participant discover other options: to drink wine or soda, to eat sandwiches or potato chips, to dance or watch others dance, to write suggestions for scenes on the walls or fill out “order cards,” to join a political discussion or simply sit with any group that has an empty seat at its table. The player is responsive to whatever the participant needs.

Two audience members on the dance floor at a disco play out a wild party.


Direction signal cards are passed out among the participants or the direction signals are posted prominently on the walls. Sample signals would be: FREEZE! …. Stops the action, REPLAY, FEEL IT! LOUDER! TURN OFF THE SOUND, FORWARD IN TIME, BACKWARD IN TIME, SWITCH SETTING, GET TO THE POINT!, APPLAUSE…..ends the action.

There are three or four ways by which the participant now becomes responsive himself – thereby shaping the entertainment he will get: he can vote for themes, characters or confrontations that he wants to see enacted; he can learn how to direct an improvisation by trying out signals on players sitting at his table; he can prepare to join the roleplay himself by entering into “responsive games” with the players; finally, he can change the roles of the evening – assuming he’s not a new-comer and knows what he’s doing: for instance, he can suggest some signals be used and others discarded.

Let me give an example now of how this works in practice. At last night’s performance of Responsive Theatre in Manhattan, the suggestion “Attica” was given. “The parents of a prisoner” and “the wife of a hostage” were asked for. Time: “Just before Governor Rockefeller makes his decision not to intervene in the prison riot.”

We were playing with about eight signals, which were visible to everyone watching. As the improvisation started a regular customer became disappointed. She felt that the players were floundering in sentiment and that the audience was embarrassed for them. She directed the improvisation to jump forward in time to after the Governor’s decision. She then asked for a change in roles.

Now “SWITCH ROLES” is not one of the signals we encourage. It’s enough for a player to switch setting or time without switching his role.

“Switch roles!” the viewer called out. “The father of the prisoner is now Governor Rockefeller, and you two girls are his aides. You’re trying to decide whether to intervene or not.”

We “responsive players” do not like this kind of suggestion, as a rule. We prefer a viewer use just one signal, and select that signal from a list of permissible signals. Here was a viewer coming on with the authority of a Tyrone Guthrie. She was changing the rules of Responsive Theatre. She was asking us to be more responsive than we wanted to be. But we did respond. Rudy, our black player, played the Governor, with two white aides, Penny and Diana.

(It is this tension between players, viewers and dramatic content that makes an evening of Responsive Theatre fizzle, burn, or blast-off. Some customers and players maintain that the “bad” nights are the most interesting.)

At the Manhattan Theatre Club Cabaret. Members of the audience (left) move into a scenario about "turning on." David Shepherd, center.


“Switch roles!” the same lady soon called out again. “You are now Mayor Lindsey with his staff.” For a minute, it seemed we were channel-hopping during the 6:00 news of September 13, 1971. Then our energy hit a peak, the audience applauded, and Attica as a theme-for-the-night passed from the concerns of the audience.

A successful Responsive Theatre episode need not be complicated. Acting on the participants’ suggestions, the players can move directly toward uncovering the basic emotional and ideological content of our daily lives. The results are often quite simple and yet quite imaginative. I asked Penny Kurtz, one of our players, to describe a typical experience in a responsive situation, and her answer was a telling evocation of this aspect of our improvisations.

“I remember my first experience with Responsive Theatre. We were given the suggestion of an elevator with two people – a man and a woman. I volunteered. Suddenly I find myself entering a small elevator, with a suspicious gentleman following me in. The door is still open. He stares at me, and I return his gaze. My mind flashes “Don’t push your floor button til after he does.” We stand motionless for several moments.

“We exchange some small talk. Finally he pushes his button: third floor. My floor. I smile. He smiles. The door closes. Maybe he isn’t following me after all.

“Freeze! You go out together for coffee.”

“We sit, talk, relax and discover that we’re both very lonely and afraid. Ronald (as I learn to call him) has been afraid of women all his life. He’s been seeing a psychiatrist. I want to help him. I take his hand. I think I’m going to fall in love.”

“Applause!.....and the scene ends.” Sometimes we’re asked to jump from century to century, switching roles and settings at the same time, as we chase after the theme of women’s liberation, or pollution, or child raising. It becomes impossible to respond. So we must set guidelines.

The “entertainment order” that we work from has to be stage worthy; just as a candy store cannot serve a steak platter, so we cannot stage a suggestion like a “bar with a horse and a goldfish talking about acupuncture in the year 1492.”

If we don’t have the skills or knowledge to handle a suggestion, then we ask the person who gave that suggestion to help us; this works best when there are two trained players for every amateur.

If we simply don’t like a suggestion because we did it last night or because we find it banal, or because we think it’s in bad taste, then we warn the audience that at the risk of boredom, they must take responsibility for directing their own suggestion.

Sometimes the audience accepts this responsibility. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the players respond to the collective direction of the audience. Sometimes for various reasons, they do not. This is precisely the challenge of Responsive Theatre. Let me go back to my own original question: WHAT PREVENTS PEOPLE FROM CREATING THEIR OWN ENTERTAINMENT?

1)    LEADERSHIP. Our culture, or at least the Anglo-Saxon culture, dictates that you take certain steps before you dare perform. You have to prove your competence at a skill. For instance, instead of humming and beating on a table with your fingers, you must go first to music school. Instead of horsing around with some friends, you must first go to drama school. In America most of the arts are run by professionals, and those who participate pay the bill demand professional leadership.

However, if improvisation can be entered just as you enter a game like charades, then the professional can serve not as the leader but as a technical assistant. In fact, the whole activity of creating an improvised statement in your home can be stimulated and guided by an inexpensive game plus aids like a phonograph record to show you how other groups did it. The game will identify and support leaders.

We are about to make this possible through Responsive Theatre.

2)    IGNORANCE OF ONE’S OWN ROLEPLAYING POTENTIAL. People have no idea how interesting they are. Find two housewives or two businessmen conversing in the corner of the theatre, and turn a spotlight on them. Their first impulse is to say nothing. Their second is to say something funny.

 
Players act out the suggestions of residents at the Coronet Nursing Home in Brooklyn.

In an improvisational theatre people are convinced that whenever they participate, they must be funny. We are trying to break down this myth, so that the spectator can accept his own identity and worth – so that he no longer thinks of himself as low man on the talent pole.

3)    UNWILLINGNESS TO DRAW ATTENTION TO REAL CONCERNS. Just as giving a suggestion in no way guarantees that the players can stage it, so getting a suggestion in no way guarantees that the spectator is telling you what he really wants to see. The spectator is often so unused to participating in theatre that he immediately challenges the player – dares him to do something absurd or obscene.

We get endless suggestions for scenes in men’s rooms, men’s rooms in the White House, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew.

Our only way to break through is to go on playing – until the spectator becomes bored with his own self-conscious sallies. We set up workshops at which key members of the audience learn to do what we do. We keep asking for suggestions that can serve to mirror and explore our life together.

It will all become clearer when we begin to use videotape and other media at our base – the Responsive Scene on the street floor of the Manhattan Theatre Club. There we hope to discover how anyone can as a member make not only his own live theatre, but also his own filmed theatre, poetry, songs, music, lightshows, murals or even novels.

There we hope to go on training young producers how to start theatres responsive to the community. There we hope to train both our staff and many dozens of our regular patrons how to be more and more sensitive and responsive to what really concerns viewers – as a group.

Queens House of Detention. Inmates asked to see a scene about a Prison Doctor and an Inmate.


And when we’re through, sometime a long time from now, people will ask “how can theatre express the most personal feelings of any individual in the audience?”

Or: “How can a group cut the time gap between when they conceive and when they produce a full-scale responsive production – for the public?”

For ourselves, we are satisfied to be working to start more Responsive Scenes for a more responsive society, today. 



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 


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