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 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 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 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.

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 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, September 9, 2016

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Shepherd's Search for a Popular Theatre

David Shepherd wrote this article in 1959 about his search for a popular theatre. It was published in Encore Magazine that same year. David created Compass, the first professional improvisation company in North America with Paul Sills, and the Improvisation Olympics with Howard Jerome. In addition, David Shepherd has created dozens of other formats during his 60 plus year career in improvisation.


In my country, America, we say something is popular when it succeeds in winning the lead in its market. Cadillac has become more popular than Packard, for instance, even though few Americans can afford to buy either. Billions of dollars are spent to announce the winners until finally the taste of the consumer is determined by advertising itself. When the rocket ship designs of big cars are copied in order to sell little cars, then those designs become “popular” in one sense: their lower price makes them accessible to the public. But in another sense they become less popular: they simply do not express the public’s taste.

When plays are written to sell automobiles on T.V., or to capture a lead in the very costly competition between Broadway producers then the theatre must become an art of making things attractive, of flattering its patrons. Who can afford to invest in a product that is not attractive in every way when it costs you $100,000 to put your foot into the market? But even when this product proves to be a smash hit, we have to ask ourselves if it is truly any more popular than the rocket ship designs that are used to sell millions of Americans a new car every January.

David Shepherd in 1959

A popular play from New York is one which brings thousands from all over the country, anxious to spend from $2.50 to $50.00 a ticket to see it before it is made into a movie. The most popular theatre is whichever theatre is most difficult to get into this month. For the ladies who can get tickets through their clubs, theatre becomes not a habitual part of life but a very special event. For the administrators through their businesses, the theatre must be the one place in New York where they can stop thinking and let the lights and music work on them like an expert masseur. These men go back to their hotels assured of the popularity of the show if their clients have stayed pleasantly awake through-out.

Naturally, there is a rebellion against this state of popularity. The producer or director who wants a less drowsy, less flattering theatre often decides that the only plays worth doing are the ones that are the least popular. He looks for paradoxical plays and will accept even confused and ugly plays. This rebellion might nourish a small but important voice in the theatre if it were allowed to grow in seclusion. But usually the rebels are only waiting to be caught in the spotlight. That is, some fraction of their rebellion or confusion is found to be useful in the enormous salesroom. They disappear into the same well-paid circles they once condemned, and their disappearance further confuses and embitters those who remain.

As the mass media becomes more powerful and sophisticated, virtually all young dramatists and directors will make their peace and find their spot in the market-place of attractions. The trend is becoming visible in every country as T.V. follows movies around the world. It will make drama attractive to hundreds of millions of people who have none of their own. It will provide jobs for tens of thousands of talented people. But it can only impose tastes on those millions very different from their own. And it cannot help but change the function of the theatre in becoming a poor sister and laboratory assistant of the atomic explosions of T.V. and movies.

It is possible that in 50 years the theatre in New York will only be a testing ground for T.V. plots and outside New York only a technique for children and old ladies to express themselves? If it is not, we will have to accept an older notion of popularity than that which is current in America today.

What is this older notion? We are told, for instance, that the greatest theatres in history – the theatres of Sophocles, Moliere, Shakespeare – were, at their best moments, popular theatres. That is, they were accessible to everybody – rich and poor, farmers and courtiers; seats were easy to get, the stories were common knowledge and the ways of telling them were rich and various – dance, music, mime, song and many others. The men who wrote for those theatres had the same strong opinions and the same fear of censorship as our better dramatists have, but they learned to couch these opinions in a story and to tell that story in a way that would satisfy many different tastes at the same time. This kind of popularity is rare today. When I hear people of different occupations whistling the theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai in the street, I know an artistic miracle has occurred: the intellectuals don’t despise it for being middle class, or the business men for being cheap, or the working people for being long hair. At the same time a commercial miracle has occurred: the film has played in both the plush houses and the cheap houses, both uptown and downtown. It has managed to break through the barriers of habit, taste and income that have grown so high in cities all over the country.

There is even an older notion of popularity, one that may not be so hard to apply today. We are told of certain theatres which produced few important plays, but were important in the society of their times – the oriental theatre of story and dance, the medieval religious theatre, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were popular in a different way. They performed wherever there was an audience – in the fields, squares, courtyards; they invented material for the occasion and they recruited talent directly from their audiences. This was folk theatre. It survives today, but not vigorously, in our fraternity reviews and historical pageants. When the movies can offer four hours of Biblical massacre complete to the last jeweled thigh for only 75 cents, who wants to struggle with three rickety acts and accompanying sets? Progress promises that we will have the five hour massacre soon and that we will be able to see it in our homes and vista vision. Let us hope that progress will also bring us this oldest kind of theatre, whether as a do-it-yourself kit or as a new game, so that some part of our leisure can be diverted into thinking in dramatic terms for ourselves.

I myself have made an experiment along these lines. While producing the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago, I found it impossible to get scripts that were relevant to the life of the city and that would enlarge or diversify the audience. I got a strong impression that the theatre was upside down. You always start with an old script and its needs, a director and his needs, publicity and its needs. Instead of publicity, why not start with the public, instead of a director why not stories that can be improvised economically? Instead of subjecting people to a precise day, hour, seat number and schedule, why not let a part of the evening take its own path while people smoke, drink and talk? In this way a theatre came into existence call COMPASS, which has played in many locations in Chicago, St. Louis and New York over the past three years.

COMPASS is a theatre of improvisation. It provides a way not for theatre to be big and spectacular, but for a few people to communicate face to face. It tries to turn the limitations of theatre to its advantage. Before you can even have theatre, people must first leave their homes and sit down next to other people whom they don’t know. These people, as a group, have a new but unknown personality and demand to see certain themes and topics that are on their minds. As this personality emerges it begins to affect the performance until a tension develops between it and the personality of the cast. This tension is the raw material of COMPASS. If the company spends part of each evening dramatizing its own attitudes and part catching the reactions of the audience, then the wall that separates the two is broken and they begin to converse in a common dramatic language.

Improvisation produces no literary masterpieces, but it does what many masterpieces fail to do. It wakes up the imagination of the actor and forces the spectator to ask questions: “Where is this scene? Why is that actor doing that? What’s going to happen next?” Often the actor himself may not know what will happen next. There is no playwright to spoon feed him with answers to every question the public has. Nothing is served up to the public on a platter – neither overwhelming feeling nor total knowledge nor a complete judgment of the world. The spectator has to work a little for his pleasure because he is watching a process and not a result. Scenes grow in front of his eyes, and he picks out the common experiences and familiar characters. When he himself is asked to suggest a scene or plot, he gets a new pleasure – the pleasure of taking a hand in the process. While the actors are preparing backstage, he’s discussing with his friends what they can or cannot expect to see on the stage.

This is a theatre of actions rather than dialogue, and the way things happen becomes more important to the audience than the conversations surrounding them. When actors can switch parts, when scenes can be stopped, started, re-routed and turned upside down, then the whole question of interpretation becomes visible and accessible. On the one hand, the actor has to choose a scene where there is no script. On the other hand, the spectator has to choose whether to buy a scene that has been made to his order. If these choices brought to light by the director in a kind of dramatic game, then what happens on the stage is no longer thought of as exciting or boring, but rather as well or badly done. When the spectator is partly responsible for the success of what happens on the stage, he gradually becomes as much of a specialist in theatre as he is in the mysteries of football or golf.

This is a theatre of stories, newspaper clippings, events of the week, daily activities, caricatures, scenes of family life and office life, of factories and resorts. The scenes pass across the stage like snapshots of life in the community. The actors have to know that life well enough so that when a customer says “I want to see a scene about a boy who runs away from home because he doesn’t want to go to a military school,” they can prepare the background to such a scene in 20 minutes. At rehearsal the roles are reversed: an actor may say “I have an idea for three scenes about the sputnik: let’s try it this week and see how the audience takes it.” Or a writer may come to the theatre and say, “I have an idea for a play, but it may be too abstract; before I write it, could you try these scenes about a husband and wife who have the following relationship…..?” Finally, the director may say, either in rehearsal or performance, “Go on with this scene but imagine that you lost all your money last week and haven’t the courage to tell your wife,” or “Let’s do this same scene, but this time in the home of a cab driver.”

COMPASS is only one solution to the problem of how theatre can be popular. Its principal technique, improvisation, is important for its own sake but is more important as a way for the cast to reach the audience. Its principal discipline, the bare stage, makes for a style but is more important as a way of opening the stage to the wishes of the audience. The most important consideration of all is to have theatres where there are none today – providing always that they make for a cultural ferment and not a sediment in the lives of the people who attend them. The theatre can still do many jobs that cannot be done in the mass media. For all their shattering effects, the mass media are still impersonal, and their audience is so huge and passive that it is becoming harder and harder to write well for it.

The search for popularity has kept the theatre in a constant state of crisis since it came indoors 400 years ago. What novelist, historian or poet need to concern himself with keeping hundreds of seats filled with dozens of bellies fed month after month? As soon as you choose to work in the theatre or write for it, you find yourself searching for that most elaborate or shocking of spectacles that will keep the last rows filled on a Tuesday.  But at the same time the search for popularity is what creates theatre. It may not be a very broad popularity if the search is made cynically by the producer or condescendingly by the writer, or vulgarly by the actor. It may not be a very important theater if the search is a political gesture to one class or a disguised attempt to sell soap. But if the search brings the most important stories of our culture to the greatest number of its citizens, if it brings people together instead of justifying their differences in attitude and taste, then it can be the most vital force that the theatre knows. 

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at 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. 


Saturday, July 2, 2016

IMPROV EVASION By Michael Golding

In my improv workshops with at-risk students, I encourage them to be open about their lives, hoping that will lead to emotional sincerity and a sense of realism in scenes. To gain their trust, I have to be open about mine. There have been times when the workshops have been therapeutic for me, particularly when experiencing loss.

A few years ago just as a new semester was beginning, my father passed away and I had to take a week off to attend his funeral. If I didn’t have that workshop to return to, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first few months.  My students were loving and extremely supportive. Almost two years ago one of my best friends died, who was a major player in the Canadian improv community. I hopped a red eye flight to Canada for his memorial after a Thursday session and was back in class the following Monday, bleary eyed and exhausted. The students I was working with were incredibly nurturing and helped with the healing process.

Handiwork of my students.

My wife is a frequent topic of conversation with my students. They are fascinated by who could marry this wacky, hairy guy. Frequently, I’m bombarded with questions;  “Do you have kids? No? Why not?” (“Because I have all of you in my life.”). “Can we meet her?” (“Sorry, she has something called a job.”). “What do you tell her about us?” (“I’m not certain, but I think they know where we live.”). "Are you the same way at home as you are with us?" ("She WISHES she had that Michael Golding.").  “Have you ever cheated on her?” (“Let’s have a chat about boundaries.”).  

One time she did pop up in one of my classes, because she was driving me to the airport so I could fly to a festival afterwards. They reacted to her as if she was a celebrity; “She’s real! Oh my God, she’s so pretty!”  When I told the class that we were going to grab a quick bite at a nearby House of Pancakes before heading to the airport, one student slid up to me and whispered “Ah, man - take her someplace nice. Like a McDonald’s.” 

A year ago my wife and I separated.  It was not a mutual decision and the loss left me devastated. A month after she left, I was hit by a car while on a group bike ride, which broke my collarbone requiring surgery to have a titanium plate with ten screws implanted. That certainly shifted emotional focus for a while. The Vicodin and Morphine helped too. A month after the procedure, I was back in class.

While I have discussed the accident with my students, including sharing the x-ray of my titanium enriched collarbone, to date I have not mentioned the separation.

I continued wearing my wedding ring. Call it denial, but I just couldn't take it off. The first class I taught after my wife left I was brief when she would come up in conversation. “She’s in Canada looking after her sick mother,” was my standard response, and then I would quickly move on to another topic. Talking about my wife in class always gave me joy. Now, it was extremely painful. I continued being upbeat and humorous when she was brought up, but inside my heart was breaking. 

As the Thanksgiving break approached, the students asked if she was coming home or if I was going to join her. I lied and said I was going to rendezvous with her in Canada. Wished I thought that one through. After the holiday break I was inundated with “How was Canada? How’s your wife?” “Is she back home?” Again, I lied my ass off.

I continued wearing my ring for most of the next semester and again, was short with any inquires about my marriage.  In previous workshops, I frequently shared photos of my wife that were on my cell. As part of the healing process, I deleted them just as the spring semester was about to commence. Now, students were extremely suspicious that I had no pictures of her on me. I was digging myself deeper into a hole. They also noticed I was no longer wearing the ring. I claimed that I was acting in a short where I played a single man. The hole was about to reach China. Instead of telling them that my wife was in Canada taking care of her mother, I augmented it to “Unfortunately, her mother died, and she’s in Canada settling her affairs.” That was probably the first time I was (mostly) honest about my situation. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly last April.

The students gave me shit for not being with my wife during her time of need. Almost came clean; “Believe me; I wanted to be there with her. But given the present state of our relationship my presence would have been awkward for both of us.” Instead, I obfuscated with “I couldn’t take time off from work.” From the back of the class a student yelled out “lame!”

Losing my mother-in-law was unexpected and another emotional blow. My father-in-law had passed away the year before.  After my wife left, my mother-in-law and I found ourselves comforting each other and dealing with the grief over our departed spouses. It added a new layer to our relationship. She was an amazing friend to me right up until the end and she loved hearing about my students. It wasn’t until she passed that I felt the full force of the separation. Unfortunately, this was another item from my life that I could not share with my students.  Shortly after her transition, I finally took my wedding ring off for good.

Taking the ring off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. For over thirty years, I would constantly play with it, twirling it around as I spoke. Now that it’s gone, my OCD won’t give me a break. My hand still reaches for it, and I’m repeatedly shocked when I can’t feel it. The imprint of the ring is still there and I find myself constantly gliding my fingers over the indentation. Occasionally in class I get lost in the sad revelation, but the nature of the students always brings me back to the moment. Inattention from me can quickly be interpreted as “iPhone break!”  Then, they’re all in their happy place and it’s an uphill battle to reel them back in.

Right now I’m two thirds of the way through a six week summer college course with at-risk high school students. Beyond mentioning that I’m married, I’ve given no further information. The group hungers for more; “What does she do for a living? How come you don’t have any pictures of her on you? When are we going to meet her? Do you tell her about us? How come you're not wearing a ring?”

A close friend recently suggested that maybe it's time to come clean with my students. She feels that they will be nothing but supportive. 

Or, I could get a larger shovel.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at 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.