Several years ago, I had a ten month assignment at New Village Charter High School, the first all-girl's charter school in California. It was one of those rare occasions where I was hired because of my background in Educational Theatre. The school board wanted someone who had a successful record working with at-risk teens.
With a mostly Latina population, these at-risk students came from backgrounds that included pregnancy, prostitution, carjacking, assault, rape, robbery, and gangs. Many had not been in school for years. Some got lost amongst the vast populations of their high school, and chose to enter a school with a smaller population and class size. While most could return home to their families after school, others were wards of the state or parolees who lived on campus at St. Anne's, a social rehabilitation center for young women.
Emphasizing process over product, my curriculum utilized the experiences of the students as a springboard for the scenes, themes, characters and issues that were explored through improvisation. Although I was not opposed to eventually doing a show, my goal for the school year was to guide the students towards becoming comfortable with each other and hopefully, me, allowing a sense of trust they never experienced before in other classes. Through the rules of improvisation, the rehabilitation of their damaged interpersonal social skills could begin.
The sizes of the classes were ideal for me - twenty students, at most. However, some of my best sessions occurred when I worked one-on-one with a student. Since my classes were one of the few on campus that consistently had laughter emanating from the room, I frequently had "visitors" who were mostly other students not enrolled in my course, and who were curious about what was going on and wanted to watch. I was fine with that, as long as they adhered to my main rule: If you were in my class, you had to "participate," which didn't necessarily mean performing, but you would be expected to contribute scene suggestions, possibly direct, and participate in discussions.
Yvette was a frequent visitor to my class. On the surface, she was vivacious, confident, outgoing and upbeat. Despite those attributes, I could never get her to play. Many students considered improvising as “being put on display" - running the risk of being humiliated in front of their peers. Others, who grudgingly agreed to play, frequently tried to barter with me: "Mr. Golding, can't I just do it sitting here at my desk? Why do I have to get up in front of everyone? I'm not an actress!"
Over the course of her guest appearances, I learned that when Yvette was twelve years old, her father left her mother for another woman and moved to New York. Yvette, whose self-worth was based solely on her appearance, would only see her father a handful of times during the year. She frequently boasted that she had a great open relationship with him, and he was always commenting on how hot she was. Yvette was very proud that he recently had told her that she had "great tits."
After the winter break, I noticed a distinct change in Yvette's behavior. She was quiet, sullen, and her visits to class decreased. I knew that she had gone back east to visit her father, whose wife had just given birth to a baby girl. Yvette hated being an only child, and often fantasized about having brothers and sisters, and she was excited about meeting her new stepsister. When I encountered her in the courtyard, I asked how the trip had gone. Her father told her that it was time to move on and distance herself from him so that he could focus on his new family. His new wife felt Yvette was an interloper, forcing her husband to live in the past. If Yvette truly loved her father, she would give him his space.
Shortly after I learned this, during a student free day, Yvette came to visit me and Kimberly, an English teacher I shared a room with. We got into a discussion about favorite meals, where I discovered that Yvette’s mother was a "horrible cook" and the only meal Yvette could stomach from her was scrambled eggs. The two fought all the time - particularly at breakfast. Yvette described her mother as "career obsessed." There were also various tenants in the house, who Yvette described as "weird and smell bad."
Since there were only three of us in the room, I asked Yvette if she would be willing to explore what we just talked about in a scene. Surprisingly, she agreed immediately. After some debate, we decided that Yvette would play her mother and Kimberly, who had a theatre background, would play Yvette in a scene that took place at breakfast.
Throughout the scene I threw in directions such as "inner monologue," what is your character thinking now?, "five second delay," wait five seconds before responding to other player, "no talking for thirty seconds," take in the moment and absorb what you're feeling, and "explore activity," can you show me what you are feeling through the activity of cooking, eating and cleaning up?
After about ten minutes of role-playing, I stopped the scene so that I could interview the two in-character. As I observed Yvette in-character, her mood, body language and energy seamlessly changed. As the mother, she admitted being unnecessarily hard on her daughter as a result of overwhelming responsibilities, and that she desperately needed supplemental income from boarders because the ex-husband didn't provide financial support. Kimberly, in-character as Yvette, confessed that fighting was the only way she could get attention from her mother.
Next, I interviewed the two as themselves over what they experienced and discovered in the scene. Yvette was surprised by how easily the words and mannerisms came to her as the mother and that the scene was right on target with how they related to each other at breakfast. Kimberly discovered that her focus was on playing Yvette sincerely, not as a parody - which she could have easily done for humorous effect, and was surprised by how effortless it was for her to get inside Yvette's head, particularly when I threw out the “inner monologue” direction.
After that, I decided to go for broke. I asked Yvette if she had shared with her mother what her father had told her during the last visit. She hadn't. I asked why. "Because I didn’t want her to hate him more than she already did." So, I had Yvette and Kimberly role-play one more time, but with Kimberly as the mother. Yvette took a deep breath and slowly revealed what had happened. Kimberly listened honestly, and responded with one simple line: "I am so sorry that happened to you, it must have been devastating." Yvette replied with "It was!" then threw herself in Kimberly's arms, sobbing real tears. Kimberly held her tightly, as she whispered “It’s okay. Let it out.” After a few moments, I got up and gently put my hand on Yvette's back, and the three of us were quiet for what seemed like an eternity. Then, Yvette broke the silence with "That was great! Can we do something different, now?"
Several days later I found Yvette leaning against my car as I prepared to go home. As we talked, I was pleased to see that her upbeat mood and energy had returned. Yvette wanted to tell me that she had discussed the scene with her mother and as a result, the two seemed to understand each other a little better. They were not fighting as much over breakfast. She also revealed what her father had said, and the mother surprised her with "Now we both know what it's like to be hurt by someone you love." To assuage her fear, the mother said she didn't hate him, because that said more about her than him, and while clearly disappointed by his actions, she wasn't surprised. "His loss."
Beaming with pride, I told Yvette that was great, gave her a hug and got in my car. As I drove away, Yvette screamed out "There's still no fucking way I'm going to eat anything other than scrambled eggs from her!"
Noted, Yvette. Noted.
|Yvette's make-over vision for Mr. Golding. Gold tooth is a nice touch.|
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and 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.