On an auditorium stage, I’m warming up a group of thirty-five high school students for my Theatre Appreciation course. It’s 3:45pm and the students are more distracted than usual. Some are talking to each other. Others are texting. A few decide to sit on the floor, which inevitably becomes a prone position. The class hasn’t begun yet and already I’m losing them. Normally, humor keeps them focused (“Hi. Remember me? I’m Mr. Golding. We met at a trade conference in Dubai.”), but not today. “We’re tired, Mr. Golding!” one student moans.
I pitch “The Do Game” as a warm-up. “Do yourself expressing a strong emotion.” I set up the guidelines. “It can be as long or short as you want, but normally about ten seconds is fine.” A few examples are thrown out, such as “Do yourself getting an A on a test.” This game has been in my arsenal for over twenty years and is usually received enthusiastically. That is not the case today.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, where most of the students are looking down at the floor, I do one. Myself when stuck in a traffic jam. As realistically as possible, I explore rage. This model is greeted with a smattering of applause and a few giggles. From the abyss, one student whispers, “I’d hate to be in a car with him.” The entire class erupts with laughter.
Still, no volunteers.
I expand the warm-up. “Do someone that you know, expressing a strong emotion, such as your father when he discovers a scratch on his car.” Nothing. Now, I believe I can hear the faint sound of crickets in the darkness. One smart-ass student challenges me to do the scenario I just pitched. Playing my father is something I’ve been doing my entire life, so in front of the class I transform myself into an elderly man. Again, the students show their appreciation with applause. Silence quickly ensues when I ask, “Who’s next?”
Sweat starts trickling down my forehead. If you can’t get students involved in a warm-up, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the session.
Out of frustration and desperation, I throw out, “How about this? Do yourself expressing a strong emotion to someone that you never would in real life.”
This resonates with the students. I realize that I now have their full attention. “Give us an example,” one student challenges. Fearing that this is turning into the Michael Golding Show I tell them this is the last one for me. So, I do myself telling off a relative about the inappropriateness of her being too close to me when we talk, including wrapping her arms around my neck so I can’t get away. There is a long pause after I’m finished. The students are looking at each other. For them, this emotional display was distinctly different than the first two I did.
Suddenly, I’m assaulted with a tidal wave of questions after my demonstration. “Does she really do that to you?” “How does it make you feel when she’s holding you that tight?’ “Why wouldn’t you say that to her?” “How do you think she would respond, if you did?”
I answer the questions as honestly as I can and realize that for the first time, I’m sharing thoughts and feelings on a particular subject that has been repressed for years. Somehow, I’ve stumbled onto an incredibly empowering game and these questions are an excellent follow-up. Ready to write-off the warm-up as something that was more beneficial to me than the class I ask once more, “Any volunteers for this? Otherwise, we’ll move on.”
The energy on the stage explodes. Students were crashing into each other to take center stage. Knowing teenagers, I quickly throw on a rule: “The strong emotion you’re expressing cannot be to someone in this class.” This reinforces my rule of no insults or scenarios that might hurt someone personally in the group. This is readily accepted. Now, it’s on!
In rapid succession I got:
- A girl admonishing her mother for accusing her of being gay because of the way she dresses.
- A boy exasperated by his friend’s constant pining for a girl, yet unable to muster up the courage to ask her out.
- A girl excitedly admitting to a guy how much she is attracted to him.
- A boy setting his mother straight on the fact that being gay doesn’t mean he is promiscuous, like his mother is.
Everyone in the group played at least once. Many played twice. The emotions were real, vibrant and uncompromising. From my perspective, I was watching a series of emotionally charged monologues – as good as anything you would see on a professional stage.
With each student, I asked a series of follow-up questions, some of which I lifted from the group after my model: “How did that feel?” Most responded “Great!” Some with “A little weird.” A few weren’t sure. “Why wouldn’t you say that in real life?” “He wouldn’t get it.” Or “I’m too afraid.” Last question, “How do you think that person would respond?” Most were “Not great,” however one student was brave enough to roleplay how her mother would respond. She effortlessly morphed into her mother – a much larger woman, both physically and emotionally. Lapsing into a powerful tirade, I could immediately see why the student would never say what she did in class to her mother. To my surprise, she went back and forth seamlessly between playing herself and her mother having an argument for about a minute. Amazing to watch.
It was immediately clear to me that these questions helped monitor how each student “cooled down” from the exercise, which also determined how much time I would spend during the exchange. Made a point of thanking each student for participating and how brave it was for them to share. The majority of the students were able to rejoin the group after sharing, with no problem. A few were still in the moment, or left a little unbalanced by what they just did. In those cases, the group took care of itself – placing a comforting arm around a shoulder or whispering an encouraging, “That was great.”
So, in an attempt to adapt to my students’ mood, behavior and fatigue, “The Do Game” was forced to evolve into something else. Thus, “Never Say” was born, an empowering exercise for the students and a valuable one for me, because I was able to gain insight into their personalities. This game sprang from the moment, through the give and take between teacher and students.
Best part? A warm-up that was supposed to take up ten minutes of class time, became a game that filled an hour, and has the potential as a springboard for scenes filled with emotional sincerity and concrete reality. Can’t ask for more than that.
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. 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.