I frequently tell my students that there’s nothing I’m going to make them do, that I’m not willing to do myself. This statement is born out of the necessity to lessen students’ initial fear of participation in warm-ups, games, scenes and formats. Occasionally, this backfires on me, such as the time I expended all my energy in a physical warm-up, and then suddenly discovered that I had to pace myself for the rest of the workshop. I didn’t move much from the couch that night after I got home!
I enjoy role-playing with my students. I generally play “adult roles,” such as father, teacher, counselor and employer, while trying to make the students look as good as possible, so that by the time the next class rolls around, participation is more voluntary than mandatory.
When the group as a whole refuses to budge from their chairs, I segue into a Teacher-in-Role scenario, a technique I learned from Gavin Bolton, a pioneer in the Educational Theatre movement.
Essentially, the teacher assumes a role in relation to the students: a leader, peer, or expert. The first time I encountered this technique was in a workshop Gavin conducted with thirty other participants. Gavin set up a town hall scenario, inspired by thematic elements from The Crucible.
We were all cast as denizens of the town, and Gavin was one of the “respected elders.” At the meeting, Gavin informed us that children were spotted practicing witchcraft in the woods. He then allowed us to discuss the matter amongst ourselves, in order to ascertain the identity of the children. As we conversed, in pairs and groups, Gavin mingled, while surreptitiously asking various members “Who do you think it is?” After some time passed, Gavin changed the tone of the discussion by revealing disturbing information to a select few; “I have it on good authority that your daughter was one of the children practicing witchcraft.” We kept this going for about a half hour, and it was fascinating to experience the metamorphic transformation of the group from close-knit community, to suspicious adversaries. It was an exciting, new way to approach improv, while exploring the theme of rumors.
In past Teacher-In-Role scenarios, I’ve cast myself as a detective briefing the class, all in role as “detectives in training” on an unsolved murder mystery. Students would write down what they think happened, asking me for additional details. This led to the detective trainees interviewing other students in role as suspects, while coming up with various feasible scenarios, several of which were then selected and explored in a scene. Another time I was in role as the head of an agency that provided help and advice to runaway teens. I broke the class up into pairs, and gave them the two roles of counselor and runaway. Each counselor had to find out as much information as possible about why the runaway decided to leave home. The counselors then reported back to me, and as a group, we decided which case should be looked into in greater detail, resulting in a scenario about the events leading up to running away.
When I worked at New Village Charter High School, an all girl institution in Los Angeles, due to the nature of the study body, it was not unusual to have a class with just two or three students – all of whom did not want to participate. The reasons would vary. Fatigue was often cited, and sometimes the personalities in the room were not compatible for collaboration, based on a personal grudge.
The most notable incidence of this involved Skylar and Thalia, who had a little feud going. Apparently, Thalia had made a disparaging remark about Skylar in another class, and Skylar was holding a grudge. For several sessions, Skylar would not participate if Thalia was in class. She would just sit quietly, or sometimes glare at Thalia. I thought about getting involved via the magic of improv, but with two teenage girls circling each other like feral cats defending their territory, I figured it was best to stay out of the way, and hoped the problem would run its course.
During a session on discrimination, Skylar and Thalia got into a discussion about my appearance. The comments were pretty much the same I’d been hearing since the beginning of the school year – my mustache and hair were too gray, my chest and arms were too hairy. I pointed out that the two were discriminating against me based on my appearance, but neither saw it that way.
We decided to do a scene about me getting a makeover. Thalia played my wife, Skylar played the salon owner, which was something she eventually wanted to do in real life, and I played myself in the scene. Thalia and Skylar instantly related to each other in character in the scene, which gave rise to a lot of humor. Thalia was obviously the boss in the marriage, and Skylar kept embellishing Thalia’s vision of the new me, while creating a realistic salon by creating an extensive array of hand props. I had never seen Thalia’s space work as vibrant as this. The end result left me with a shaved head, a gold tooth, an earring, a nose ring, and the phrase “Brooklyn Boy” tattooed on the back of my neck. When we reviewed the scene afterwards, Thalia and Skylar both agreed that if I followed their make-over specifications, my wife would shower me with sex. The two have been talking to each other and on good terms ever since this class, including socializing away from school. This scene also led to having revealing one-on-one sessions with both students, and the work continued on.
Thalia generally walked around with an enormous chip on her shoulder, and was very adept at turning a compliment into an insult. Once, when it seemed like we were on the verge of getting into an altercation, in order to help her sort it out, we agreed to do a quick round of Character-Relay to show how we came off to each other. In this format, we would start a conversation, with each of us playing ourselves. Every thirty seconds, we switched characters, Thalia becoming me, I becoming Thalia, as we continued the conversation. The game proved invaluable for Thalia, who became more self-aware of her emotional drives, while I got an inside peek at how I came off to the students.
Skylar lived with her aunt, who had her baby taken away because she was a heroin addict. The aunt was due for a drug test and wanted to use Skylar’s urine to pass. Skylar wanted to know how I felt about that, and of course, I turned it around on her by asking “how do YOU feel about it?” Skylar admitted being hesitant. I then set up a Character Hot Seat exercise, and interviewed Skylar as her aunt, who admitted that she was manipulating Skylar into becoming an accessory to a crime. As a result of this role play, Skylar decided not to go through with her aunt’s scheme, and was empowered by the fact that this was her decision, and not one that I forced on her based on my own code of conduct.
Skylar and Thalia’s continued personal and creative development exemplified the purpose of my classes, and the role I played with this at-risk population. The vast majority of these students had hard shells as the result of a life that was not kind to them. Some were harder to connect with than others, but once they understood that I was sincerely interested in their opinions, and was willing to risk looking foolish to make them more comfortable, that’s when the real work began, which often led to extraordinary results.
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at email@example.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. 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.