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.