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 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. 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.