Friday, May 31, 2013

Improv Is My Co-Pilot by Michael Golding

Barely a month into the Fall semester at the college where I teach in Los Angeles, my father passed away and I had to take a one week leave to go to New York for his funeral.  Understandably, the world took on a surreal quality and I dreaded the long red eye flight ahead of me.

On the plane, a woman I sat next to was amused by how I managed to shove my slightly larger than regulations suitcase under the seat.  She complimented me on my success and I responded with “I’m very good at transforming objects.”  After a few moments of witty repartee, it turned out that I was sitting next to a fellow improviser.  We talked shop for a bit and discovered the second thing we had in common.  Neither of us can sleep on planes.

When I told her why I was traveling, she felt that continuing to talk about improv was inappropriate and was going to respect my privacy.  That was the last thing I wanted.  “Look, it’s not going to be good for me sitting still fighting back the tidal wave of grief swarming in my head.  If you don’t mind, I’d love to continue our conversation.”  She was game.  Through the entirety of the flight, we talked long-form, short-form, educational theatre, Spolin, Sills, Shepherd, Theatre Sports, Comedy Sportz, Improv Olympics, Canadian Improv Games, Armando.  The Improv Vortex is vast, and yet, I don’t think we left any facet unexplored.  We blinked and suddenly we were in New York.  Even though neither of us had slept, we both felt refreshed.

It was serendipitous that our paths crossed.  Ironically, through-out the course of our marathon improv discussion the one thing I did not learn was her name.  Oh, name-less improviser, you have my ever-lasting gratitude.

A week later, I was back in Los Angeles.  I was not in great shape.  My perception sashayed between a living nightmare to being slightly out of sync with the world.  For the first time in my teaching career, I was not looking forward to the classroom and wanted to get that returning workshop out of the way as soon as possible, so I could go home and wallow in some misery.  I designed a few group assignments that required very little input from me.  My plan was to just sit and watch the class work.

My students had something else in mind.

When I entered the auditorium where the class took place, the faces of the students lit up as if I was a long lost relative.  The substitute they had was old school.  He was not a believer in my learning by doing approach.  He lectured.  Endlessly.

I laid out what I wanted the students to accomplish in class.  Silence.  Nobody moved.  Then, one of the shyest students spoke up.  “Mr. Golding, since you traumatized us don’t you think you should make it up by letting us do what we want to, today?”  That made me laugh.  “Sure, what do you guys want to do, today?”

They wanted me to play.  With all of them.  For the entire workshop.

We warmed-up with Kitty Wants A Corner, where players in a circle try to make eye contact, and then switch places, while the “kitty” tries to capture a corner.  Yup, I was the kitty.  How did I fare?  Let’s put it this way, I sweat less on a fifty mile bike ride.

What followed next were a few rounds of Emotional Hurdles, where two players jump from one extreme emotion to another, while making the changes seem justified.  I was in every round.  With each consecutive scene partner, I started feeling more like myself again.  For the first time since receiving news of my father’s death, I was in the moment, focusing on my fellow player and responding to the next called out emotion.  More importantly, I was having fun.

The students know I’m a fan of “Walking Dead” and wanted me to create a game on the spot that involved zombies.  So, I quickly devised a new version of “Red light, green light, one, two, three.”  I would be the caller, and when my back was turned, the class had to approach me slowly as zombies.  We discussed briefly how to get into the physicality of a zombie.  Not all have working legs, arms or necks.  First round, I could barely contain my laughter.  They were all so into it.  Every time I turned and they froze, I felt warmth and delight at the sight of twenty teenage zombies in various positions of physical disarray.  They demanded a second round and this time, I was one of the zombies and it made me feel like a kid, again.

We ended the session with “Multiple Views,” a game where a story is told in past tense of an event everyone attended.  I opened the story with “I entered the theatre class and a substitute was there instead of Mr. Golding.”  The class leapt on that like ravenous wolves.  Apparently, the substitute was a cross-dressing, illegal immigrant, who was also a socialist terrorist trying to infiltrate the American way of life through indoctrinating high school students.  I didn’t realize my college had such an innovative hiring policy.

Originally, I intended the class to be short.  By the time the session was over, I clocked in with a little over two hours.  I left the school feeling energized.  When I looked at myself in the mirror at home, I liked what I saw.  There was color in my face and I appeared relaxed.

I couldn’t wait for my next class.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at 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. 



  1. Oh the healing powers of youth and an Improv class! Wonderful story.

  2. So enthousiasm! You can give us the feeling! Very nice and creative work!

  3. These are the stories I love to hear. I have my eyes set on teaching improv/sketch writing. No matter what drama goes on in my overwhelming life, simply stepping foot into Second City, iO, 773...all is well again. Thank you for sharing :D

  4. I too am a Professor of Improv. I still can't believe how lucky I am that the position exists. It's great to hear such an open account of one of the, dare I say, spiritual and healing aspect of our work and teaching. I'd love to make a personal connection with you. Email anytime

  5. I have been running a weekly Improv drop-in class for four years. Sometimes I drag myself in barely able to face the idea. I always float home full of life and delight.