Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Truth In Jerry Springer by Michael Golding

Getting students to embrace structure in games and formats is an ongoing challenge in my workshops.  Whether they’re high school or college age students, once I mention rules, they automatically assume it’s going to be hard, and try to barter with me in order to make the format or game easier.

A few years ago, I hit upon a solution by just mentioning the name of a popular TV tabloid show, students with no previous improv experience, already familiar with the program’s structure, would gladly work within it.  I came upon this when I was sorting through scene suggestions with one of my high school groups, and when Monica, a student in the class, suggested “The Jerry Springer Show,” the class erupted with approval, because it was something they knew they could all participate in.

Initially, I was opposed to doing a Jerry Springer format because my classes are about people respecting each other, which is something the show does not embrace.  But, after striking out with alternative suggestions, I decided to let the class have their way.

Energized, Monica leapt up and took charge.  She immediately cast herself as Springer, and then led the group in a discussion about the nature of the topic, and who was going to play the guests.  “Cheating Husbands” was unanimously accepted as the topic.  Once that was settled, everything else quickly fell into place. 

Hands were raised all over the room as students volunteered to be guests and security guards for the show.  Monica cast Kristel, a notoriously shy student to play the betrayed wife.  Jackeline and Beatrice were cast as the “home wrecker” and husband, respectively.  Jonesha and Amanda were the security guards.  The remainder of the class became the audience, who on the show are rambunctious, vocal, and frequently chant “Jer-ry!, Jer-ry!, Jer-ry!” when things become volatile on the program. 

On the blackboard, I had the class list the beats of the Jerry Springer Show.  We came up with seven specific ones; (1) Jerry enters, shaking hands with audience as they chant his name.  (2) Jerry welcomes viewers, introduces topic, and then interviews wife.  (3) Jerry brings on home wrecker, who is confronted by wife.  Security personnel intervene when fight breaks out.  (4) Jerry interviews home wrecker.  (5) Jerry brings on husband for questioning.  Another fight almost breaks out.  (6) Question and answer period, where audience members ask questions.  (7) Program ends with Jerry’s “final thoughts.”

Because of the nature of the show, I came up with two rules; no chair throwing, unless it’s an imaginary chair, and no fistfights, unless they’re done in slow motion.  The Jerry Springer character can be interpreted as a leadership role, and Monica kept everything on track with controlling the action and hitting the beats of the show.  Within the course of ten minutes, I experienced an abbreviated version of the Jerry Springer Show, filled with energy, enthusiasm, humor and vibrant characters.  It was a wonderful group experience.  What stood out, was how loud and physically volatile shy Kristel became when the home wrecker came on stage.  After class I learned that Kristel had recently caught her boyfriend cheating on her.

The second time I tried the Springer format was with a different group of high school students.  Ernesto, the student who played Springer, was not as strong as Monica, and focused more on himself rather than propelling the show forward.  With side-coaching, I was able to get Ernesto through the show, with directions such as “bring on the next guest,” and “ask more questions.”  Estaffany, who played one of the guests, wanted to curse nonstop, so I had to side-coach her as well to tone it down a bit, as she tried to reason with me that “It’ll be bleeped on TV!”  As a compromise, she agreed to curse in gibberish.  While the format didn’t come off as smoothly as the first time, it was still a successful experience for the class, because everyone got to participate, and they did so within a structure that had specific beats to adhere to.

After numerous versions of Springer with my classes, it became clear the thrill for the students was in doing a parody of the show, rather than a realistic rendition.  They recognized the program for what it was, a trashy TV tabloid show that exploited vulnerable people and dysfunctional families.  Occasionally, I would participate as a guest or audience member asking questions.  Sometimes I would play an exaggerated version of myself, as perceived by the students, which thrilled them no end.  Most of my students watched Springer regularly with their families, and I was surprised to learn that it often led to a discussion of provocative and confrontational topics after viewing an episode.

So for me, I gained additional insight on the recreational and social aspects of my students with their families.  For my students, it would appear that the Jerry Springer Show has value in teaching structure, leadership, group creativity, bonding with their families and encouraging discussion of controversial topics.  Who would have thought that a tabloid show would have such merit?

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. 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, July 26, 2013

Lennox Academy by Michael Golding

I am not openly embraced by faculty and staff at every high school I work at here in Los Angeles.  As a guest part-time instructor, I am viewed as an interloper, who doesn’t fully understand the day-to-day rigors of being incarcerated with a building full of teenagers from 8am to 3pm.  On top of that, I teach theatre, which is not a real discipline, as far as the faculty is concerned.  In their eyes, I am a failed actor trying to make a buck.  Often, I’m assigned a classroom, rather than an auditorium, rehearsal space, gymnasium or some kind of open space for my course.  In those instances, I find myself dealing with the proprietary nature of the teacher whose room I’m a guest in.  While I always make sure the space is left exactly the way I found it, many teachers prefer that I don’t move anything at all, which is counterproductive.  At one point during my sessions, I need space for thirty or more students to be physical in.

Interruptions are another problem.  Despite having a “class in session” note taped to the door, I’ve had staff and faculty members enter my course to talk to a student, rummage through a desk, or ask me questions, regardless of whether or not students were in front of the class doing something.  If they hear there’s laughter in the room that usually suggests to outsiders nothing serious is going on.  I once had a security officer enter my class unannounced, reprimanding the students for being “too loud.”  Another time, a teacher entered as I was engaging the students in a group discussion, which involved a great deal of humor, over selecting a theme to explore in a scenario.  He watched for a few moments then bellowed “I wish I could get paid just to sit around and joke with the students.”

Typical full-time faculty fantasy.
As a rule, once an adult enters my workshop unannounced, they become a participant.  If they’re respectful, meaning they ask me before class if they can watch, I invite them to contribute scene suggestions, direct or play.  For the contentious few, I immediately draft them into whatever format I’m doing at the moment the second they enter the room.  This is very effective at cutting down repeat offenders.

Lennox Academy in Los Angeles, was one of those rare assignments where everything worked perfectly.  I was assigned the school cafeteria for my course, which also had an auditorium stage.  This arrangement was ideal.  The warm-ups and technique exercises were conducted on the cafeteria floor.  When it was time to move into the format section, we hopped onto the stage, which made the experience more theatrical for the students and enhanced their performance skills.

One day, I was doing a character hot-seat exercise, in which I’m interviewing the students in character as someone they know well.  From the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Lopez, a history teacher at the school, watching silently from the side.  At one point, I turn the interviewing over to the students and walked over to talk to Lopez.  He was waiting for an opportune moment to walk across the cafeteria to exit at the other side without interrupting the class.  I thanked him for waiting and said he could cross whenever he wanted.

Lopez waited until the students were finished interviewing the current character, then he started walking across the cafeteria.  Just as he approached the exit, one of the students yells out “Hi Mr. Lopez!  Hey, you want to play with us?”  Before he could answer, another student quickly explained what the game was about, followed by the group chanting “Lopez, Lopez, Lopez!”  He turned to me to see if it’s okay and I say “absolutely.”

Planting himself in a chair center stage, Lopez seamlessly morphed into character as a student, who judging by the students’ reaction, everyone knew well.  The interview, which normally takes a few minutes, went on for fifteen, followed by a scene where Lopez, still in character as the student, being counseled by himself, played by another student, who suspects he cheated on a test.  It was wonderful to see how much fun Lopez was having, and the warmth the students felt towards him.  He stayed until the end of class and participated in the closure exercise, Gift Circle.  In this game, students sit in a circle, each taking a turn making eye contact with everyone in the group, and then pick one to give an imaginary gift to.  It was a beautiful way to end this particular session.

As the students were gathering their belongings to leave, Lopez thanked me for allowing him to participate and apologized for interrupting my class.  I told him that he did no such thing, that it was a welcome addition and I expressed how much I appreciated that he waited until I had a moment before talking to me.  Smiling, he replied “Mr. Golding, here at Lennox we respect our faculty.”  I almost hugged the man and left him with an open invitation to visit the class whenever he liked.

A week later, I was introducing the students to the Armando Diaz Experience, a format where a monologist tells a story, pausing periodically for aspects of it to be brought to life in scenes.  As is often the case when introducing a new format, the first few attempts were stilted.  Either the monologist couldn’t provide enough detail for players to enact, or the players were waiting too long to jump in.  Again, Lopez was watching from the side, until he was noticed by one of the students who beckoned with “Mr. Lopez, tell us a story!”

Since this was the last class before Spring break, Lopez used that as the theme for his story and made it personal.  His monologue involved various students in the class, covering their family life, friends and vacation plans.  Because he knew these students so well, certainly better than me, they were falling over themselves to enact scenes, which were rich with detail and emotion.  Lopez’s Armando lasted close to a half hour.

My favorite session with Lopez was when we were exploring poetry, in a text versus improv format.  In this structure, one person reads a poem, followed by another person improvising a story based on what in the poem affected them.  Sometimes the simplest instruction by a teacher can be the most complicated one for a student.  The class had a problem grasping the second part of the exercise, and thought that they had to improvise a poem to compliment the one that was just read.  It was fortunate that Lopez was in class for this one!

After a student read Pablo Neruda’s “Leaning Into The Afternoon,” Lopez told a story about his first true love, who ended up breaking his heart.  By the end of his story, the cafeteria echoed with the sound of sniffing noses.  The students suddenly understood the exercise and for the next hour, the stories that followed the written poems were poignant, emotionally honest and revealing.  The experience encouraged students to bring in their own original poems, just to see what type of stories they would inspire.  This was an unexpected windfall for me.
The final class is always party time for the students, where pizza is ordered and we talk about what we accomplished during the semester and what their plans are for the future after graduation.  Lopez was noticeably absent, and I made a mental note to send him a thank-you email.  As I approached my car in the garage, I heard Lopez call out my name.  When I turned to face him I was immediately struck by his expression, which was filled with admiration.  “Mr. Golding, I just wanted to thank you for letting me participate.  It allowed me to explore a different type of relationship with these students which I never would have had if it wasn’t for your class.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself.”

Lennox Academy.
In turn, I thanked Lopez for providing me with privileged insight into who these students were and how wonderful it was to observe the mutual respect and love they felt towards him.  I wish I had a Mr. Lopez in every high school class I teach.

I frequently write about how valuable the arts are in education, and the importance of play in the every day life of students.  But until I had this experience with Lopez in my class, I never considered the importance of play in a teacher’s daily work routine and how it can provide a richer connection between teacher and student.  Empathy is vital in any relationship.  So why not also between teacher and student?

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. 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.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Hate My Mother's Cooking by Michael Golding

Several years ago, I had a ten month assignment at New Village Charter High School, the first all-girl's charter school in California.  It was one of those rare occasions where I was hired because of my background in Educational Theatre.  The school board wanted someone who had a successful record working with at-risk teens.

With a mostly Latina population, these at-risk students came from backgrounds that included pregnancy, prostitution, carjacking, assault, rape, robbery, and gangs.  Many had not been in school for years.  Some got lost amongst the vast populations of their high school, and chose to enter a school with a smaller population and class size.  While most could return home to their families after school, others were wards of the state or parolees who lived on campus at St. Anne's, a social rehabilitation center for young women.
Emphasizing process over product, my curriculum utilized the experiences of the students as a springboard for the scenes, themes, characters and issues that were explored through improvisation.  Although I was not opposed to eventually doing a show, my goal for the school year was to guide the students towards becoming comfortable with each other and hopefully, me, allowing a sense of trust they never experienced before in other classes.  Through the rules of improvisation, the rehabilitation of their damaged interpersonal social skills could begin.

The sizes of the classes were ideal for me - twenty students, at most.  However, some of my best sessions occurred when I worked one-on-one with a student.  Since my classes were one of the few on campus that consistently had laughter emanating from the room, I frequently had "visitors" who were mostly other students not enrolled in my course, and who were curious about what was going on and wanted to watch.  I was fine with that, as long as they adhered to my main rule:  If you were in my class, you had to "participate," which didn't necessarily mean performing, but you would be expected to contribute scene suggestions, possibly direct, and participate in discussions.

Yvette was a frequent visitor to my class.  On the surface, she was vivacious, confident, outgoing and upbeat.  Despite those attributes, I could never get her to play.  Many students considered improvising as “being put on display" - running the risk of being humiliated in front of their peers.  Others, who grudgingly agreed to play, frequently tried to barter with me: "Mr. Golding, can't I just do it sitting here at my desk? Why do I have to get up in front of everyone?  I'm not an actress!"

Over the course of her guest appearances, I learned that when Yvette was twelve years old, her father left her mother for another woman and moved to New York.  Yvette, whose self-worth was based solely on her appearance, would only see her father a handful of times during the year.  She frequently boasted that she had a great open relationship with him, and he was always commenting on how hot she was.  Yvette was very proud that he recently had told her that she had "great tits."

After the winter break, I noticed a distinct change in Yvette's behavior.  She was quiet, sullen, and her visits to class decreased.  I knew that she had gone back east to visit her father, whose wife had just given birth to a baby girl.  Yvette hated being an only child, and often fantasized about having brothers and sisters, and she was excited about meeting her new stepsister. When I encountered her in the courtyard, I asked how the trip had gone.  Her father told her that it was time to move on and distance herself from him so that he could focus on his new family.  His new wife felt Yvette was an interloper, forcing her husband to live in the past.  If Yvette truly loved her father, she would give him his space.

Shortly after I learned this, during a student free day, Yvette came to visit me and Kimberly, an English teacher I shared a room with.  We got into a discussion about favorite meals, where I discovered that Yvette’s mother was a "horrible cook" and the only meal Yvette could stomach from her was scrambled eggs.  The two fought all the time - particularly at breakfast.  Yvette described her mother as "career obsessed."  There were also various tenants in the house, who Yvette described as "weird and smell bad."

Since there were only three of us in the room, I asked Yvette if she would be willing to explore what we just talked about in a scene.  Surprisingly, she agreed immediately. After some debate, we decided that Yvette would play her mother and Kimberly, who had a theatre background, would play Yvette in a scene that took place at breakfast.

Throughout the scene I threw in directions such as "inner monologue," what is your character thinking now?, "five second delay," wait five seconds before responding to other player, "no talking for thirty seconds," take in the moment and absorb what you're feeling, and "explore activity," can you show me what you are feeling through the activity of cooking, eating and cleaning up?

After about ten minutes of role-playing, I stopped the scene so that I could interview the two in-character.  As I observed Yvette in-character, her mood, body language and energy seamlessly changed.  As the mother, she admitted being unnecessarily hard on her daughter as a result of overwhelming responsibilities, and that she desperately needed supplemental income from boarders because the ex-husband didn't provide financial support.  Kimberly, in-character as Yvette, confessed that fighting was the only way she could get attention from her mother.

Next, I interviewed the two as themselves over what they experienced and discovered in the scene.  Yvette was surprised by how easily the words and mannerisms came to her as the mother and that the scene was right on target with how they related to each other at breakfast.  Kimberly discovered that her focus was on playing Yvette sincerely, not as a parody - which she could have easily done for humorous effect, and was surprised by how effortless it was for her to get inside Yvette's head, particularly when I threw out the “inner monologue” direction.

After that, I decided to go for broke.  I asked Yvette if she had shared with her mother what her father had told her during the last visit.  She hadn't.  I asked why.  "Because I didn’t want her to hate him more than she already did."  So, I had Yvette and Kimberly role-play one more time, but with Kimberly as the mother.  Yvette took a deep breath and slowly revealed what had happened.  Kimberly listened honestly, and responded with one simple line: "I am so sorry that happened to you, it must have been devastating."  Yvette replied with "It was!" then threw herself in Kimberly's arms, sobbing real tears.  Kimberly held her tightly, as she whispered “It’s okay. Let it out.”  After a few moments, I got up and gently put my hand on Yvette's back, and the three of us were quiet for what seemed like an eternity.  Then, Yvette broke the silence with "That was great! Can we do something different, now?"

Several days later I found Yvette leaning against my car as I prepared to go home.  As we talked, I was pleased to see that her upbeat mood and energy had returned.  Yvette wanted to tell me that she had discussed the scene with her mother and as a result, the two seemed to understand each other a little better.  They were not fighting as much over breakfast.  She also revealed what her father had said, and the mother surprised her with "Now we both know what it's like to be hurt by someone you love."  To assuage her fear, the mother said she didn't hate him, because that said more about her than him, and while clearly disappointed by his actions, she wasn't surprised. "His loss."

Beaming with pride, I told Yvette that was great, gave her a hug and got in my car.  As I drove away, Yvette screamed out "There's still no fucking way I'm going to eat anything other than scrambled eggs from her!"

Noted, Yvette.  Noted.

Yvette's make-over vision for Mr. Golding. Gold tooth is a nice touch.

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. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and 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.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fool's Paradise by Michael Golding

Apparently, most fourteen year old boys are into sports.  I had an improv group.

In the Fall of 1972, The Responsive Scene, an improvised radio show produced by David Shepherd, (co-creator of Compass, the predecessor of Second City) ended its run.  Responsive Scene involved the listening audience, who called in with scene suggestions for the studio actors to improvise.  Being a regular caller to the show, I was devastated.  For three months it had been a weekly outlet where I was allowed to be a performer, writer and director.  Now it was over.

From a WRVR-FM press release
Responsive Scene Radio Show. Left to right; Penny Kurtz, David Shepherd, Howard Jerome & Lynn Bernfield
Then, I got a call from David Shepherd.

David and Howard Jerome, the host and one of the performers from Responsive Scene, had developed a new format called the Improv Olympics, which they were about to unveil.  David wanted me and my friends to participate.  The format was a “performance sport” where teams of actors improvised scenes competitively.
1972 Improv Olympic playbill.

Winning team congratulate themselves.
Within a few months, I formed my first improv group – Fool’s Paradise – a moniker Shepherd hated (“It sounds like you’re mocking yourselves!”). We competed every week at the Space for Innovative Development in Manhattan, the first home for the Improv Olympics. The highpoint came when we started beating the adult players.

Fool's Paradise improvising at the Space for Innovative Development.

Fool's Paradise beats David Shepherd's team.

There were two versions of Fool’s Paradise.  In junior high, it was me, David Hasson, his sister Robyn, and Eddie Ben-Menachem.  The second, in high school was me, Steven Blance, Mark Traub, Bruce Herman, Heidi Adelman, Debbie Triolo, Sheree Givre, Martha Orellana, David Oberon and Eric Mortensen.  There were also friends who attended workshops or participated in a one time project; Seth Newman, Robert Socolof, Susan Israel.

Fool's Paradise - Bottom left to right; Mark Traub, Michael Golding. Middle; Sheree Givre, Martha Orellana, Debbie Triolo. Top; Bruce Herman, Steven Blance, David Oberon.

From 1972 through 1976, “Fool’s Paradise” continued playing in the Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development.  Alumni from Compass and Second City would frequently come down to the Olympics to be guest stars and I was fortunate enough to watch and sometimes play with Barbara Harris, Andrew Duncan and Marty Friedberg.

Improv Olympic directing suggestions.

Improv Olympic Player's Contract.

Fool’s Paradise had a separate life away from the Space for Innovative Development.  Rehearsals usually took place in the basement of my home, where we played a variety of Spolin games to keep ourselves sharp – or mini Improv Olympic matches.  Then we started having “improv theme parties.”  First, we started with roasts.  Each month, a member of Fool’s Paradise would be chosen as the man/woman of the hour.  Then we moved on to a talk show format, set in the future, where all of us would be famous and in our thirties.

Fool's Paradise for hire.

We had an improv club in high school, composed entirely of Fool’s Paradise members.  Our company played at assemblies and parties.  Our greatest achievement was a ninety minute show at the West End YMCA in Manhattan, which was a combination of games and scenes developed through improvisation. There was also an homage to Nichols and May, where we reenacted the telephone operator scene.   As was the case with the Improv Olympics, a section of our show involved improvising with members of the audience.

West End YMCA show. Heide Adelman & Eric Mortensen as over-anxious shoe salespersons, with the author as customer.

West End YMCA show. Fool's Paradise watches cautiously as two audience members improvise.

West End YMCA show.  Fool's Paradise member Bruce Herman (left) improvises with audience member.

West End YMCA show. Mark Traub & Heidi Adelman reenact Nichols & May telephone operator scene.
David and I developed a mentor/protégé relationship, resulting in spending time at his home in Greenwich Village.  One summer, several of us spent a weekend at David’s country house in Armonk, experimenting with improvising video movies.  Our parents were either very trusting or naïve.  It was one thing for us to hop a subway in Queens to go into Manhattan and play theatre games with some old hippies.  Now, a bunch of us were going away for a few days with this guy who wasn’t a family member.

Experimenting improvising movies.
As a result of our experiments with video, David loaned me his equipment so we could make a Fool’s Paradise movie.  Seth Newman, a friend who was not a member of my troupe, had an idea for a movie about a man obsessed by the Kennedy assassination to the point where it interfered with his life.  Together, we outlined the beats for the story, Seth took the directing helm, and the rest of us took on serious acting roles.  The end result, “Forgotten Memories,” a tight sixty minute movie that impressed David no end, since he frequently viewed us as teenage jokesters.

By the time we graduated high school, Fool’s Paradise was over.  Several of the core group went out of state for college.  Steven Blance and I frequently joked about a Fool’s Paradise reunion.  Unexpectedly, during my senior year at New York University, it happened.

Mark Traub, who was also attending New York University, had a video project to shoot – a game show parody called “Beat The Punch.”  He recruited me, Steven Blance, Bruce Herman, and Robert Socolof for the cast.  When we got together in the studio, Mark presented us with his idea, but there was nothing on paper.  At first I thought “this isn’t like Mark to be unprepared,” then realized Mark choose the right people.  Within minutes, we hammered out an outline, established the beats, improvised a few ideas, and then shot the concept.   “Beat The Punch” involved a host giving two contestants the opening line of a joke (“How do you make a gypsy omelet?) and one has to yell out the punch line first (“Steal two eggs!”)

Steven was the host; Robert and I were the contestants.  We decided to use the game “One Second Behind” where one player says exactly what the other has said; one second afterwards (like an echo).  Robert gave the correct punch line first, followed by me giving the same exact punch a second later, behaving as if I came up with it first.  We kept cracking up and had to reshoot the sequence several times.

At a diner after the shoot, I told Steven that we finally had the Fool’s Paradise reunion we always fantasized about.  Steven replied, “It was also our final performance.”

Well, yes – and no.

A little over twenty-five years later, I was conducting a private workshop in North Hollywood.  I had recently reconnected with Martha Orellana on Facebook, discovering that we both lived in Los Angeles.  Martha showed up at the workshop, where we played Emotional Hurdles, one of the events from the Improv Olympics.  In many ways, it was a surreal experience – but it filled us both with joy.

When my father passed away last year, the first few friends who reached out to me with condolences were members of Fool’s Paradise, several of them showed up at the funeral, wake and my family’s house.  One of my brothers noticed that when we interact with each other, we’re not merely talking.  We do characters, pantomime, sound effects.  It’s just second nature to us. It’s how we’ve always related to each other.

Some members of Fool’s Paradise look back on those years as an interesting period, which ended after high school because it was time to grow up.  But whenever I talk on the phone with one of my friends from that period, or get together in person, it’s like the “play switch” is suddenly turned on.

Personally, I don’t think it was ever turned off.  Hopefully, it never will be.

David Shepherd setting up a scene for Fool's Paradise member Mark Traub.

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. 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.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Comic Strip Improv Group (Improvising with Robin Williams) by Michael Golding

From 1983 to 1985 I conducted workshops and directed shows for the Comic Strip Improv Group.  Since 1976, the Comic Strip, now known as Comic Strip Live, has been one of the top comedy showcase clubs in New York, where stars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler honed their skills.

The group was originally started by Steve Shaffer, but overseeing a pool of sixty comics while pursuing his own stand-up career quickly proved to be overwhelming.  Gabe Abelson, a mutual friend and comedian who I had worked with before on several off-Broadway revues, brought me in to take over the group.  The immediate challenge was to change the standup comedian’s mindset of being on one’s own, to relying on others as part of an improv ensemble.  This was accomplished through weekly three hour workshops during which I assaulted the comedians with a barrage of techniques from Viola Spolin, David Shepherd, Keith Johnstone and a few formats of my own design.  I was impressed by how the comedians threw themselves into the workshops, including the seasoned acts, who were interested in broadening their repertoire.

Still, there were a few in the group who were uncomfortable with acting, who abhorred some of the “touchy-feely” exercises, and who preferred to participate in formats that relied on their verbal skills.  These formats included: (1) Expert, in which the audience provided a topic for a comedian to do a monologue on, followed by follow-up questions from the audience;  (2) Man In The Street, which involved a comedian playing a tv news reporter, interviewing various characters on the street concerning a topic given by the audience; (3) Round Table Discussion, in which four comedians were cast by the audience as famous characters from history or literature, with another moderating the discussion of a controversial topic which was also selected from audience suggestions and (4) Commercial, in which the audience provided a name, purpose and tag line for an object that a comedian would then improvise a commercial for.  Sometimes I chose two comedians for Commercial, forcing them to collaborate and, dare I say, act.

Author at the Comic Strip.

For the comedians who had theatrical backgrounds, I threw them into formats that explored emotions, status, and imaginary objects.  Slow Motion Commentary became a personal favorite for those who excelled at pantomime.  In this game, the audience would suggest a common household activity that a comedian would execute in slow-motion, as two other comedians off-stage provided the commentary akin to a sports event.
Three nights during the week, I chose six comedians from the core group to perform in half hour sets of various games.  We were decades ahead of Whose Line Is It Anyway?  Andy Ashe, the club pianist who was a classically trained musician, provided the atmosphere for some of the games.  Since the performing skills of the group were diverse, I always tried to match players who could compliment each other.  There is a big difference between a comedian and a comic performer.  The former goes for the one liner.  The latter will always try to get a laugh from the humor of the situation and character. 

Comic Strip Live audience.

Once a year, through improvisation we developed a full length show.  Each show bore the stamp of one of the personalities from the group.  “The Mickey Davis, Jr. Telethon” was the brainchild of Ron Zimmerman.  A deeply bent parody of the Muscular Dystrophy telethons, the goal was to wipe out death in your lifetime.  Incidentally, Ron created “Ledge,” one of the darkest improv formats around at the time. There were three players in the format – a person who was on a ledge of a building contemplating suicide for a reason which was provided by the audience.  One comedian played the devil encouraging the person on the ledge to jump. Another comedian played the angel trying to change the person’s mind.  Ron frequently played the devil, Barry Neikrug the angel, and soon the byplay between the two became the highlight of the evening.  It was like watching two Jazz musicians jamming.

Bill Masters & Ron Zimmerman; The Mickey Davis, Jr. Telethon

“A Day In New York” was Steve Shaffer’s baby, which was a series of sketches and songs based around life in the big apple.  “The Laff Maker” was mine, a rags to riches story of a comedian’s ascent, and inevitable downfall. 

"The Laff Maker" was the first time I developed a show around a personality, Hiram Kasten, and it was his energy that successfully propelled the production.  Hiram, unbeknownst to many, had a strong theatrical background, and his performance blew the minds of many in the comedy community who were unaware of the depth of his talent. 
Stu Trivax, Rob Ross & Cathy Ladman; A Day In New York
Steve Hytner & Hiram Kasten; The Laff Maker.

At the time, no other comedy club was doing what we were doing.  Many of the performers in my company at the Comic Strip have gone on to work professionally in film, theatre and television, including Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Steve Hytner (Seinfeld, Hung), Janette Barber (Rosie O’ Donnell Show), Bill Masters (Grace Under Fire), Dom Irrera (Aristocrats) Gabe Abelson (David Letterman, Jay Leno and the Tom Green Show), Wayne Federman (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), the late Dennis Wolfberg (Quantum Leap), Allen Enlow (Sopranos), Joe Bolster (Academy Awards) and Cathy Ladman (Roseanne).  Chicago City Limits frequently invited members of my group to be guest stars, performing a stand-up set, followed by improvising with the company in a series of games.

Allen Enlow & Joe Bolster; The Laff Maker.

Wayne Federman; The Laff Maker

Cathy Ladman, Susie Essman & Wayne Federman; A Day In New York

Johnny Solomon; The Laff Maker

Steve Shaffer; A Day in New York
Gabe Abelson & Patty Rosborough; The Laff Maker

Barry Neikrug ; the Laff Maker

Joe Vega, Rob Ross & Steve Shaffer; A Day in New York

Allen Enlow & Marian Allen; The Laff Maker
Steve Hytner, Hiram Kasten & Nancy Redman;The Laff Maker.

We had frequent guest stars of our own:  Eddie Murphy, Carol Leifer, Rick Overton, Sam Kinison and Chris Rock.  But it was Robin Williams who had the strongest affect on the group – both good and bad.

Robin was in Manhattan shooting “Moscow on the Hudson.”  By day, he worked on location.  At night, he hit every comedy club and improv company in town.  He was everywhere.  We were all thrilled when he first started playing with us, but that dissipated quickly as certain elements became painfully apparent.  From the moment he set foot on stage, the audience didn’t care about the rest of us.  If you were in a scene with Robin, he was leading.  A few of my players who had the improv chops to keep up, would sometimes mistakenly think they were in a teamwork situation, until Robin would whisper “Just follow me.”  That’s when it became apparent that Robin wasn’t doing true improv.  He just took his vast repertoire of characters and one liners and threw them into every situation, whether the scene warranted it or not.

Robin Williams & Jeannie McBride
Dennis Wolfberg playing Expert as Robin Williams watches.

I mustered up the courage to talk to Robin about some of these things and surprisingly, he was gracious and accommodating.  He agreed to only appear in the last third of the set, and I started pushing him towards verbal based formats where he just had to rely on himself.

There were nights when he would come just to watch and sit in the dark on the side of the room so the audience wouldn’t notice him.  He often made a point of talking to some of the members of the group after the show, expressing how he liked what they did on stage.  For many, having someone of Robin’s caliber complement their work, was a magnificent ego boost.  I had some wonderful conversations with Robin about the work I’d done with David Shepherd and Paul Sills.   Paul found himself in a similar situation to mine when Robin was a guest star in “Sills & Company,” an off-Broadway show consisting of Spolin games performed by original Compass and Second City cast members.  Paul had to quickly put the brakes on Robin doing whatever he wanted to on stage, and forced him to learn the games.  Paul once said to me that Robin was a “brilliant hog.”

Wayne Federman improvising with Robin Williams
Dom Irrera & Robin Williams improvising.

One night while I was introducing the improv set, there was an audible gasp from the audience followed by thunderous applause.  I knew immediately it wasn’t for me.  Robin simply walked on stage, slid his arms between mine and proceeded to unbutton my shirt as I continued to talk.  As his hands reached down towards my fly, I pulled myself away and bellowed “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a treat.  Robin is going to play a game by himself called “Silent Wrestling,” which is a situation beyond words.  Let’s have a suggestion for why Robin can’t talk!”  Silent Wrestling was originally an event from David Shepherd’s Improv Olympics.  It is an extremely difficult game which forces the player to focus primarily on activity and space without any recourse to verbalizing.

Silent Wrestling Event rules
As Robin glared at me, I took the suggestion “Man comes home drunk in the middle of the night.”  I beckoned Andy Ashe to come on stage and accompany Robin on the piano.  I then reminded Robin once again “Remember, you cannot talk!  You can make non-verbal sounds, but you can’t talk.” 

Robin is no slouch when it comes to pantomime. He was brilliant at trying to put the key in the door, stumbling into the living room banging into various pieces of furniture, and almost urinating in one of the potted plants.  His work was exquisitely detailed and vibrant.  Rather than relying on non-verbal sounds, he made up his own non-verbal sound effects which immediately got laughs from the audience, particularly when he kept stepping on his cat.  

Then, he cheated.  Periodically, he would turn his head and do the offstage voice of his wife, who was wondering what was going on downstairs.  Soon, he had his children do the same, eventually getting into a dialogue with their mother.   As we kept glaring at each other from across the stage, my expression said “You prick.”  His said “What?  My character isn’t talking.”   The scene ended with Robin curling up in the cat’s litter box.  I had to admit, it was a brilliant one man performance.  As Robin bounced off the stage, breathing hard and sweating profusely, he grabbed me and whispered “That was hard!”

We talked about the format for a bit, as well as other events from the Improv Olympics.  Robin’s improv background doesn’t follow the path of discovering the discipline through group activity.  Growing up as a single child with hardly any friends, Robin entertained himself in the attic by making up characters interacting with each other.  So, he’s really a one man improv ensemble, relying on nobody else but himself, which is sort of antithetical to improv.

The last time I saw Robin, I gave him one of the old format books from the Improv Olympics. Robin thanked me, anointed me as the "Improv Sensei," and disappeared into the city, hitting at least several more clubs, cabaret and theatres before the night was out.

Robin plays Expert, as Rob Ross, Dennis Wolfberg, Lisa Mende, Abby Stein & Ron Zimmerman wait - and wait.

By the end of my tenure at the Comic Strip, I was burned out and it was time to move on, although the club has always remained my second home.  There is a common misconception that comedians are aloof and self-centered, but I found the comedians I worked with to be warm, loving, inclusive, and always looking out for each other.  I was an outsider, yet from the start, they embraced me and instantly made me feel welcomed.  Aside from the workshops and shows I ran, my fondest memories come from hanging at the bar watching the Tonight Show or Letterman as one of the members of my troupe were having their first national tv exposure.  Not a day goes by when I’m watching tv, that some member of my company doesn’t pop up on screen.  Smiling, I close my eyes and I’m back in that dim, dark, musky environment reeking of cigarettes and beer. The Comic Strip still intoxicates and excites me.

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 New York & 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. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre."  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.