Monday, August 26, 2013

From Conversation to Play by Michael Golding

When working with at-risk youth, I often create the illusion that I’m making the session up as I go along by soliciting input from the students, forming the impression we are inventing the class together.  It makes the work more personal, gives them a sense of ownership, and instills confidence.

A casual conversation can become a springboard for scenes, gently coaxing students into the session.  Wendy, a senior in one of my high school courses, was complaining about how cheap her father was.  She had just gotten her driver’s license, and was shocked to discover that he had no intention of buying her a car.  “All he has to do is throw it on his credit card!” she stated emphatically.  Offering to help, I volunteered to play her father and suggested she show me how she went about asking him for a car.  Wendy’s face brightened - in her mind, role-playing would help her discover the right approach with her father.

We played the scene centered on washing dishes after dinner.  I posed reasonable questions.  “How are you going to pay for gas?  Insurance?  Are you going to get a job?  Why should I just give you a car when you’re failing in school?”  Wendy became more and more frustrated in the scene until she threw a dish onto the floor and ended the improv with, “God, you’re just like my father!”  As she stormed away I asked if she was going to leave me to clean up her mess.  Wendy grudgingly, returned to the scene expressing her seething anger non-verbally.  Creating a broom and pan she methodically cleaned up the mess, shoveling the debris aggressively into a garbage can.  It was the most vibrant object work I had seen Wendy do.  Of course, I had to add, “You missed a spot.”  Good thing I don’t use real props.

Several months later Wendy showed up on campus in a used, ten year old car.  She had managed to save   up for it by working two part-time jobs.

Some of the young women I’ve worked with play in real life a parenting role with their younger siblings.  Such was the case with Alexxis, who shared that her mother was too involved in her own career and love-life to properly supervise her eight and eleven year old brothers.  Alexxis admitted she smacked her brothers to get them to behave, an approach encouraged by her mother.  At my suggestion, she agreed to play herself in a scene about looking after her brothers, who were played by two of the girls in the class.  Through the course of the scene, I explored various possibilities with Inner Monologue, Silent Wrestling (where the players can only communicate non-verbally) and finally Time Dash, which showed the two brothers as adults physically abusing their own children, resulting in the accidental death of one.  That outcome surprised and horrified Alexxis.

A month later I asked Alexxis how her brothers were doing.  “I try not to hit them as much anymore, Mr. Golding.”  It’s a good start, Alexxis.

At New Village Charter High School, an all-girl institute in Los Angeles, I became known for playing with students the second I was on campus – whether they were enrolled in my class or not. Once in the main office of the school, I found myself sitting next to Jonesha, a pensive student who was always getting into fights with others.  After a few moments of silence, I leaned over to her and whispered, “Let me ask you something.  How much would you charge to rough someone up?”  Jonesha shot me a strange look.  A few beats of silence passed, and then I continued.  “I’m not suggesting permanent, physical damage.  Just a clear message.  Ballpark figure. That’s all I’m asking.”  This was too much for Jonesha to comprehend.  She got up, moved to another chair, sighed and said “You’re weird.”

Two days later while I was having a drink at the water fountain, Jonesha walked up beside me, leaned against the wall, started leafing through a book and said, “Two hundred bucks.”  I ask, still drinking, “Does that include transportation?”  “No, that’s extra, Golding.”  “You’re a hard woman, Jonesha.”  “It’s a hard world, Golding.”  We walked away in opposite directions. 

For the remainder of the school year Jonesha and I played the second we encountered each other on campus.  The exchanges would sometimes last only a few seconds.  “I need the country house this weekend, Jonesha.”  “In your dreams, Golding.”   We once lapsed into an extended improv, playing Russian Tourists exploring the campus as Hollywood Blvd.  We got many strange looks from students and teachers that day.  Jonesha’s mood brightened and she started getting along better with others in her classes.

When exploring characters in class I have the students base them on people they know.  Through the character hot-seat interview, I’ve gained valuable information about students’ boyfriends, parents, siblings, friends, neighborhood acquaintances, co-workers, counselors and parole officers.  Occasionally, I’ll interview the students as themselves ten years in the future, which I did on a regular basis with the New Village Charter High School girls.  The majority projected themselves as enormously successful in terms of career and family, although a small percentage see themselves as single mothers.  In one session, I had the students play themselves in their twenties, giving advice to a class of sixteen year old girls.  The advice was consistent – stay in school, stay away from alcohol, drugs and unprotected sex.

Skylar lived with her aunt, whose baby had been taken away from her because she was a drug addict.  A case worker was a steady presence in their house, constantly making unannounced visits.  It was just the two of us in class one day, so Skylar felt comfortable enough to talk to me openly.  The aunt was due for a drug test and wanted to use Skylar’s urine to pass.  Skylar was curious how I felt about that and I responded, “How do YOU feel about it?”  Skylar admitted being hesitant, but she didn’t want to see her aunt lose her baby, nor have her angry at her for refusing to help.  I interviewed Skylar as the aunt – who admitted that she was manipulating Skylar into doing something criminal.  “Skylar hates it when she thinks someone is angry with her, so I don’t think I have anything to worry about.”  Skylar was surprised to hear those words come out of her mouth.   A few days later Skylar told me that she wasn’t going to help her aunt out.  “Nobody manipulates me, Mr. Golding.  I don’t care who you are.”  Good for you, Skylar.

In conversations with my students, I’ve found they’re not accustomed to being asked their opinions.  I’m always pushing them beyond one word answers, while trying to get inside their heads.  Once in a while I have a breakthrough when a student realizes that an adult is sincerely interested in their thoughts, and the content of the improvs become richer.  Sometimes it back-fires on me and I get a curt “You’re really nosey, you know that Mr. Golding?”  Ever persistent, I edge in with, “Why do you think I’m nosey?  What possible motive could I have?”

Turns out I do have a motive, and it’s all good if you meet me half-way.  Just keep talking.  I’m listening.

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. 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.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Diary of a Teen Improviser in the 70s by Michael Golding

December 2, 1977:  I am at the wheel of David Shepherd’s Chevy Nova, hurtling along upstate New York in the middle of the night.  David is beside me, asleep.  We’ve been invited to the premiere of the Canadian Improv Games (CIG) at a high school in Ottawa, Ontario.  The format is based on David’s Improv Olympics, and we’re both excited about how the Canadians will interpret his latest creation, which they’ve geared specifically for teenagers.

Suddenly, the car hits a patch of black ice and is sent spiraling out of control, spinning wildly until coming to an abrupt halt in a ditch.  I’m still gripping the steering wheel as a cloud of dirt envelops the car.  All I can hear is the sound of my rapid panting and pounding heart as I attempt to compose myself.  With his eyes still closed, David’s velvety voice breaks the silence: “You were driving too fast.”

It’s safe to say that some of my deepest, long lasting relationships are from the world of improv.  David Shepherd introduced me to this world at the age of fourteen, during the summer of 1972, when I was a regular caller on his improvised radio show, The Responsive Scene.  When the show ended, David invited me and my friends to participate in his new format, The Improv Olympics, which he created with Howard Jerome, one of the actors and host of the radio show.  Forming a team called “Fool’s Paradise,” we were the first teenage group to participate in the Improv Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development in Manhattan, December 1972.  Little did I realize that I was at the epicenter of something extraordinary, which would ripple out and influence future generations of professional and non-professional improvisers.

Fool's Paradise warming up for an Improv Olympics match.
David and I developed a mentor/protégé relationship, and he welcomed me into his home.  My formative years were spent around the founding members of Compass and Second City, (which included) Paul Sills, Del Close, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, Marty Friedberg, Jerry Stiller, Ann Meara, Mark Gordon, Andrew Duncan and Omar Shapli.  At the time, I thought they were all cool adults who liked to play, not realizing their significance in the annals of improv history. 

Compass, with Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris & David Shepherd, Chicago 1955.

By the time I was sixteen, I was a walking encyclopedia on everything Compass.  However, I regarded that knowledge akin to my father talking ad nauseam about growing up during the depression.  Did you know that during the seminal days of Compass, the shows were so bad that members of the cast would often jump into Lake Michigan after a performance to cleanse themselves of improv shame?  Cool piece of improv trivia, which tends to lose its luster after hearing about it for the two hundredth time.

Despite all the stories, Compass wasn’t real to me.  Aside from an audio recording, which was lost in a flood, some photos and posters, there was virtually no evidence of the existence of Compass.  Paul Sills often speculated that “one day some PhD candidate will write his thesis on Compass, which will get filed away and never read.”  Then, Jeffrey Sweet’s book, “Something Wonderful Right Away” came out.  Chapter after chapter, I discovered stories in print that I’d been hearing about for years.  Apparently, Compass really did happen and these eccentric adults in David’s living room weren’t making these tales up.

As I improvised my way through high school, the Improv Olympics was evolving at an exponential rate.  Howard and David had gone to Toronto with the format in 1974, where they participated in Homemade Theatre’s annual Improv Festival.  Before their eyes, Homemade Theatre overhauled the Olympics, making it more theatrical and sports-like, adding specific scoring guidelines and events, (such as Time Dash, Space Jump and Emotional Hurdles) with professional and non-professional leagues.

Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics, Toronto 1974.

Howard returned to Toronto in 1975 for the festival, but without David Shepherd.  Instead, he brought Stage Fright, a high school team from Ottawa trained by Howard to participate in the non-professional league of the Improv Olympics.

Stage Fright takes the stage with Howard Jerome, 1975.

After graduating high school, Willie Wyllie and the other members of Stage Fright wanted to give something back to the community, and produced the first CIG in 1977. Created by Willie and Howard Jerome, the new format involved several Ottawa high schools. Approximately 450 miles away, I was a sophomore at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, blissfully unaware that improv was about to take an international hold on my life.

That year, David Shepherd and I traveled to Ottawa as guests of CIG, (despite my botched attempt to kill us on the road), where I met Stage Fright for the first time and developed an instant connection with Willie Wyllie.  As was the case with meeting David and Howard, this friendship changed the course of my life.  Aside from our common improv bond, Willie and I are also the same age, born days apart in the same month.  Willie is Howard Jerome’s protégé, and to this day, the two are still extremely close.  The improv quartet that is David, Howard, Michael and Willie was born.

Left to right; Michael Golding, Willie Wylllie, Howard Jerome & David Shepherd.

There were two differences I detected between Shepherd and Jerome’s Improv Olympics and Wyllie and Jerome’s CIG.  First, was in the amount of events.  Eleven in the Improv Olympics.  Six in CIG; Character Relay, Story Throw, Emotional Hurdles, Freestyle, Space Jump and Evolutionary Pentathlon, (which David called Time Dash in his format).

Secondly, while providing high quality training in the techniques of improv to high school students was the principal objective for CIG, providing an arena for them to develop their skills in problem solving, group creativity, and communication was just as important.  Those interpersonal skills had academic value as well as personal.  Grades increased and students, who had never considered university before, were now looking to continue their education beyond high school.  If all that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, the life-saving potential of the program became clear almost immediately.  Year after year, students would go up to Willie and Howard thanking them for CIG, followed by “I was in bad shape.  I was doing drugs.  I was cutting school.  I was irresponsible. I was making bad choices.  Then, I met my improv family……..”  Over the course of CIG’s history, thousands of young lives were saved by the healing power of improvisation.

A year after graduating New York University, 1981, I was working in Public Relations during the day and as the assistant technical director of an Off-Off-Broadway theatre at night.  Suddenly I was faced with two life changing choices from David Shepherd and Willie Wyllie:  Go with David Shepherd to Chicago, where he was going to simultaneously work on his play, the Jonah Complex and the Improv Olympics through his connection with Second City, or move to Ottawa and work on CIG and other projects for Stage Fright.

David Shepherd & The Jonah Complex.
Paul Sills was also encouraging me to accompany David, feeling that immersing myself in all Chicago had to offer would be beneficial to me as an improviser and workshop director.  How was I supposed to support myself?  “Sling hash,” was Paul’s response, “That’s where you’ll hear all the best stories.” 

Admittedly, I struggled with this decision.  Eventually, I decided it was time to forge an improv identity separate from David, so I choose Ottawa.  I don’t think David missed having me as his assistant in Chicago.  Shortly after I arrived in Ottawa, David met Charna Halpern through Jo Forsberg.  Charna and David worked on the Jonah Complex and the Improv Olympics together, which was very successful, with professional and community leagues and “identity teams” such as Freudian Slippers (a team of psychiatrists) and the God Squad (a team of Rabbis).

God Squad at the Chicago Improv Olympics, 1981.
Stage Fright smuggled me across the Canadian border, an operation that included no less than two attempted border crossings and an RCMP pursuit.  Apparently, when you show up with a thousand dollars in cash, a ton of luggage and no return date, people get suspicious.  Stage Fright put me immediately to work on CIG.  Getting up at the crack of dawn, Willie and I would grab breakfast at a McDonald’s drive-through, then spend the day hitting high school after high school where I conducted workshops, refereed matches, acted as a judge and participated in planning sessions in the evening with the high school drama teachers.

 Playbill from 3rd annual tournament.
After living in Ottawa for two years, I decided to return to New York in 1983, the same year Shepherd returned from Chicago, where the Improv Olympics, now helmed by Charna Halpern and Del Close, morphed into iO. 
Charna Halpern & Del Close @ iO Chicago

By this time, CIG was spreading to more high schools in Ottawa.  Through-out the eighties and early nineties, I returned to Ottawa several times a year to conduct workshops for CIG and occasionally guest as a judge.  As the expansion of the program included more high schools, the rules were modified to reduce the school vs. school competition.  This was done by requiring students to perform with peers from other schools.  The Great Canadian Theatre Company allowed Stage Fright to use their facilities for CIG’s matches, although one year the students had to perform on a stage with an Elizabethan set, and the National Arts Centre became a supporter as the program began to expand into neighboring cities.

National Arts Centre
In 1992, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I sold a screenplay to Disney, which was never made, and for the next ten years had my spirit slowly obliterated by the Hollywood dream factory.  It’s everything you’ve read about, and more.  Ten years later, 2002, it was the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games.  Willie Wyllie got me there the way he knows best, through guilt.  “Michael, David and Howard are going to be there. You have to be there. You’ll regret it if you don’t.  It’s going to be historic.”  What made me finally book my flight was Willie’s assurance that this was probably going to be the last year for CIG.  It was time to give the program a decent Viking funeral.  Then again, I was told the same thing by Willie for the fifth, tenth and fifteenth anniversary as well.  By CIG's good fortune, something always came through at zero hour, providing the program with renewed life. 

Maxing out my VISA card, I made it to the anniversary.  It was the first time David Shepherd, Howard Jerome, Willie Wyllie and I were together in the same time zone in ten years.  It was wondrous and overwhelming.  CIG was now nation-wide, encompassing 300 high schools and over 3,000 students.  Gone was mixing students up from various schools into teams, each school had their own specific team.  The events were overhauled as well, simplifying the rules and making the structures less complex.  The events were cut down to five, emphasizing specific arts skills: Life, Theme, Style, Story and Character.  The National Arts Centre was now a full sponsor and the location for the annual national tournament.

But, what stood out to me the most was that CIG now had a specific style.  There were up to eight players on each team, and the scenes now took on a Harold-like mosaic.  The entire team performs in each event, and in four minutes, two person scenes, monologues, group song, dance and activity spring out in a burst of energy after a 15 second huddle to determine the plan of action from an audience suggestion.  It was thrilling to watch as an immediate problem was being solved on the spot.

Canadian Improv Games National Festival at the NationalArts Centre, Ottawa.
It wasn’t difficult to ascertain how this new style came about.  The sensibilities, humor and intelligence of the artistic director at the time, Alistair Cook, infected his staff like an improv virus, which in turn spread to the teenage players.  The man had a clear vision, and engendered a level of loyalty from his staff that I’ve rarely encountered in the theatre world.

The referee and lines-men, who gather suggestions from the audience, was now a vaudeville-like show unto itself during the tournament.  Dave Morris set the referee mold – affable, engaging, knowledgeable and able to switch seamlessly into disciplinarian mode and back without any pretense or guile when the audience occasionally became rowdy.  His legacy was immortalized in the film “In The Moment,” a documentary about CIG directed by alumni Sandra Chwialkowska.

The high point of the 25th anniversary was a midnight workshop for the trainers, conducted by me, Howard and David.  We each took a half hour portion.  A few hours later, we retreated to David’s room and improvised together until dawn.  This has since become our usual evening ritual at the national festival.  Whenever all three of us attend the games, we retreat to one of our rooms after the show, and play until we can barely stay awake.

Fast forward ten years, April 3rd – 8th, 2012 to be exact.  Once again I’m in Ottawa for the CIG Nationals with another milestone to commemorate – thirty five years!  There’s a distinctly different innovative vibe to the festival, which I attribute to Al Connors, the new artistic director and president of the games.  The week long workshop schedule is more diverse, covering story, character, script writing, long form, status, monologues, environment and the importance of silence, something novice improvisers traditionally shy away from.  I was proud to conduct the first coaches’ workshop, sharing my educational theatre experience with teachers from all across Canada and assisting Howard Jerome in presenting Life-Play, David Shepherd’s latest creation where people improvise together on the phone.

 Howard Jerome administers the CIG oath.

At the shows, teams were pushing themselves further, exploring diverse styles ranging from clowning to melodrama.  The emotional impact of issues relevant to teenagers resonated with the audience through the power of long pauses.  In his second year as head referee, Chris Ramelan is immensely likable on stage, projecting an aura of innocence that often belies his devilish sense of humor which hits the audience with very little warning.

Over the past decade CIG has brought me out to the national festival many times to conduct workshops and moderate forums.  In 2009, I was given the honorary title of “CIG Ambassador to the USA,” which came with a sash and personal request from Briana Rayner, the administrative director of CIG.  Wear the sash through customs.  I have yet to honor this request and I sense Briana’s patience is waning. 

The Ambassador receives his first CIG salute.

Later that year, Willie Wyllie and CIG financed a documentary about David Shepherd, directed by Mike Fly, an alumnus of CIG, and written by me.  Willie wanted there to be a concrete record of all of David’s formats and for everyone involved with CIG, past, present and future, to know that they are all part of David’s legacy.  As of 2011, Willie made "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" available on YouTube for the entire improv community to enjoy, free of charge.

Canadian Improv Games takes over Parliament
It’s ironic that in a season where CIG lost a third of their budget due to a shift in philanthropic focus from one of their sponsors, everyone involved, be they staff, volunteers, students, coaches or teachers, were more optimistic about the continuation of the program than ever before.  You can’t stop the Canadian Improv Games.  In the words of Briana Rayner, “This year was simply magic.”  I couldn’t agree more, although I did forget to bring my sash for the 35th anniversary.  I need to take my role as CIG Ambassador to the USA a lot more seriously.

And scene!

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.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Listen Harder by Michael Golding

Recently I replaced a professor, who seven weeks into teaching a theatre appreciation course at El Camino College in Los Angeles, had to take an emergency medical leave.  When the dean of my department contacted me about this assignment, I was told that the leave was for one month, possibly more, but that she “anticipated” the professor would return before the end of the semester.  I wasn’t expected to duplicate the professor’s style, but rather to be the best me, and to somehow provide a bridge to what was already set up in class so that he could pick up where he left off upon his return.

I familiarized myself with his syllabus, similar to the one I used for my theatre appreciation course with the college’s high school outreach program.  My course was a survey of theatre which focused on the theory and practice of acting, directing, writing, and critical analysis.  With the high school classes, I did very little lecturing.  I’d quickly learned that no matter how entertaining you think you might be, by the time you’re thirty seconds into a lecture, the students have gone to their happy place, or texting their friends about how boring the class is.  It’s all about learning by doing, the same method I intended to use with the college students.  When I received the roster from the department, I was a little unnerved to discover that there were forty-five students in the class.  Also, the course was scheduled for three days a week from 8am to 9am.

At the first class, I informed the students about my hands-on approach, and was met with stunned silence and blank stares.  One student raised his hand and defiantly proclaimed “I signed up for this course because I was told there would be no acting.”  Others echoed this sentiment. I responded with a brief explanation about how theatre skills are the same as life skills, regardless of the profession you choose.  That didn’t seem to assuage anyone’s fears, so I jumped right in with my own proclamation that “everyone here has the ability to act, write, direct and collaborate, and by the end of this hour, you will have all done that!”

I handed out index cards and instructed the class to write down three set or prop pieces.  Five minutes later, I collected the cards, broke the class into groups of two to three students, handed each group a card and told them they had a few minutes to design a scene around what was listed on the card, which they were going to perform.  They were instructed that they couldn’t talk about the objects in the scene, they had to “show” them to us.  The scene could be as short as thirty seconds, but no longer than a minute, and all action had to be directed towards the audience.

Within seconds the class was filled with chatter, as the groups began to collaborate.  During the planning period, I went from group to group to make sure all understood the assignment.  Some of the groups were silent and looked around aimlessly, while pleading “We don’t know what to do.”  My response to every group with that problem was, “Well, you’re just going to have to talk to each other to figure it out.”  That was my first inkling into the psychology of this class.  If the students weren’t familiar with each other, they were less inclined to collaborate.  One student exclaimed that he only worked best with those he knew well.

After a few minutes, I had each group come up to the front of the class to do their scene.  Some were amazingly brief, less than ten seconds, and others flowed into a scene with a distinct location and relationship.  A few ignored the main rule, and indicated the objects simply by mentioning them, rather than “showing” them.  Some students upstaged themselves, turning their backs on the class while exploring an object or set piece.

Within fifteen minutes all the groups had gone and I was ready to give them their next assignment, which was a hands-on introduction to directing.  I laid out the guidelines for “Zoom Story,” a format I adapted from David Shepherd’s “Life-Play,” originally designed as a series of theatre games for people to play over the phone. In “Zoom Story,” a first-person sentence is suggested as the springboard for a story which a player immediately starts telling.  During the course of the story, signals are thrown out by a guide, who functions as the director, and shifts the focus of the story.  On the board I listed the signals: Action, object, environment and feeling.  I modified the rules of this game to make directing a group activity, rather than run the risk of putting unnecessary pressure on an individual student.  The guidelines were simple:  When you want to change the focus of the story, raise your hand, wait for the storyteller to pick you, and then shift the direction with “Zoom into action” or “Zoom into feeling,” etc.”  Once the story had run its course, a direction to find an ending would be given.

It took a couple of rounds of playing before the class got the hang of directing.  My first impression of the students was that listening was not one of their strengths.  In a brief introductory lecture at the start of class, I had emphasized that all the formats I was going to introduce to them had specific rules.  As long as they adhered to them, they would do well. 

In order to refine their skills, I continued on with impressing upon them how important the opening line was for this game, and how it could make or break the story. I stressed that the sentence should be grounded in reality, and that the intention was not to make it hard for the player to tell the story.  I gave an example of an introductory sentence which was, “I was in the back of the ambulance and the paramedic said he loved theatre.”

The first suggestion I got was “I woke up the next morning and my ass hurt.”  After the laughter died down, I asked for another suggestion, which was “Once upon a time,” which didn’t provide enough of a springboard for the player to take off on.  Finally, I got “I walked into class and there was a new professor.”  Now, I thought that was a great lead-in sentence!  I gave them one final rule which was to let the player telling the story get into it a little before changing the direction.  That rule fell on deaf ears, since as soon as the player started telling the story, hands went up all over the room.

In the end, the class got the hang of the game, and “Zoom Story” proved to be a success.  Directions were well timed and insightful, and the players telling the stories imbued them with positive energy.  For one student, it was the first time she had ever spoken in front of the class.  I was about to segue into another game when a student informed me that there were only a few more minutes left of class.  “No problem,” I said, “but note how I made good on my promise.  Through your active participation, you just had a crash course in directing, acting, writing and collaboration.  See you at the next class.”  As the room slowly emptied, I could hear students muttering about how fast the session had gone, and that they had fun.

One of the requirements of this course involved a class production team project in which, in teams, students were to write and perform a scene on a selected subject.  In light of the fact that my appointment might be for only a month, I focused the sessions on preparing the students for this assignment.  I started by introducing them to various approaches to constructing a scene, which included improvising a scene repeatedly to discover beats, creating their own improv format that has a beginning, middle and end, and "Five Elements," a structure from the Canadian Improv Games which involves location, relationship, characters, conflict, raising of the stakes, and a resolution.  I took directing to the next level, demonstrating how focusing on elements of time, space, action, character and emotion, explores all the dramatic possibilities. 

The first ten minutes of each class were spent on “warm-ups” to wake the students up, while getting to know their names, interests, passions and viewpoints.  This was accomplished through a variety of “sit down” games. In “Suitcase” the students passed around an imaginary suitcase while putting in an object that began with the letter of their first name.  The second round involved taking an object out that they heard called, while remembering the name of the student who had put it in.  “Tirades and Endorsements” allowed students to vocalize what the class was passionate about and what annoyed them, and “The Opposite of What You Believe” was about how believable you could be about a viewpoint that you are personally opposed to.  One time we engaged each other using only questions.  Another, we discussed an issue via Keith Johnstone’s alphabet game, where each sentence has to begin with the next successive letter of the alphabet.  “Multiple Views” was a group story, told in past tense from each student’s perspective, based on an event that we all attended.  Sometimes, these warm-ups took up the majority of the class, because they were so into it.

The students’ interest in class began to increase.  A third of them were theatre majors, and those students could always be counted on to volunteer.  I led the others to believe that they had freedom of choice, while I started volunteering them.  In order to make the formats more accessible to them, they were rooted in their reality.  I used “Four-Sided Where” to familiarize students with staging and props.  In this game, a student stands in front of the class and describes the four sides of a room in their home, and the class asks questions in order to get more detail and feeling about the environment.  For many of the shy students, talking confidently about something they had a strong grasp on was a self-esteem booster.  Almost the entire class participated in this game, which turned out to be rich with humor and insights into their lives.  One “Four-Sided-Where” that stood out was a student’s garage, which had not one, but two dancer poles for parties.  That drew a lot of interest from the class.

When it was time to introduce the class to performance styles, I had them write on the board what they were already familiar with.  Within moments, the board was filled with styles such as romance, horror, Shakespeare, drama, sci-fi and melodrama.  Next, I chose two students to improvise a scene which would adhere to the various styles I would call out during the course of the scene.  I followed the same structure with emotions, although interestingly enough, the students’ emotions were blocked beyond anything other than love, anger, sorrow, hate and jealousy.  A lengthy discussion followed on what was an emotion and what was an attitude, as I tried to ascertain the reasoning behind the block.  By the end of the discussion, I realized that the class unconsciously was aware of a whole range of emotions, but they had never been asked to identify them out loud before.  The ongoing byproduct of the class was to get the students to do things they’d never done before, and as I saw it, my job was to get them to embrace the unknown, and to free them from the prisons of their minds.

This unconscious or self-imposed mental incarceration frequently led to bartering over the rules of the games in an effort to make them “easier.”  Preconceived notions could also be counterproductive.  Two students balked when playing Spolin’s game “Contact” in which players had to touch each other in a different way every time they talked.  From their expressions, you’d have thought that I’d just asked them to copulate in front of class.  “Tug of War,” another Spolin game, also had an unforeseen result.  In this game, two teams of players engage in a tug of war with an imaginary rope, and as it turned out, neither team wanted to lose, which resulted in no teamwork at all!

When the department informed me that I would be finishing out the semester, I became a little more innovative with my educational theatre approach.  A main requirement of the course was to read Aristotle’s Poetics, an essential study in the art of drama, and apply his components of a play in their reviews and discussions.  I developed a plan to make this interactive.  The students had recently attended a one act festival at the college.  I broke the class up into groups of five and handed each group an index card that had one of Aristotle’s components written on it.  The group then had to improvise the “essence” of a scene from one of the plays that fit the component’s description.  Because of the length of the class, not all the groups went, and were probably relieved that they were spared.  But those who did, presented a series of vibrant scenes dealing with family problems, dating issues and mental illness, all fitting within the paradigm of Aristotle’s Poetics.

As the weeks progressed, the students became more familiar with each other and me. Friendships developed and the shyer students began to emerge from their shells.  Word began to spread on campus that this was a fun class where students got to do something different at every session.  Still, 8am is a hard time for a participation course, and frequently, students would saunter in ten to fifteen minutes late.  Often, I threw the tardy ones right into a structure the second they entered the room.  Half awake, no one ever refused, and grudgingly they began to accept that this is what I would do!  As for myself, I normally arrived at class around 7:40am.  As students slowly filtered in, I engaged them in conversation, which unbeknownst to them, invariably led to a game. 

Once, when talking to a student about some of my favorite plays, I asked her if someone wanted to produce a play about her life, what would the title and genre be?  She responded “It would be a drama called My Mental Life.”  Turning to another student, I asked “Based on that title and genre, what do you think the play is about?”  After the student gave it some thought, she responded “It’s about a girl growing up with a sociopath in her family.  The sociopath is her brother, and he gets worse as she gets older.”  By the time class was ready to begin, about twenty students shared titles and genres, with twenty others providing the storylines. In addition to being a great bonding exercise, the students who provided the storylines were remarkably spot-on with what the students who came up with the titles and genres had intended.

I used this exercise as a springboard for an upcoming play review assignment.  I set up a review format with two students as theatre critics reviewing some of the play titles the class had just come up with.  Each review had to include specific details on the production - acting, direction, set, costumes, sound, make-up and lighting.  I encouraged the critics to get into arguments.  If a critic hit the wall with what to say, he was quickly replaced by another student.  As was often the case with the class, a format I intended as a warm-up took up the entire session, because the students were into it, and didn’t want to stop.

The semester progressed and the temperature began to plummet.  It became more difficult to get the students out of their early morning fatigue.  Fifty degrees in Los Angeles is considered the beginning of an ice age!  I moved the warm-up period from sitting in chairs to standing in front of the class.  The first physical warm-up we tried out was “Kitty Wants A Corner.”  The game took up half the class time because the students were having a lot of fun.  With forty-five students, we may have broken the Guinness record for the greatest amount of people playing “Kitty Wants A Corner” all at once.  Other games that started class were Spolin’s “Transforming the Object,” where a player creates an object through pantomime, which the next player transforms into a different one, and “Zoom,” and “Zip, Zap, Zop,” two impulse games that force players to pay attention to each other.  The tardy students suddenly became more prompt so they wouldn’t miss out on this portion of the class.

Warming up with Kitty Wants A Corner.

For three consecutive sessions, other than leading the group warm-up, I was treated to a show of students presenting their team project scenes. Utilizing the various skills and approaches I had taught them on scene construction, I watched in awe as I was entertained by the following scenes:  A pre-school teacher dealing with a rambunctious class.  A TV dating show where the contestant prefers the host.  A flight to Hawaii that goes horribly wrong.  A documentary-style scene about inmates.  A wife who discovers her husband is cheating on her and confronts him.  An underage girl who gets her nose pierced without her mother’s approval.  A teenager who shows up at school with a hangover.

All these scenes were developed through improv.   In some cases, the scenes had to be recast or redesigned right before the presentation, but because the structures were sound, they all came off seamlessly, and I couldn’t tell the difference.  The students had taken my main advice to heart:  Once the structure and beats are set, all you have to know in the scene is who you are, what you’re doing and where you are.  This was work we could all be proud of.

With the last class, I gave the students the opportunity to do whatever they wanted.  All were in agreement that they wanted to do one more round of “Freeze Tag,” which we had done many times before.  I split them up into two groups, placed each on opposite sides of the room, and put two players center stage who would perform a scene.  When either side wanted to change the scene, they yelled “freeze,” tagged a player out, and then began a new scene.  To challenge them further, I threw in a new rule: Try to find specific issues, themes, events, and characters within the first few scenes, then build on them.  Revisit previous scenes and explore them further, or create new ones based on information you received earlier.  Throw in a game that you learned in class, if it fits the flow.

For twenty five minutes, I watched a series of scenes dealing with issues such as drug abuse, marital problems, dating, work-place abuse, and religious differences.  There were call-backs with specific events and characters.  Imaginary objects were vibrant, and the environments were distinct and clear.  Everything the students had absorbed in class was thrown back at me with their own distinct interpretation.  I couldn’t believe how funny they all were and that the humor came from the situations and characters they had created.  It then occurred to me, that the students just performed their first long form show.

I was thrilled when I was originally presented with this opportunity to work with college students again, because it’s something I don’t do often enough.  In this particular environment, I was more able to be myself, while dealing with adult issues.  From the first few sessions, however, I discovered that aside from a one or two year age difference, the college students are almost identical to the high school students in terms of their academic and personal deficiencies.  I believe this is due to technology, specifically texting, which diminishes essential interpersonal skills, and that students are fast losing the nuance of conversation.  Most of my students communicate through texting rather than through talking on the phone, because the silences they experience while talking over the phone makes them feel awkward.  Decades ago, when I first started conducting workshops with youth, a common mistake students made was to talk too much in an improv.  Now, when I throw two young people on stage, frequently I get “we don’t know what to say.”

Some years back I wrote a letter to President Obama about how education needs to take a new approach with learning. I am convinced more than ever that lecturing has gone the way of the dodo bird, and that there isn’t a subject that can’t be taught from a hands-on participation approach. Below is a section from that letter. 

To President Obama:

Almost thirty years ago when I first started working with teenagers, more often than not, they openly embraced my workshops. How liberating it was for me to provide an arena where their opinions and beliefs were sought out and respected, and to be able to create a safe space for them to drop the self-defense mechanism of teenage hubris and to embrace the angst of transitioning from an adolescent to adult.  Today, teenagers are resigned, suspicious and emotionally guarded.  They are not accustomed to their opinions being given a platform for expression.  Learning has become a passive activity, overshadowed by excessive testing and the need to meet arbitrary external standards. The joy of learning through creative self-expression has been lost.  This is reflected in their view of playing theatre games.  For them, role-playing is about “being put on display,” and receiving a direction amounts to being picked on.

I find myself constantly reinventing my pedagogical techniques due to having to compete with technologies that shorten attention spans at an alarming rate, forcing me to seek out formats that students can instantly connect with on a personal and emotional level.  While many students will benefit from such formats by becoming writers, directors, actors and producers, that is not the main goal of this work.  The real objective is to build up the students’ life skills – trust, listening, group creativity, empathy, teamwork, compassion, spontaneity and emotional awareness. These skills, partnered with the ability to think on one’s feet in the most demanding situations, is what will support academic success, and what will give students the advantage they need in whatever profession they pursue.

President Obama, I am proposing that your administration resurrect a Federal Theatre Project for the 21st Century, in order to combat the high mortality and incarceration rate of at-risk teens.  What I envision is that Educational Theatre specialists and artists in all disciplines will work with schools as part of an interdisciplinary curriculum, or as after-school programs, to involve students in theatrical formats that will increase social awareness and enhance their interpersonal skills.  In some instances, the emphasis will be on process, while in other instances, the students will create a final theatrical performance. 

20th century Federal Theatre Project
The White House responded with a nice form letter thanking me for my very good idea and cheering me on to keep up the good work.  I intend to do that, but I think society is running out of time.

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.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Birth In The Classroom by Michael Golding

On an auditorium stage, I’m warming up a group of thirty-five high school students for my Theatre Appreciation course.  It’s 3:45pm and the students are more distracted than usual.  Some are talking to each other.  Others are texting.  A few decide to sit on the floor, which inevitably becomes a prone position.  The class hasn’t begun yet and already I’m losing them.  Normally, humor keeps them focused (“Hi. Remember me?  I’m Mr. Golding.  We met at a trade conference in Dubai.”), but not today.  “We’re tired, Mr. Golding!” one student moans.

I pitch “The Do Game” as a warm-up.  “Do yourself expressing a strong emotion.”  I set up the guidelines. “It can be as long or short as you want, but normally about ten seconds is fine.”  A few examples are thrown out, such as “Do yourself getting an A on a test.”  This game has been in my arsenal for over twenty years and is usually received enthusiastically.  That is not the case today.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, where most of the students are looking down at the floor, I do one.  Myself when stuck in a traffic jam.  As realistically as possible, I explore rage.  This model is greeted with a smattering of applause and a few giggles.  From the abyss, one student whispers, “I’d hate to be in a car with him.” The entire class erupts with laughter.

Still, no volunteers.

I expand the warm-up.  “Do someone that you know, expressing a strong emotion, such as your father when he discovers a scratch on his car.”  Nothing.  Now, I believe I can hear the faint sound of crickets in the darkness.  One smart-ass student challenges me to do the scenario I just pitched.  Playing my father is something I’ve been doing my entire life, so in front of the class I transform myself into an elderly man.  Again, the students show their appreciation with applause.  Silence quickly ensues when I ask, “Who’s next?”

Sweat starts trickling down my forehead.  If you can’t get students involved in a warm-up, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the session. 

Out of frustration and desperation, I throw out, “How about this?  Do yourself expressing a strong emotion to someone that you never would in real life.”

This resonates with the students. I realize that I now have their full attention.  “Give us an example,” one student challenges.  Fearing that this is turning into the Michael Golding Show I tell them this is the last one for me.  So, I do myself telling off a relative about the inappropriateness of her being too close to me when we talk, including wrapping her arms around my neck so I can’t get away.   There is a long pause after I’m finished.  The students are looking at each other.  For them, this emotional display was distinctly different than the first two I did.

Suddenly, I’m assaulted with a tidal wave of questions after my demonstration.  “Does she really do that to you?” “How does it make you feel when she’s holding you that tight?’  “Why wouldn’t you say that to her?”  “How do you think she would respond, if you did?”

I answer the questions as honestly as I can and realize that for the first time, I’m sharing thoughts and feelings on a particular subject that has been repressed for years.  Somehow, I’ve stumbled onto an incredibly empowering game and these questions are an excellent follow-up.  Ready to write-off the warm-up as something that was more beneficial to me than the class I ask once more, “Any volunteers for this?  Otherwise, we’ll move on.”

The energy on the stage explodes.  Students were crashing into each other to take center stage.  Knowing teenagers, I quickly throw on a rule:  “The strong emotion you’re expressing cannot be to someone in this class.”  This reinforces my rule of no insults or scenarios that might hurt someone personally in the group.  This is readily accepted. Now, it’s on!

In rapid succession I got:
-          A girl admonishing her mother for accusing her of being gay because of the way she dresses.
-          A boy exasperated by his friend’s constant pining for a girl, yet unable to muster up the courage to ask her out.
-          A girl excitedly admitting to a guy how much she is attracted to him.
-          A boy setting his mother straight on the fact that being gay doesn’t mean he is promiscuous, like his mother is.

Everyone in the group played at least once. Many played twice. The emotions were real, vibrant and uncompromising.  From my perspective, I was watching a series of emotionally charged monologues – as good as anything you would see on a professional stage. 

With each student, I asked a series of follow-up questions, some of which I lifted from the group after my model:  “How did that feel?” Most responded “Great!”  Some with “A little weird.”  A few weren’t sure. “Why wouldn’t you say that in real life?” “He wouldn’t get it.” Or “I’m too afraid.” Last question, “How do you think that person would respond?” Most were “Not great,” however one student was brave enough to roleplay how her mother would respond.  She effortlessly morphed into her mother – a much larger woman, both physically and emotionally.  Lapsing into a powerful tirade, I could immediately see why the student would never say what she did in class to her mother. To my surprise, she went back and forth seamlessly between playing herself and her mother having an argument for about a minute.  Amazing to watch.

It was immediately clear to me that these questions helped monitor how each student “cooled down” from the exercise, which also determined how much time I would spend during the exchange.  Made a point of thanking each student for participating and how brave it was for them to share.  The majority of the students were able to rejoin the group after sharing, with no problem.  A few were still in the moment, or left a little unbalanced by what they just did.  In those cases, the group took care of itself – placing a comforting arm around a shoulder or whispering an encouraging, “That was great.”

So, in an attempt to adapt to my students’ mood, behavior and fatigue, “The Do Game” was forced to evolve into something else.  Thus, “Never Say” was born, an empowering exercise for the students and a valuable one for me, because I was able to gain insight into their personalities.  This game sprang from the moment, through the give and take between teacher and students.

Best part?  A warm-up that was supposed to take up ten minutes of class time, became a game that filled an hour, and has the potential as a springboard for scenes filled with emotional sincerity and concrete reality.  Can’t ask for more than that.

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. 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.