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.


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