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.


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