Friday, August 2, 2013

What I Did For Improv Love by Michael Golding

 A colleague once described my teaching technique when working with at-risk teens as “putting my feelings out there,” which was something she admitted she couldn’t risk doing in fear of being hurt.  When working with this population, I have to leave myself open and vulnerable so I can gain my students’ trust.  This forges a bond between us, and allows them to share aspects of their lives that they normally wouldn’t in a traditional classroom setting.  In a way, the relationship is akin to a love affair, with all the wonderful attributes that go along with it, including, the inevitable break-up.

My most intimate, break-through classes with at-risk teens have been through one-on-one sessions, or within small groups of four to six students, where I participated as a teacher and player.  During my assignment at the New Village Charter High School, the only all-girl charter high school in California, most of my one-on-one sessions were with the students residing on site at St. Anne’s, a social rehabilitation center for young women.  Some of these residents were wards of the state, or parolees.  Often, just as I was making progress, the student was removed from class, never to be seen again.  It was a crushing emotional blow, hard not to take personally, and made it difficult to suck it up and start fresh with someone new – who was probably going to break my heart and abandon me eventually.  So much for professional and emotional distance.

St, Anne's residential facilities.
The following are case studies of four students who affected me on an artistic, personal and emotional level.

Daisy was fifteen years old and six months pregnant.  She was the first student I’d ever had a language barrier with - she didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Spanish.  In our sessions, I relied exclusively on non-verbal Viola Spolin games such as Transforming the Object, Who Am I? and Gibberish, which proved to be very successful and fun for both of us.  The two of us eventually created our own non-verbal scenarios, incorporating character and space work.  One time we were pantomiming a chess match, which developed into a fight.  We were arrested, thrown into jail and inevitably plotted and executed our escape.  The classroom itself became a prop – freeing and empowering for Daisy, since she had access to an environment she normally wouldn’t in a full class.  Occasionally, Daisy’s social worker would pop in for a few minutes at the beginning of the session and assist as a translator, which enabled me to raise the stakes a bit.

About a month into the semester, Daisy was abruptly pulled out of school by her father and sent to live in Mexico with her grandmother for the remainder of her pregnancy.  I found out shortly after her removal that Daisy had a better command of English than I was led to believe.  Well played, Daisy.

Dareisha was sixteen years old and had a long history of criminal activity – assault, breaking and entering, drug possession.  Once she assaulted a teacher who tried to prevent her from leaving the classroom by grabbing her shoulder.  Despite being incarcerated for the assault, Dareisha had no remorse over the incident.  “He shouldn’t have touched me.”  I responded by telling her that I had made a mental note never to touch her.  With the first smile I had ever seen on her, she said “You, I’m cool with.”

Dareisha had a hardened veneer to her personality and students on campus would stay clear of her.  In class, she had no problem contributing suggestions for scenes, but she would only improvise with me – and frequently ended the scene with a curt “done.”  If other students were in class, her focus was erratic when improvising, frequently getting confrontational with her classmates who she thought were mocking her as they watched.  Often, Dareisha would stay after class so we could play together alone for a half hour or so.

One of the assignments for my course was to arrange the order of scene outlines the students came up with, to form a story with a thematic thread.  Instead of meeting this criteria, Dareisha handed in a five page, hand-written scene.  I couldn’t wait to read it.  Dareisha was particularly snuggly with me in class that day.  Wherever I sat to lecture briefly, she would quickly sit next to me and at one point, rested her head on my shoulder.  Something was up, but she wouldn’t tell me what.

That night, I read Dareisha’s scene.  It was worthy of David Mamet – complete with realistic, vibrant dialogue and powerful characters.  I was so proud of her achievement and was looking forward to encouraging Dareisha to pursue writing.  Next day, Dareisha was gone.  The police had showed up at St. Anne’s and arrested her for robbing a store with a group of other girls the morning of our last class.  I never saw Dareisha again.  To this day it still haunts me that I was unable give her what she needed most, encouragement and hope.

Amanda was seventeen years old and seven months pregnant.  She had a criminal record which included shoplifting, carjacking, breaking and entering.  Amanda came from a family where nobody graduated high school; her mother and sisters all became pregnant when teenagers.  Despite her past, Amanda had a wonderful sense of humor, with an optimistic outlook about her future.  When we first met, she told me that she was a virgin, had plans to attend college and was proud that she was going to be the first in her family to do so.  Amanda was a wonderful advocate for her fellow pregnant students, counseling them on prenatal care and day care options.  I was convinced that Amanda was on a path to rebuild her life and make her family proud.

Amanda and I had wonderful teacher/student chemistry.  We talked honestly about our lives and used that information as a springboard for scenes.  In one scene, I played a transsexual, where Amanda as my sister, was encouraging me to get back in touch with our parents.  While this is a scene I normally would not have explored in a regular high school, transsexuals were a part of Amanda’s world, and I had to respect that reality.

Two months into the semester, Amanda’s twenty-two year old gang-banger boyfriend, and father of her child, got out of jail and pulled his car in front of St. Anne’s.  Amanda quickly got in and according to the rumors of the school was off to Vegas to get married.  Sadly, all the girls were behind Amanda’s decision to do this.  “You go, girl!  You get as far away from this place as possible!”  When I asked the girls who was going to take care of Amanda’s baby, the response was “Her man!”

So, despite the fact that Amanda was now in violation of her parole, and being transported across state lines, having just thrown away free hospitalization and day care, the students were adamant – she made the right decision.  It was romantic and dangerous.  Often, I wonder what I would do if I ever crossed paths with Amanda again and what physical/mental state she might be in.

Dulce was seventeen years old and eight months pregnant.  She had a criminal record for drug trafficking. First game I played with Dulce:  Two Seconds Behind, where one player tells a story about themselves and the second player repeats it verbatim, two seconds behind.  Dulce used it as an opportunity to talk about her life honestly, being pregnant, arrested, and substance abuse issues.  Touching and at times funny.  It was a powerful experience for her to hear my voice and emotion echoing her words.  Somebody understood her.

Second game:  Suitcase, where players sit in a circle passing around an imaginary suitcase.  Each one has to put in an object that starts with the first letter of their name. Dulce playfully said “Dulce’s dick” then switched it to “Dulce’s duck.”  I told her that it was okay to stick with her first choice.  The interesting thing here is that even though these are essentially kids, they’ve led adult lives.  So, while I might reprimand a teenager for this choice in a “normal” class setting, I would often give a free pass to the at-risk girls, depending on the circumstance.  Otherwise, I would be spending most of each class reprimanding or in conflict.  When it was time to take an object out that the group heard, I quickly went first with “I think we’d all be happier if Dulce’s dick was out of the suitcase,” which caused Dulce to blush. 

Third game:  Scene about discrimination.   Dulce played my pregnant girlfriend who was being introduced to a future sister-in-law, played by a social worker who got roped into the scene, who discovers that the baby isn’t mine.  Dulce was very physical with me during the scene.  She sensuously stroked my tie while talking to the sister-in-law and pulled me off stage by it to end the improv.  This was a major trust breakthrough.  The majority of the men in Dulce’s life had abused and betrayed her to the point where she felt all men were not to be trusted.  In me, she found someone who actually listened and understood her.  I was never judgmental and despite the Hindenburg shape she ballooned into, Dulce was still very much a kid who often needed to be reminded that she was beautiful and it’s okay to be silly and play.

Dulce’s back was always hurting her, and her movement was limited.  She could stand briefly, but the majority of her scenes were played sitting down.  She went into labor a few weeks before the semester ended.  I walked into class one day and she was gone.

Once again, someone I had forged a bond with, who was starting to grasp the work and benefit from it, was suddenly taken away.  It is the nature of the job, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me.  Every single time.

While my work as an educational theatre specialist with at-risk teens is deeply gratifying, it consistently wrecks havoc with my abandonment issues.  Intellectually, there is a barrier that allows me to do my work.  But the more I get to know a student, the more open my heart becomes, and it’s hard not to be profoundly affected by their stories.  They don’t want pity.  They just want you to listen and understand without judgment.  While saying goodbye always sucks at the end of a semester, not having the opportunity to do so, cuts a little bit deeper.  I’m blessed that many of my former students have remained in touch with me or have found me years later through Facebook.  Maybe one day, the four I have just written about will do the same. That would be very nice. 

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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Michael. I was really moved by this. You are sowing good seed, my friend. Even though you may never see the harvest, know it's coming.