Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Workshop Memories by Michael Golding

When it comes to teaching improv, I’ve been fortunate that the majority of my gigs have been working for colleges and theatre companies, where all I have to do is show up and do my thing.  I admire my peers who have forged out a living being on the road conducting workshops and attending festivals.

While I’ve had my share of independent workshops, financially, more often than not, I was lucky to break even.  I’ve never regretted doing those workshops, because of the personal and artistic rewards.  Two independent workshops come to mind.

In New York, several months after I moved on from the Comic Strip Improv Group, I was jonzing for a creative outlet.  So, I started a summer workshop in the village at a loft space on Bleecker Street, above the Bitter End nightclub.  While I was the main facilitator, the workshop was designed for experienced improvisers to bring in their own games and take turns leading.  We always started with a group warm-up, followed by a few skills games, two person scenes, group scenes and a closure exercise.  Frequently, someone would come in with an idea for “an experiment” and the entire session would be devoted to that; such as the time where we started with an animal character exercise, which morphed into a thirty minute cocktail party as our animal characters, followed by scenes which explored what happened before and after the party.

Site of the village workshop.
The best part about the village sessions was after the workshop, when we would hit the diner across the street and go over what we accomplished.  Those discussions would go on for hours. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  David Shepherd played regularly; as did some of the members from my old Comic Strip group, and Janet Coleman (author of The Compass) joined us for a memorable session where the two of us played a couple whose relationship was explored over the years solely through the activity of washing dishes. 

The second one took place in Los Angeles, and was responsible for my renewed interest in improv.   At the time, my improv activity had dwindled and I was spending more time focusing on my career as a writer.  My last teaching gig had been a successful semester at Los Angeles City College, but a transit strike a month into my second class abruptly ended the course, followed by budget cuts which ended my association with the college.  I was a little resentful over that.  The Canadian Improv Games had recently dragged me back into the fold after a decade’s absence, but that was a once a year shot conducting workshops at their national festival.

A new acting school called the Theatre Academy opened in North Hollywood, and I was hired to conduct an eight week improv course, meeting on Friday evenings.  Unfortunately, unforeseen complications prevented the administrators of the school from doing a thorough marketing job, and by the time my course was to begin, no students had signed up.

Since the space was available, the administrators allowed me to use it as I saw fit, reasoning that perhaps it would develop interest in a future class.  I decided to invite Team Hollywood, my cycling club, to participate, using my usual format of warm-ups, games, formats and closure exercises.  With the exception of a few who had friendships outside of the club, most of us only saw each other once or twice a week in spandex. Only two had a performance background.  The backgrounds of the cyclists in Team Hollywood was diverse; sound engineer, grip, line producer, accountant, physical therapist, notary, airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, nurse, graphic artist, teacher, truck driver, counselor, police officer.  One of the members of our club frequently said “If it wasn’t for cycling, none of us would be friends, considering how diverse our backgrounds are.” 

Team Hollywood.
Eight to ten members attended the sessions on a regular basis and from the first workshop, they all came off as experienced improvisers.  Perhaps it was because we already had a familiarity with each other, or we were just thrilled to see each other in civilian clothes.  Regardless, they took to the games with complete abandon.  After the first session, the wife of the president of Team Hollywood told me “I can’t even get him to play Charades at parties. Now, he can’t stop talking about your workshop.”

In-jokes were a big part of our sessions, and frequently characters were based on people we all knew.  The workshop atmosphere was relaxed and casual, more so than others I’ve conducted with professionals.  After the sessions, we would adjourn to Pitfire Pizza nearby for a late dinner, and revel in what we had just accomplished.

We all got to see facets of each other we’ve never seen before – and I was impressed by how open and honest we were in the workshops.  When a friend of mine, who is a professional improviser, came in as a guest, I paired him up with a member who I knew was plagued with anxiety issues.  At first, she didn’t want to participate and admitted she was intimated and anxious at the prospect of playing with him.  So, we decided to make the scene about a first date – which involved anxiety and intimidation.  During the course of the scene, the date turned into a status power play, ending with the woman rolling my friend up in a rug.  After the scene, she admitted that was the first time she felt exhilarated after a scene, rather than relieved that it was over.   My friend was convinced that she was a professional improviser.

Team Hollywood at the Writers Guild for a staged reading of one of  my screenplays.

By the end of the Team Hollywood sessions, I realized that cycling and improvisation shared the same skill set, which is why the workshops were so successful.  Both rely on trust, agreement, listening, awareness and cooperation.  But, I would have to say that being in the moment is at the top.  In cycling (and improv) if you’re not completely in the moment, things can go bad very quickly.

I have the scars on my body to prove 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.

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