In my college workshops with at-risk high school students, I try to utilize their life experiences as much as possible when exploring themes, situations and characters in scenes, games and formats. The emphasis is on realism, which is often not the case with this population who lean more towards outlandish, unrealistic, and violent scenarios.
An in-class written assignment I use to elicit those experiences is called Life Story. The set-up is that a producer bought their life story to be turned into a play. The student has to come up with a title, genre, and a few sentences describing what the play is about.
As I read through the papers, scene ideas pop out at me as I gain insight into who these students are. I write down notes on each paper to get the student to think a little deeper about the story. This semester’s batch is particularly intriguing;
Life of Color (drama) A student deals with stress and anger through painting. Color saves me. Art saves me. Art takes all the bad thoughts away when I paint. I consider myself art. I myself am art. Art is everything to me. (My note: Lovely. Let’s come up with a scene where you encounter stress and anger, then deal with it through the activity of painting.)
Beautiful Tragedies (drama/horror) A girl who lives with her grandmother and an aunt who is a felon, learns to deal with police, prison and the will to try and overcome it all. (My note: I’d like to see more of the characters who inhabit this world of yours.)
Addicted (suspense/drama) A girl who is being raised by a single mother, who she rarely sees, falls for someone that she knows is an asshole but can’t seem to let go. (My note: Let’s see a scene where she first met and fell for this guy.)
Roller (drama/romance) Girl is involved with a boyfriend who is into serious drugs and becomes aggressive when using. (My note: Can we see a scene about what he’s like when he’s not using?)
Viewing Things Differently (drama) A close friend’s betrayal and the repercussions that follow. (My note: Let’s see a scene about what the friend was like before the betrayal.)
Records (drama) A young teenage girl’s life depends on records, gets hired to work in a record store. (My note: Let’s do a scene where you apply for the job).
Ricardo (drama) Argument with brother leads to a fight that goes too far. (My note: Do you and your brother fight often? Over what? Are the arguments ever resolved non- violently? If so, let’s see one.)
There are students who don’t exactly do the assignment as described, but still offer something interesting to work with;
Game Day (drama) A teenage boy comes up with an idea for a million dollar game and releases it on the internet. (My note: Let’s see a scene where you are selling this game to someone.)
Run Away Fugitive (action) Teenage boy breaks out of prison, steals a car, changes his appearance and goes on the run. (My note: What crime did he commit to be incarcerated? How does he survive on the run?)
The 411 (drama) People are always asking a teenage boy how to do stuff, because they assume he knows everything. Turns out, he does. (My note: Let’s explore various moments where people assume this of you.)
Money Gang Bang (action) Gang member gets shot in the forehead by a rival gang drive by. (My note: Let’s explore what leads up to that act and the repercussions afterwards.)
Shippers Found Dead (horror) Tech company uses zombies as slave labor to ship out merchandise. (My note: Can we come up with a scene that explores how the shippers became zombies?)
Once I’ve handed back the papers with my notes, I then get the students to come up with a who/what/where scene based on their story that can be explored through improv on stage. The student doesn’t necessarily have to act in their own scene. He or she can cast and direct it. Additionally, the student has to design a set floor plan, based on floor-plan symbols from Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, which is a recommended textbook in my class. The floor-plan provides the student with a sense of staging, set design and focusing on the where.
When the scenes are up on their feet, I begin to side-coach as the students improvise to uncover the beats. My directions hone in on specific improv skills, which are also essential life skills.
Side coaching directions:
1. Five Second Delay: Players have to wait five seconds before responding to each other.
2. Contact (Spolin): Players have to touch each other in a different way whenever they say something.'
3. Inner Monologue: Thirty second monologue on what is going on inside player’s character’s head.
4. Gibberish: Speaking in an unknown language.
5. Explore activity: Players have to add substance and detail to what they are physically doing.
6. Focus on emotion: Players have to explore what they are feeling at that moment and find a way to express it physically.
7. Switch time: Scene is taken either ahead or back in time.
8. Switch location: Scene continues in a different location.
Looking over the life stories from this class, various themes begin to reveal themselves to me; betrayal, friendship, single parent households, social inadequacy, anger, stress, work, fear of future, substance abuse, gang-banging, sibling rivalry. This group has given me a lot to work with this semester and they discovered that they have a lot more in common with one another than originally thought. Shared stories bring students together. The bonding process has begun.
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.