Sunday, October 4, 2015

Improv Mid-Life Crisis By Michael Golding

A little over two months ago I was struck by a car while cycling, resulting in surgery to repair a fractured collarbone. A titanium plate with ten screws has become a permanent fixture in my body. Now half man, half machine, I will be setting off metal detectors when I fly in the future. If a doctor’s note isn’t sufficient for security, believe me, I am prepared to show my scar. 

Unfortunately, I had to postpone a trip to David Shepherd’s home in Western Massachusetts to finish his improv archive project. David is the father of modern day improvisation and over sixty years of materials from his collection were going to be donated to an institution which will be accessible to the public. For now, the project is on the back burner. It will get done, hopefully within the next few months.

A major concern during recovery was whether I would be able to teach in the fall.  The college I work for has a high school outreach program, where I teach an after school theatre appreciation course for at-risk teens who receive college credit. I was offered only one course this semester, which meets two afternoons a week from 3:30pm – 5:40pm. The objectives of the course are explored primarily through theatre games.  I was uncertain that my stamina was up to the challenge and for the first time wondered if I was getting too old to work with this age group. Weeks of pain medication diminished my focus and passion. I simply wasn’t looking forward to the class. Was it possible that I was experiencing an improv mid-life crisis?

When I addressed that concern with my surgeon, he laughed and said “unless you’re teaching gym, you’ll be fine.” Obviously the man was unaware of the population I work with, or how physical I can be when conducting a workshop. Discussing the matter with my improv friends, Shepherd, Ed Asner, Nancy Fletcher (creator of Act Now, an improvised movie format for adolescent girls) and Howard Jerome (co-creator of the Improv Olympics and Canadian Improv Games) they were unanimous in their advice; pace yourself, sit down, and bark out orders.  Brave new world for me. Anticipating the round-trip commute to the high school in Compton on the notoriously congested highway filled me with anxiety and dread. The shoulder strap across my tender collarbone still causes discomfort, especially when I make sudden maneuvers or stops.

With improv consultant Ed Asner

It was a physical challenge conducting the first two sessions, lecturing more than I usually do, which only has a shelf life of a few minutes for the students. It may look like they’re nodding out as their heads slowly slump down, but I know they’re looking at their iPhones. I can see the glow from the screens on their faces. Maybe they’re Googling me or texting what am awesome teacher I am. Exhausted, I ended both sessions a half hour early.

I can’t sit still when teaching and my healing collarbone felt the strain. Many of my movements while instructing are reflexive, such as jumping on and off the auditorium stage, which I knew was ill advised.  As much as I wanted to phone the class in, I couldn’t. The students demand moment-to-moment attention. While I have conducted these type of workshops a gazillion times before, it was clear by the expressions on the students’ faces that it was their first time experiencing a learning-by-doing approach rather than listening to a long, boring lecture and it enthralled them. It certainly kept me focused.

By sharing that I was injured and showing them an x-ray of the titanium plate and screws on my cell phone the students perceived me as a badass. I wished my shoulder didn’t look like someone threw a pair of scissors at me to gain their admiration. In turn, the students were eager to share stories of family members who had hip and knee surgeries and what they were like before and after the procedures. All great ideas for future scenes.

Does this x-ray make me look fat?

By the third session, I had more of a grasp on who the students were. There are over thirty in the class, which is not unusual. All Hispanic. Normally, there is larger ratio of girls to boys in my classes. This time out, the ratio was reversed.

The boys ooze machismo. The themes they love to explore are hooking up, going to strip clubs, scoring weed, getting high and gunplay.  Because many are hustlers and have to live by their wits on the street, they’re natural improvisers. They don’t like to stick to the rules of the games and elicit laughs from the class by mocking them. None of this is unusual. They just need a lesson in the difference between play and game. With play, you can do whatever you want. With game, well, there is a structure with rules.

It quickly became a high wire act for me. You don’t want the side-coaching to come off as a reprimand, which either diminishes their enthusiasm or in their eyes a betrayal of trust. “Hey, I was just trying to shake things up,” one student moaned when I corrected him.  Sometimes, I wait until after the session, where I start my notes off with “You’re a natural at this. However…….”

An early observation with the boys was if they don’t realize we’re engaging in a game, they organically play by the rules; listening, agreement, teamwork. For them, we’re not playing a game until we are actually on the auditorium stage. If I warm them up while they’re sitting in the audience, it becomes more personal and conversational. I discovered that with the group story game “So What You’re Saying Is.” In the game, a player starts with a simple statement (“I went outside my house for a walk.”).  Another player would begin by saying “So what you’re saying is,” repeat the sentence he or she heard, and then add onto the story. The goal is to create a story with as many players as possible, chiming in when they have the impulse.


Player 1: I went outside for a walk.

Player 2: So what you’re saying is, you went outside for a walk, so you could get away from your parents.

Player 3: So what you’re saying is, you went outside for a walk, so you could away from your parents, because they think you’re spending too much time with your boyfriend.

And so on. There are other variations of this game, but this version resonates with the students.

I was amazed by how large and extravagant the stories became. Of course, all dealt with drugs, strip clubs, hooking up and getting high. My inner monologue suggests that in future sessions I should try to steer them towards exploring other themes that might motivate the girls to jump in. Or, I may have to break them up into groups of five, rather than letting thirty students fight for control and observe how the stories develop that way. My brain was percolating with possibilities.

The girls are shy, hesitant and rarely volunteer. Yet, there is thoughtfulness in the way they play, and when partnered up with some of the boys, diminishes their overactive testosterone a tad.  My sense is the boys don’t interact much with the girls outside of class or during the regular school day, so this is new to them – working with a girl as a collaborative partner, rather than viewing them as an object.

When I introduced Blind Walk, a trust game that is fraught with dangerous possibilities, the boys were surprisingly respectful and protective of the girls. In the game the group is in a circle and a blindfolded player walks back and forth across the circle. A student in the circle has to gently stop the blindfolded player from walking into him or her, then slowly turns the blindfolded player around, makes eye contact with another student in the circle, and gently launches the blindfolded player on his or her way towards that student. The blindfolded player has to be as relaxed as possible while walking, knowing that that the circle will protect him or her from getting hurt.

I was impressed. Normally first time out with this game, players are spun around furiously before being sent on their way, students in the circle are making jokes or yelling “watch out!” or someone in the circle might start backing up, or ever worse, step aside, as a blindfolded player walks towards them. Unfortunately, that admiration was shattered when a boy was sent across the circle. Lots of ass grabbing, head thumping, and crotch smacking. It’s early in the semester.

Now, as I bravely tackle the hellish round-trip commute, my brain is on fire running over my workshop plan and the results of it afterwards. It seems like my improv mid-life crisis was premature.  I have a lot of work to do with this group, and surprisingly, I appear to be into it.

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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