Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Power and Joy of Guessing in Improv by Michael Golding

My Theatre Appreciation course for college and high school students relies heavily on improv formats.  While I stick to the academic objectives of the curriculum every semester, each new group I work with interprets the formats differently.  Rather than force the students to bend to my improv will, I uncover a new approach to meet them halfway. By incorporating their input, they help me to redesign the course for that particular semester, which inspires me to create new formats and embrace a different avenue to my pedagogical style.

My current class, which is a combination of high school and college students, views every format as if it’s a guessing game. While that is appropriate for certain formats, such as Viola Spolin’s “How Old Am I?” and “What Am I Listening To?” it can be intrusive as a class of close to thirty-five students in the audience are screaming out guesses as two to four students on stage are exploring a format.

The positive flip side to this is that the students in the audience are in the moment, as they are actively searching for something specific in the format that is being presented in front of them. Guessing is a game and there is joy in the tone of their guesses and I started to ponder how to harness that element of enthusiasm.

Knee deep in another Theatre Appreciation class.

Ordinarily when I conduct a format with two players, students in the audience tend to tune out if something engaging doesn’t occur from the start. They start looking at their cell phones, texting, or conversing with the student next to them. It’s the reality of the nature of my course, which runs from 3:30 – 5:30pm. Students are tired, particularly the high school ones who have already put in a full school day, and if something doesn’t involve them directly, they go to their happy place. I don’t have this problem when leading group warm-ups at the start of the class, because the exercises are physical and everyone is on their feet and focused. Until someone's cell phone rings. But, I digress.

I started experimenting with adding a guessing element to every format. The main rule is that the students cannot yell out guesses as the format is being explored. That occurs either after the format has been played, or when I pause it periodically to elicit input from the audience.  I’ll address the students with a series of questions, which are actually established improv games.

Questions may focus on;

Environment:  “Can you guess what the temperature is?”

Emotions: “Can you guess what the player is feeling right now?”

Character: “Can you guess what the character is thinking right now?”

Activity: “Can you guess how the players could be doing this differently?”

I’m still toying around with this approach, which so far has been successful in keeping everyone in the class involved. This could be the way to go this semester. A simple flip of terminology.

This is just a guess on my part.   

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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