Saturday, July 2, 2016

IMPROV EVASION By Michael Golding

In my improv workshops with at-risk students, I encourage them to be open about their lives, hoping that will lead to emotional sincerity and a sense of realism in scenes. To gain their trust, I have to be open about mine. There have been times when the workshops have been therapeutic for me, particularly when experiencing loss.

A few years ago just as a new semester was beginning, my father passed away and I had to take a week off to attend his funeral. If I didn’t have that workshop to return to, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first few months.  My students were loving and extremely supportive. Almost two years ago one of my best friends died, who was a major player in the Canadian improv community. I hopped a red eye flight to Canada for his memorial after a Thursday session and was back in class the following Monday, bleary eyed and exhausted. The students I was working with were incredibly nurturing and helped with the healing process.

Handiwork of my students.

My wife is a frequent topic of conversation with my students. They are fascinated by who could marry this wacky, hairy guy. Frequently, I’m bombarded with questions;  “Do you have kids? No? Why not?” (“Because I have all of you in my life.”). “Can we meet her?” (“Sorry, she has something called a job.”). “What do you tell her about us?” (“I’m not certain, but I think they know where we live.”). "Are you the same way at home as you are with us?" ("She WISHES she had that Michael Golding.").  “Have you ever cheated on her?” (“Let’s have a chat about boundaries.”).  

One time she did pop up in one of my classes, because she was driving me to the airport so I could fly to a festival afterwards. They reacted to her as if she was a celebrity; “She’s real! Oh my God, she’s so pretty!”  When I told the class that we were going to grab a quick bite at a nearby House of Pancakes before heading to the airport, one student slid up to me and whispered “Ah, man - take her someplace nice. Like a McDonald’s.” 

A year ago my wife and I separated.  It was not a mutual decision and the loss left me devastated. A month after she left, I was hit by a car while on a group bike ride, which broke my collarbone requiring surgery to have a titanium plate with ten screws implanted. That certainly shifted emotional focus for a while. The Vicodin and Morphine helped too. A month after the procedure, I was back in class.

While I have discussed the accident with my students, including sharing the x-ray of my titanium enriched collarbone, to date I have not mentioned the separation.

I continued wearing my wedding ring. Call it denial, but I just couldn't take it off. The first class I taught after my wife left I was brief when she would come up in conversation. “She’s in Canada looking after her sick mother,” was my standard response, and then I would quickly move on to another topic. Talking about my wife in class always gave me joy. Now, it was extremely painful. I continued being upbeat and humorous when she was brought up, but inside my heart was breaking. 

As the Thanksgiving break approached, the students asked if she was coming home or if I was going to join her. I lied and said I was going to rendezvous with her in Canada. Wished I thought that one through. After the holiday break I was inundated with “How was Canada? How’s your wife?” “Is she back home?” Again, I lied my ass off.

I continued wearing my ring for most of the next semester and again, was short with any inquires about my marriage.  In previous workshops, I frequently shared photos of my wife that were on my cell. As part of the healing process, I deleted them just as the spring semester was about to commence. Now, students were extremely suspicious that I had no pictures of her on me. I was digging myself deeper into a hole. They also noticed I was no longer wearing the ring. I claimed that I was acting in a short where I played a single man. The hole was about to reach China. Instead of telling them that my wife was in Canada taking care of her mother, I augmented it to “Unfortunately, her mother died, and she’s in Canada settling her affairs.” That was probably the first time I was (mostly) honest about my situation. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly last April.

The students gave me shit for not being with my wife during her time of need. Almost came clean; “Believe me; I wanted to be there with her. But given the present state of our relationship my presence would have been awkward for both of us.” Instead, I obfuscated with “I couldn’t take time off from work.” From the back of the class a student yelled out “lame!”

Losing my mother-in-law was unexpected and another emotional blow. My father-in-law had passed away the year before.  After my wife left, my mother-in-law and I found ourselves comforting each other and dealing with the grief over our departed spouses. It added a new layer to our relationship. She was an amazing friend to me right up until the end and she loved hearing about my students. It wasn’t until she passed that I felt the full force of the separation. Unfortunately, this was another item from my life that I could not share with my students.  Shortly after her transition, I finally took my wedding ring off for good.

Taking the ring off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. For over thirty years, I would constantly play with it, twirling it around as I spoke. Now that it’s gone, my OCD won’t give me a break. My hand still reaches for it, and I’m repeatedly shocked when I can’t feel it. The imprint of the ring is still there and I find myself constantly gliding my fingers over the indentation. Occasionally in class I get lost in the sad revelation, but the nature of the students always brings me back to the moment. Inattention from me can quickly be interpreted as “iPhone break!”  Then, they’re all in their happy place and it’s an uphill battle to reel them back in.

Right now I’m two thirds of the way through a six week summer college course with at-risk high school students. Beyond mentioning that I’m married, I’ve given no further information. The group hungers for more; “What does she do for a living? How come you don’t have any pictures of her on you? When are we going to meet her? Do you tell her about us? How come you're not wearing a ring?”

A close friend recently suggested that maybe it's time to come clean with my students. She feels that they will be nothing but supportive. 

Or, I could get a larger shovel.

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.