Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Missed Improv Opportunities by Michael Golding

This semester through the Compton division of El Camino College’s offsite program I was assigned to teach Theatre Appreciation at two inner city high schools in Los Angeles; Firebaugh High School in Lynwood and Compton High School in Compton.  Students receive college credit for attending the courses which run from 3:30 – 5:30pm twice a week.  Two weeks in, both courses were canceled due to low enrollment. This is a common occurrence for adjuncts who work with high school students. The disappointment cuts deep this time out. The students at both schools were excited with my learning by doing approach, which relies more on participating in improv games, formats and group collaboration, than listening to lengthy lectures. I was stimulated by the creative possibilities both classes offered and was already strategizing how to alter my curriculum to accommodate the specific needs of the students.

There were students in both classes who have previously taken Intro to Acting with me, where I take the same hands on approach, although there is a scripted element to the course where scenes and monologues have to be performed. In that course, I give the students the choice of finding a scripted scene or monologue to perform, or developing one through improv and creating a script based on it.  Since those students were already familiar with my style, it was forcing me to search out new ways to engage them so they could not anticipate outcomes. What I found endearing was that these students understood what was going on in the minds of the students who were working with me for the first time and discovering in a joyful way, I’m unlike any instructor they’ve had before. The learning by doing approach catches on quickly, and nothing gives me a greater satisfaction than monitoring the looks of new students engaging in the work for the first time, where I know they’re thinking “Where has this type of class been my entire life?”  It is a welcome outlet after being cooped up in school all day for them.
At Firebaugh High School in Lynwood, I had fourteen students registered and eleven at Compton High School. Smaller classes work better when it comes to at-risk populations where I can give more individual attention. But the college has a minimum requirement of twenty two students.  Sometimes I can sway the administration to extend the registration deadline, and make a case that the students attending will become ambassadors for the college. Canceling a course that they’re into will only diminish them, resulting in leeriness when contemplating signing up for future courses at the college.  My case fell on deaf ears this time out. Essentially the administration told me “Better luck next time.” Tell that to my bank account or the students who were on the precipice of a new exciting journey. 

Firebaugh High School

Francisco, a short, muscular, eighteen year old fireball of kinetic energy, confessed to me at my first workshop at Firebaugh High School that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He was always seeking out the comedic edge with anything he participated in. When I asked for a suggestion for an activity he offered “crucifixion.”  An activity that a group could do together, he proudly exclaimed “circle jerk.” He frequently got cheap laughs from the class by mocking the games. In many ways he reminded me of what I was like at fourteen, when I first started taking improv classes and I was looking forward to slowly changing his mindset from “it’s all about me” to “it’s all about the group.”  He developed a kinship with Donotus, a tall, lean, and lanky seventeen year old who fearlessly volunteered for every game, without paying attention to what the rules and objectives were and was frequently crestfallen when his noble attempts failed.

I paired the two up for  “Try that on for Size” where an activity, such as washing the dishes is given, and the players have to come up with different explanations while pantomiming the same motion for the activity; (Example: “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to raise the dead. Try that on for size!”). After a few failed attempts, Francisco and Donotus clicked with the game, and were thrilled with how they were bouncing off each other and developing a rhythm.  As I drove home after class I spotted the two walking together on the sidewalk, plotting away with the possibilities of future collaborations. 

Compton High School

My Compton High School class had nine female students and two male, one of which was a dapper seventy year old man named Lawrence. The offsite program allows adult students to attend high school courses if the schedule fits their needs better. It’s an interesting dynamic. Depending on the age gap, frequently the adults take on a paternal role with the teenagers. Lawrence had a thoughtful, soothing effect on the other students, who readily accepted him. In my experience, inner city students have a more respectful attitude towards elderly people, usually because their grandparents often live with or are raising them. It was a joy to watch Lawrence immerse himself in “Tableau,” a game where players freeze in a pose that creates a picture of  a location, such as McDonald’s, the beach or a bank. Now retired, Lawrence wanted to pursue the college degree that eluded him in his youth and I was eagerly looking forward to becoming part of his journey and the various roles he would play with the students in scenes. 

As I torment myself with might have been this semester, I hope that the four two hour workshops both groups had with me was enough to inspire an interest in the work and future theatre courses. For the adjunct instructors, the offsite program is an admirable endeavor, designed to inspire high school students to consider college, what will be required of them and envision a life beyond high school. But the reality from the perspective of the college administration is it’s all about money and numbers. Pack them in, espouse the virtues of the college then send them on their way. Ideally, the college would love for me to have forty students in each class, which I have at times.  Even though I have developed a successful structure that involves group warm-ups and collaboration exercises, often the momentum of the class slows down due to crowd control when the class is that large.  Twenty two is the way to go. Even better if it’s less.

The ongoing uncertainty of committing to a semester followed by the disappointment of an abrupt cancellation has forced me to decide whether I want to continue with this program. Aside from the financial hardship, there is an emotional toll, because I cannot teach without bonding with my students and I’m already feeling the loss over the missed opportunities of this semester.  It was neither the fault of the students nor I that the classes were cancelled. What we’re all feeling right now is anger, with no one to direct it to.  I love what I do, but my heart has been broken so many times in the past with this program that it’s beginning to develop scar tissue.  There is no closure when a course is suddenly cancelled and I don’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to the students. At least I had two great weeks with both groups. We were connecting and I know that I was opening the door to new possibilities for the students. That’s something to be proud of.      

That said, imagine what I could have accomplished with both groups if I had them for three months.

Workshop director suddenly at liberty.

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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