Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Character Hot Seat Interview by Michael Golding

Character Hot Seat Interview is a game I employ during the first few sessions of my college high school outreach workshops with at-risk populations. A student plays a person they know well (parent, teacher, friend, relative) who is interviewed first by me, then by the class. It’s an effective game. Opens up possibilities for future scenes, provides insight into the player’s world, trains students with the type of questions they need to ask to learn as much as they can about a character, and makes them aware that they already have an arsenal of personas at their disposal.

This is a game I often participate in, usually playing someone I have a great deal of love for (my father, David Shepherd, Ed Asner).  In a recent workshop, my students had a request. They wanted me to play my wife. I balked at this request because I’ve been separated from her for almost two years, a fact I have yet to share with my students.  As honest and open as I try to be about myself so I can gain their trust, I initially felt this information would be a distraction for the students and painful for me.  It took a year before I could take my wedding ring off. Once I did, I still stuck to the narrative that my wife and I were together, and used a film role playing a single person as the excuse for why I wasn’t wearing it.

My wife and I at a workshop after she played her mother in a Character Hot Seat Interview, 1986
Photo: David Shepherd 

Anxiety started to rise in me, and I tried to dismiss the request as something I would do at another time so that we could move on to something else. But the students were adamant and reminded me of what I stress during the first few sessions; “there’s nothing I’m going to make you do that I’m not willing to do myself.” 

So I sat down in a chair as my wife would have, took a deep calming breath, exhaled and looked out at the class and told them to proceed with their questions. The questions were pretty much what I expected. How long did my wife and I know each other? How did we meet? What did we think of each other’s parents? Do we have kids? After saying that we didn’t have kids, but had a cat (Gizmo) for 17 years, the students were amazed that a feline could last that long. This resulted in a slew of questions about Gizmo; where did you find her? Did she ever go outside? Did she have kittens? Will you ever get another cat? They were also fascinated by my wife’s Canadian nationality, and a slew of questions focused on her perception of the difference between Americans and Canadians, what she misses about Canada and what she likes and dislikes about America.

The legendary Gizmo, 1984 - 2001. Photo: Jody Cherry

While I was admittedly stiff and hesitant during the first minute or so of questioning, I eventually relaxed and got into my wife’s vocal rhythm and answered as I felt she would. My inner improv monologue was whispering “relax, take your time, and get into it.” I played her listening skills – the way she would take in a question, ponder it slowly, seriously, and give a response directly to the person who asked it, often with a follow-up question of her own.  The students seemed to enjoy that. There were thirty one in attendance, and she had their attention.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t a particularly torturous experience for me, although I was relieved when it was over. I played her as sincerely as I could, with the uncomfortable awareness that I wasn’t being honest with the students about the present state of my marriage. There was still forty minutes left in the workshop and I didn’t want to spend it shifting the focus of the class on to me.

As I got out of my chair one of the students said “Wow. I really like her. She’s cool.”  That comment stunned me, because I was concerned that any anger, heartbreak and resentment I still harbored might seep through in the characterization. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. I felt good that my portrayal came off in a positive way. Perhaps I'm finally moving on. And yeah, she is cool. 

In my experience with at-risk populations, being married is viewed as a positive aspect of my character and my wife is an ongoing topic of conversation in workshops. It provides the students with a comforting sense of normalcy about me, which comes in handy when I have to persuade them to try something that is not perceived as normal.

Ed Asner once told me that no one ever died from getting separated; everyone experiences heartbreak from the end of a relationship and eventually has to move on. Perhaps being honest about that aspect of life with my students will provide a stronger unifying bond in class than being married. "Otherwise Michael, you'll turn into a Mopey Gus and believe me, nobody wants to be around a Mopey Gus!"

Who am I not to heed the wisdom of a man who has been married and divorced twice?  

Receiving wisdom while on Ed Asner's lap.

Postscript:  A week later I’m warming up the class with “Tirades & Endorsements,” a game where a student can either talk about something that angers them (a tirade) or something they’re passionate about (an endorsement). Camille, one of my more passionate students chose “married men who don’t wear their wedding rings” as a tirade. Standing up she instantly exploded; “if you’re married and you don’t wear your wedding ring that only means one thing – you’re sniffing around, period!” For the next thirty seconds Camille‘s volume and indignation escalated as she listed the bullshit excuses she heard from married relatives who didn’t wear their rings. When she finished her tirade, she sat down with her arms folded and glared at me. Her face was seething with anger.

The room was silent. I walked up to Camille and softly said “I’m separated. Is that a good enough reason not to wear my wedding ring?”  Surprised by my answer, she looked down at the floor. “Yes. That is a good reason.” I had expected an avalanche of questions from the students to follow, but there were none. Camille raised her head;  The anger on her face was replaced by sincere concern. “Mr. Golding, who is going to look after you when you’re old?”

I don’t think I’ve ever been more moved by a student’s comment. Perhaps Ed was right.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. 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.