Saturday, October 7, 2017

Improvising with my Father By Michael Golding

The last format I worked on with David Shepherd (co-creator of Compass and the Improv Olympics) was Life-Play, improv games designed to be played over the phone.  Created by David, Carman Dewees and Chris Britt, the format was utilized extensively from 2009 to 2012.  We had weekly conference calls, where improvisers phoned in from all over the country and Canada to play.  A handbook of games was published and I adapted several of them for my workshops with at-risk teens and college students. Unexpectedly, it brought me closer to my father.

A year into the format, David fell and broke his hip and spent a month in a facility undergoing physical therapy. I called him daily during his incarceration, where we played several of the Life-Play games and often developed new ones on the spot.  It was an intimate, beautiful bonding experience for both of us.

After a particularly gratifying session, I commiserated with David over how I wished I could play with my father the way I played with him. The two were the same age. Despite being involved in improv since I was 14, my father never really got it and I gave up trying to unravel the mystery of the art form for him.  David felt that was bullshit. “Get him to play the next time you call him – and record it for me!”

My father Gerard Golding, Aug 30, 1924 - October 7, 2012

I called my father the next day, proposed that we play one game and he politely declined. “That’s your world.”  Instead of pleading with him, I took a different approach – manipulation (an honored Golding tradition) and relied on the competitive alpha male relationship between him and my oldest brother Bill to achieve my goal. I claimed that when I told Bill what David wanted me to do, Bill scoffed and said “Good luck trying to get dad to play. He’ll never improvise with you on the phone because he’s incapable of following rules.”  Upon hearing that, my father sneered “Oh yeah? I’ll play one game with you. What are the rules?” The challenge was accepted.

I chose “Repetition Poem” which is based on an opening line that is repeated throughout the poem.  Ever since he retired, my father was always saying to me “If I knew I was going to live this long.”  So that’s the line I gave him, which I had him recite with the emotion of surprise. Here is my father performing that poem;

It took me a few days to process this poem, and then I called him with questions about it.  First line then stuck out to me was “If I knew I would going to live this long, I most certainly would have tried to accomplished more, because I would feel much better than I do today.”  I pointed out that he ascended the ranks all the way to Captain. A remarkable achievement, one that made all of us very proud, which I told him.   He wanted to go all the way to chief.  I had no idea he was that ambitious.

Second line that resonated with me, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have spent more time to find out how to play.”  My father always played with me and my brothers as kids. He could be amazingly goofy, silly and funny.  On top of that, with the Repetition Poem, well dad, that is play. I told him that, too.

Third line that caught my ear was “If I knew I was going to live this long, I most certainly would have been closer to all my family.”  I asked him if that meant his siblings or sons.  He meant us, me, Rick (my middle brother) and Bill.  I told him that he was always there for every major event in our lives.  Even though he worked two jobs until he made lieutenant, and was constantly doing overtime and double shifts, he was a solid, major presence in the house. I’m glad I had an opportunity to tell him that.

Unfortunately, the full impact of the poem wasn’t clear to me until the day he died.  Hours after receiving news of his passing, I posted his poem on Facebook.  My cousin Steve contacted me to offer his condolences and to point out that the last line of the poem, summed up everything for him about his uncle. “If I knew I was going to live this long, hmm, I guess everything would have turned out fine.”

When you think about it, my father married the love of his life, had a successful career, raised a family, was loved and admired by everyone who knew him, and lived in the house that he cherished for 55 years right up until the end.  So when it comes to the life of Gerard Golding, yes, everything did turn out fine.

My family. Top row, Gerard and Linda. Bottom, Bill, Rick, moi.

I will always be grateful to David Shepherd for pushing me to get my father to play and for the record I now have of that incredible moment. Carman Dewees was gracious enough to send my father a CD of his poem. Whenever I told my father how much people in the improv community loved his poem he would respond one of two ways; “It was something I did just for you,” or (with false modesty I might add) “Just something I did off the cuff.”

Here is the link for the Life-Play handbook. 

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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