Saturday, August 1, 2015

Improv High

Questionable promotional graphic (1994)
Annually I am in the position of auditioning young adults for a position in arts education. They are generally actors who aspire to the position, and volunteer the desire - sometimes without even being asked - to teach children.

"I have a lot to teach children," they will say. It is not necessary for me to ask from where they acquired this ability with a Bachelor's Degree in Acting. I can look at their resume and see where they have taught, if they have ever taught at all, and that is what I will ask them about.

There are those of us, myself strongly included, who felt at a young age that we have something to share, to teach, wisdom to impart. Our arrogance is in believing that the desire to teach makes one a teacher, that having done something right once means you have the talent and skill to instruct others.

I know many teachers. They went to school to learn how to do that.

Perhaps many actors believe they can teach for the same reason they believe they can act, because they like to stand in front of people and to be the center of attention. My own desire to show how smart I am led my younger self into many embarrassing situations for which I was entirely unprepared.

I signed up to teach improv at the regional Thespian conference my freshman year in college. There I was, standing in front of students who were basically the same age as I, and they did not view me with any special kind of respect or awe. They were there to learn something. And I was whimsically unprepared. I had taken, maybe, one improv class, once, when I was a sophomore in high school. We'd played improv games in high school, and I thought I'd jump up and we'd play some but pretty much all of these students had already played them.

I had no commentary, no notes to offer them. I was unaware of technique, why one thing worked and another did not. It was a long forty-five minutes.

I did take improv classes in college, we all took a basic improv course freshman year and a year or so later one of the most important acting classes I received at school, taught by George Sherman, Head of the MFA Directing program at O.U. (Read my 1988 interview with George.) There we learned more than games, we learned theory, a philosophy and also a certain amount of history. I was compelled to read books on the subject.

Rupture, Improv Comedy (1988)
We performed club improv in bars and coffee houses at school, but played the same old games, for laughs. The kind of improv George taught us was long-form improv, and though it was very successful in the classroom, creating actual drama from premise and character, there was never any thought of performing that stuff in front of an audience. We just never considered it.

The one year I worked for Karamu's Drama/Theatre for Youth project, we were each assigned a Saturday morning children's theater class, for which I neither received nor thought to request any kind of lesson plans. These were extremely unhappy Saturday mornings in which I worked for forty-five minutes to get thirty ten year olds (okay, there were only eight of them) to sit in a circle to play a concentration exercise, which was akin to drop a handful of marbles on the floor and then yelling at them as they scatter under the furniture.

I made mid-class hallway trips for the kids to drink water and go to the bathroom last for twenty minutes.

As I bounced from youth education project to youth education project two things were becoming abundantly clear. First, you need a lesson plan. Like, you need to plan ahead. That was a hard lesson for me.

Second and a bit more disheartening, I was never going to be the cool teacher. I am many things, but being someone that teenagers or even small children want to be around, that would never be me. I could instruct, but I would not be loved. I learned to be content with merely getting it right.

By our second year producing as Guerrilla Theater Company, we began discussing additional projects to be produced under the GTC banner. The Guerrilla Youth Theater project was launched in late 1993 in Bay Village (why not?) in which Torque and I taught classes for elementary-to-middle school aged kids. We had lesson plans. Mine were lifted entirely from Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater. The class was arranged through the city recreation department.

We believed we had produced a decent eight-week curriculum and even staged an event at the end of the session in which we shared the exercises and games we had been working on with the kids parents. We promised to build on the work we had done in the winter session and were absolutely flummoxed when absolutely no one signed up for the winter session.

That spring we developed a concept in which I would teach high school students how to do perform long-form improv. The project was called IMPROV HIGH (see graphic above) and the promise was to create an inter-district high school improv troupe. Announcements were made, flyers were distributed.

We had two high school aged colleagues, both students at Cleveland School of the Arts. Bud was our most devoted audience member and Digit ran the sound for our late night show, Mind Your Own Business. They each did their part to sell their classmates on the project but the day of the first class they were the only two who showed up.

So I cancelled the whole thing. How could I create an improv troupe with two actors? This would not be the first time I would just walk away from something, even when there were dedicated participants ready to follow my lead, nor would it be the last. I regret that decision. They were there, you can do improv with two people. I could have joined in, we'd have three. I was afraid. I made a mistake.

The following summer GTC was done and I had a tentative agreement with Dobama Theatre to create a late night project there. My girlfriend and I were taking our first road trip together through the upper Midwest, twenty years ago this summer, in fact. I was yearning for an education in styles of theater which I might incorporate into this new project. In Chicago we saw the Neo-Futurists, yes, but also my first evil clown show (Die Hanswurst Klown), Danny Hoch's Some People and my first trip to Improv Olympic to see a Harold.

In Minneapolis we visited the Bryant Lake Bowl and saw an improvised, musical science fiction comedy titled The Young and the Weightless. It was a pretty educational theatrical exposition and it was my intention to attempt to approximate technique I had witnessed but had never really been schooled in. Dobama's Night Kitchen would be an education for me, as well.

The Realistic World (1996)
Some day I may take the time to cover that grand, flawed experiment which was The Realistic World. It may have been the world's first long-form improv based on the world's first reality show, but I can't prove that. It was the first time I had trained, coached and directed actors to perform any kind of improvisation onstage for a paying audience that was not an entire disaster.

Since that time, from time to time in my role as part of the School Residency Program I have led workshops in improvisation for middle and high school aged students, but these are brief and are usually only game-based improvs. You know, for fun. There isn't time to develop character or to dig very deep.

There's another problem, too, and that is my responsibility to the students and also to their teachers. Improv means trust and I can't encourage them to take risks but also be in the position of having to censor their behavior.

Actually, I can. I should. It's a skill, and it has been the hardest lesson to learn - how to say no. Improv has rules, of course it does, just because you do not have a script does not mean you do not have a structure. You cannot violate the reality of the scene. There is also the acceptance rule, that you take what is offered you and you agree to work with it and build on it.
For the uneducated:
WOMAN: I brought home a rhinoceros.
MAN: No, you didn't. (invalidation, bad choice)

MAN: Yes, and where are we going to keep this one? (good choice!)
The director, however, can say no. It's a director's job to say no. Rehearsal is not performance and when an actor breaks a rule, or does something unnatural - something intended to entertain or be funny - it is the director's job to call them on it. Not to humiliate them, just to stop the scene, address the issue, and either start a different scene or simply ask them to make a different choice.

As many times as possible. As many times as necessary.

But it is not easy. Invalidating an actor is not an action I take lightly. George was skilled in ending a scene when a rule has been broken. He was also good at letting an actor hang himself with his own rope if he made an asinine choice which did not actually break a rule.
Scene: A hardware store.

1. First actor establishes the store. They are organizing shelves.

2. Second actor establishes relationship by entering as a customer with a complaint above a defective purchase.

3. But then a third actor decides to burst in as a rather exaggerated example of a “robber” and holds the place up. 

However, we had been working with the rule that once you enter an improv, you cannot leave. So, having held the place up, he needed to come up with a reason to stay and the others had to deal with him. The decision to provide a character to the scene who was not actually a character but only a gag was clearly and painfully exhibited for the entire class to cringe at as the scene limped along.

For several years GLT has produced a summer theater arts camp at Berea-Midpark High School - Camp Theater. We teach those as young as four up through high school ages in a variety of games, exercises, scenes and disciplines such as combat choreography and stage make-up.

I was initially self-resistant to include much improv, apart from the very basic kinds of games, due to the constraints of time. The camp consists of two, week-long sessions. Some kids are only there for one week and for a few years our time with them were half-day sessions, perhaps two and a half hours. Improvisation, valid and valuable improvisation is not possible if you give it sixty minutes a day for five days.

We expanded to day long sessions last summer, continuing this year, and so I had the opportunity to work with the middle and high school aged campers in one group for two and a half hours each morning. They would split into two groups, one for middle school and one for high school in the afternoon to concentrate on scene work. But I would be working with them on my own all morning, and believed that with this time we might actually be able to create something wonderful right away.

Last summer was an experiment, one in which I was too limiting in the kinds of exercises we would perform, each performance based, skill based, character building. Not for performance. You see, each class would be presenting the scenes they had been working on at the end of the day Friday for their families. I had no intention for them to perform improv for an audience after such a brief period of work. It was technique-based work, and the students responded accordingly.
It was no fun.

Camp Improv (2015)
After all, these are kids – smart kids, to be sure, but not already skilled actors. They do not know how to “make choices” because they have never been asked to, they do not yet know how.

This summer, I flipped it. We would work towards sketch based improv. Very clear conflicts were assigned, characters were described and provided. Definite parameters were set, scene games which have a prescribed beginning and ending. They brought their own personalities to set scenarios and played them successfully and instead of having some vague sense of accomplishment from improving their skill set, they had the immediate satisfaction of making their peers laugh and successfully navigating a story.

And I said no. A lot.
Scene: You are lost in the city, and need money for bus fare.

Camper runs up to other actor screaming, “Give me a dollar!”

Hold please. Take that again, make a different decision this time.

Camper runs up to other actor screaming, “Please, give me a dollar!”

Hold please. If you were asking a stranger to give you a dollar, you would run up to them screaming, they’d run away. Try that again.

Camper runs up to other actor screaming, “Hey, can you help me!”
Hold please. No seriously, your goal is to get the dollar, not to frighten the person. Do something different to successfully get them to pay you.

Camper walks up to other actor and says, “Excuse me, I know you don’t know me –"

Other actor says, “Who are you, stay away, I have pepper spray!”

Camper says, “That’s cool, really, I’m just a guy, the thing is –“

And the scene started to click.

For our final morning together, I asked them to bring drinks and snacks and we created a bar. We closed the stage curtains creating a narrow space which we crammed with mismatched chairs found around the school. A stage was clearly marked to one side of the stage with tape. Colored stage lights were turned on giving the space a clubby vibe and I had brought Christmas lights which the students draped behind the stage.

Camp Improv (2019)
The kids performed about an hour of club improv, scenarios they had worked on and also games. I acted as MC as they sat around eating chips and drinking pop and performing their bits. In between set-ups many of them volunteered to sing their favorite songs a capella and I was surprised by how good their voices were. Even the boys sang.

It was a performance no one else had the honor of experiencing, it was private where they could tell the same jokes we’d been telling all week and not be judged by the other campers or anyone else. They were confident and did confident work. Just before lunch I had the unhappy task of closing the show and asking them to break down the show.

They were called into a circle and I was just going to make some brief remarks about keeping their energy up to prepare for their afternoon performance when one of the older students, one who had attended for several years now, she rose her hand demanding to speak. She said, “I just have to say! This has been the best week of camp ever!”


Uh, I said. Uh. That’s good, uh ... that wasn't –

Another blurted out, “Come on, man -- we love you, David!”

I was just trying to get it right.

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