Saturday, April 13, 2013

Take it! And make it yours.

I just had the privilege to introduce an incredible group of dedicated educators to the possibilities and power of improvisational theatre in their diverse settings. Yesterday, over 30 after-school youth leaders--from the Boys and Girls Club, from Circle of Sisters, from Chops Teen Club, from the Salvation Army, from on-site after school tutoring--came together because they were looking for new strategies for working with tweens and teens. These educators are committed to working with those who oftentimes need the most support in our society... and they were looking for something new.

The day began like most professional development experiences: slow, sleepy, and unsure. Folks straggled in and talked to no one or just the one or two people they already knew. Everyone sat behind tables in rows, occasionally glancing up at the insane woman who was setting up a table full of books, a green ball, a projector, and a rubber ducky at the front of the room. And then I asked the group to do what I love doing with students in this same situation: We. Just. Started.

Five minutes into "Ball," we were loud, teasing and laughing. By ten minutes in, we were goal-oriented. After 15 minutes, we were one group. As Tim Orr would say, we were "in it together."

Throughout the morning, my goal was twofold: to help these educational professionals to think about "their kids" in a different way, and to give them plenty of relevant activities to bring back to their programs. A perky pace was in order! We moved through Ball, through collective counting/movement and singing energizers, through Big Booty, and into Portkey and an introduction to narrative.

One of our participants, Michelle, shared her realization during one of our many processing/debriefing conversations. She explained, "I always love playing games with kids. Like 'Big Booty,' I've played that a bunch of times. But talking about the meaning behind the game and connecting it to these principles [of improv] brings it to a new level." Indeed. The reality behind this sort of processing is that it takes the game out of the hands of the facilitator and transfers ownership to the participants. When players are supported in thinking about how their play is a metaphor for how they work in groups, for how they accomplish tasks, for how they handle challenges, playing and thinking co-create a potentially transformative experience.

As someone who was training those who would later be acting as facilitators with these same games, my most important role is sometimes to STEP BACK. If I continually remind teachers what the rules of the game are, their investment in the activity as a coach is weakened. After explaining and some initial modeling, I pulled back so this incredible group of educators could do what they do best: experiment, communicate, adjust, and connect with one another. In both the high energy game of "Big Booty" and the subdued, yet intense and even intimate "Portkey," our group split into smaller diverse groups to figure it out TOGETHER.

Rich Cox, an accomplished and impressive applied improvisation coach, once told me, "If I do 20% or less of the talking, I'm doing my job right." His ideas resonated for me as I heard one of yesterday's participants asking about the rules of one of our games. Another teacher responded, "We can change the rules and just make it work." Yes, and...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Gift of Time, part one: Andrea

Sometimes they just need a little time.  And patience.  And a second chance. 
And  t   i  m  e.

You might find yourself asking, “Who is ‘they?’” If you’ve ever been a teacher, you know exactly who I’m talking about. 

“They” are not the other.  As good teachers, we are inclusive.  We work hard to make the work and play relevant and accessible to every child.
“They” are not folks you don’t like.  We are in this profession because we are caring and loving.
“They” are not simply kids who don’t love to act.  Improvisational theatre exercises as a whole should reach everyone, regardless of their comfort performing on the stage.

“They” are students who are here to teach us something real and difficult and profound.  They try our composure.  They pretty much drive us crazy.  And we need them as much as they need us.

Most students find the integration of improv (or a stand-alone improv class) to be a breath of fresh air.  They get to play, to interact with their peers, to be in the moment rather than preparing for a future end (read: The. Test.)  They are encouraged to be creative and silly.  Innovation and risk-taking are cherished and nurtured in this body of work.

However, some students stand out as the exception to this overwhelming relief and joy. These kids are sometimes persistent in their detached disengagement from playing.  Sometimes they can be downright defiant during group exercises.  No matter what the issue is, no matter whom the student is, it is our job to remain understanding and creative.  We are professionals.  What’s more, we are improvisational teachers; rolling with it is what we do.

Student Profile: The Detached and “Super Cool” Child
Andrea was one of my eighth-grade “project” kids.  She was usually late for school, and she rarely turned in her work.  Her grades were abysmal, she had a bad attitude…and I adored her.  Remarkably intelligent, she had a sharp wit that was easy to miss if you allowed yourself to overlook her in the midst of the busy world of school.  Due to a wide variety of home factors, Andrea rarely developed trusting relationships with others.  Because it was seemingly non-academic, I’d hoped she would embrace improvisational theater activities as an alternative to the traditional classroom experience.  Nope.

Andrea’s intellect and street smarts made her keenly aware of how she appeared to others.  I could tell that she was reticent to let go, to let herself have fun with the games, to trust her classmates in holding back judgments of her while interacting.  Playing on my terms was not acceptable to Andrea.  She showed her lack of engagement through her eye rolling.  She leaned on desks during active games.  She refused to attempt a character that was not an exact copy of herself.

How did I work with Andrea? 
For the most part, I ignored her disengagement.  Calling her out would only damage the trust I was hoping to build; I let her BE in the space and with the activities.
I used some games over and over and over as a part of our routine.  Andrea knew my expectations for “Ball,” and she could work within what was known.
I kept my enthusiasm and positivity high as the teacher/improv coach.  I acknowledged and encouraged commitment in her peers.  I urged the kids to give each other positive notes.
I set firm boundaries and playfully nudged the kids to stay within them.  I would take on a drill sergeant character with my “no leaning on desks” rule.  We had an “improv giraffe” whose sole job was to fly through the air at kids who were leaning on desks.  Sometimes, he stared at them with intimidation and a full dose of evil.  They loved him.

The most important thing I did with Andrea, however, was to give her time.  For two years, Andrea had a weekly integrated improvisation workshop in English/Homeroom.  For two years, we built community and played together using these activities.  For two years, I asked her to reflect with her classmates on the meaning behind—and beyond—the games.  For two years, I valued her as a part of the ensemble. 

I always ask the players for their requests at certain points in the course/our academic year.  During our second year, was surprised and delighted to see Andrea’s long list of favorite games.  She actually liked “Ball,” and she thought “Half Life” was hilarious.  Although she couldn’t show her enjoyment to her peers, Andrea had been soaking in every moment.

Andrea’s life has not been easy…nor will it be for some time, I imagine.  Yet, I am heartened to imagine the potential impact of certain principles of improv on this caring, creative person.  I hope a little voice is saying to her from deep inside, “It’s ok to make mistakes.  Embrace risk-taking.   
Woo hoo!”

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Modifying and Building

As someone who used to teach middle school students, it has been quite an adjustment to find games and activities to engage and support the needs of beginning-of-the-year Kindergarteners.  However, I am committed to bring earlier and more consistent improv experiences to my K/1 class this year.  The answer?  Adjust it, baby!

One of the most commonly played theatre games in classrooms is Sound Ball.  When it works best, the game moves quickly and involves all players.  It should encourage spontaneity, freedom, and silliness.  Because it's not language-based, all can be engaged--regardless of their mother tongue.

I have found this game to be challenging with groups of young (or seriously guarded) players because they can become confused...and because it often takes too long and feels contrived and exhausting.  Waiting for the next sound can feel like an eternity, and sometimes folks get left out.  Just thinking of a sound can become stressful for some students.

I love learning from my colleagues and from my students, and I turn to both groups when I'm looking for ideas.  My daughter is in Kindergarten in my colleague's class--just across the way from my classroom.  On the first day of school, I asked her what she enjoyed most.  I was impressed to hear her description of a modified version of Sound Ball, a game I had just taught to our staff at our retreat two days earlier.  Ms. Damico had invented Alphabet Ball, a game in which each child said a letter as they threw an imaginary ball to another student, and then they sat down in the circle when their turn was over.  I loved how this simplified version of the game allowed all students to understand its structure, and I decided to modify her modification to meet my own needs.

My first version morphed into Name Ball.  I basically took Lisa Damico's Alphabet Ball structure and had kids say their own names instead of a letter.  I am often reminded of the power of repetition.  Learning to play the game takes a few tries for four-to-six year-olds.  We're now timing ourselves and seeing if we can beat our last record.

As I began to introduce Sound Ball, I realized some kids always made the same sound...or that they might appear to be stressed when having to come up with a sound on the spot.  As a new modification and warm-up, I asked the kids to make sounds in unison.  It went something like this:
"On the count of three, make a silly sound."
"Make a loud sound."
"Make a scary sound."
"Make an animal sound."
"Make a cute sound."
"Make a happy sound."
To support the class in coming back into control, I taught them a conducting gesture to indicate "silence now."
It was amazing to see the transformation in our playing of Sound Ball after using the group sound warm-ups.  We collectively shared ideas and built confidence.

Tomorrow, I hope to do a classic mirroring activity for our class meeting--something I didn't try until the end of last school year.  I'll report back soon.  Happy new school year!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Guiding the Train

Coaching is not always the ride you expect it to be.  Nor is any teaching, really.  So, what is an improvisational teacher to do when a coaching experience does not go as planned?  My suggestion: honor and notice the moment that is, take a breath, and decide where to go next.

Two weeks ago, I experienced an interesting and unexpected moment in an improv class: a game fell flat.  And then the next game did as well.  The group had shifted and a dynamic had changed; games I had coached with delightful success time and time again were...not really working this time. 

Although I start nearly every improv workshop with Ball, I chose to wait until after the break with the next class meeting.  I waited until they asked for it.  Well played, Carrie.  Well played.
What this group needed was a chance to be silly and loud...and then the encouragement to focus in.  As their coach, I needed to pay attention to their natural strengths and interests.  After riding the new set of tracks they showed me needed to be laid, I could then guide them onto the tracks I had intended. 

I'm always talking about co-creating a narrative, about co-creating a scene with our fellow players.  With this group, I needed to look at my coaching in the same way, too.  Once I breathed--deeply--and allowed myself to see the co-creation of this class, it began to fall into place in an organic fashion once again. 

The foundation of our ensemble is now based on four essential principles of improvisation: Woo Hoo!, Yes And, Do What Comes Next, and Make Your Partner Look Good.  Tomorrow, we will jump into scenework.  I can't wait to see which stations this train will explore.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beginnings: Laying an Essential Foundation

That one principle of improv has transformed the way I see myself as an a a person.  When I embrace my own mistakes and celebrate them as an opportunity for learning and growth, I am free to learn.  I am no longer internally berating myself--inflicting insults upon an abused psyche.  I am open to new insights and fresh perspectives.

When it's your first improv class and I tell you we'll all be counting aloud as we toss a ball into the air, it's difficult to imagine profound life lessons as an ultimate result.  When you howl with laughter as you forget someone's name and run over to the other circle, there might be a giddy moment, but there is rarely an epiphany.  However, as the ensemble builds, as the principles steep and are practiced and embraced, a  s h i f t  occurs.  Sometimes, this shift is immediate.  Sometimes, it takes a few weeks for the ensemble to gel.  I've taught players who "click in" to a new mindset a full year after beginning their work as an improviser.  No matter how much time has passed, it is the initial foundation and subsequent collective processing of improvisation that allows for a depth of understanding.

Last week, I introduced well over 30 people to improvisational theatre.  Throughout an after-school enrichment class with 5th-9th-graders, a professional development workshop with K-6 teachers, and an after-school class with 2nd-4th-graders, the basic tenet of improv was the core of our work and play: Woo Hoo!  Each session shared the same feeling: initial discomfort with mistakes followed by an jubilant embrace as we said, "Woo Hoo!  I made a mistake!"  Each ensemble made progress toward becoming a cohesive team, and individuals in all three contexts began to relax and take more risks as the class progressed.

Last week's sessions will all lead to very different places.  One might develop seemingly instant trust and commitment to the activities.  One might experience a shift in enrollment and players' ideas about improv...followed by a focus on the principles that will help the ensemble build the trust that is so essential to this form of play.  Another will never meet again as that particular group, but various individual players will take subsequent classes and delve deeper into improvisation.  No matter what the context or eventual path may be, they are all built on a foundation of "failing forward".  We are recovering perfectionists here: bring on the mistakes.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Status--relevant, powerful and transformative

Two teenagers stand in an arena.  Simultaneously full of triumph and pain, they are consoled by the fact that they have beaten their oppressors; they will both live.
Cut to the next scene.  An omnipresent voice tells the two children that the new rule has been revoked.  One must kill the other.  Perhaps the next move is one of desperation.  More likely, it is one of calculating intention.  Katniss opens her hand to offer the poison berries as an answer to their supposed fate of brutality and betrayal.  
In one moment, she has subverted the Capitol's reign of power.  She has asserted her own strength and ability to choose her fate.  She has ignited the flame of rebellion.

Students in upper-elementary and middle school understand Status more keenly than do most adults.  They live constant status transactions every day.  Status, power, and rebellion are the stuff great literature is made of.  Heck--they are the things history and social movements are made of.  As we see our country almost magnetically drawn to the books and film of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, we are reminded about the intrigue of these stories.  On a macro level, we can see intense status transactions in the Arab Spring, the fight against Prop 8, immigrant rights, and countless other social movements.  On a micro level, we see such transactions in a parent-child conversation, in the looks and giggles exchanged amongst peers at a table in a classroom, in a basketball game at recess. 

One month ago, I sat in my classroom wondering which way I would take my after-school improv class that afternoon.  If they seemed slightly unfocused or in need of some extra time to mature, I was going to explore one path.  If I felt like everything was in alignment--that they were ready for the maturity involved and that they were able to trust one another on a deep level--I might consider jumping into the tumultuous, terrifying, and vastly rewarding area of Status.

Fifteen minutes passed, and I walked into our auditorium.  As the kids snacked and I heard the way they talked and laughed together, I took a deep breath.  It was time to dive into the deep end.

We began our workshop with warm-ups in which we were reminded about the essential foundation of improv: the principles of Woo Hoo!, Yes...and, and Commitment.  Exquisitely shown through the simple and complex game of Ball*, as well as the Two Circles name game, we began the workshop steeped in the principles that encourage us to think deeply about the applications of these games--to ourselves and to the world around us.  That's when I brought out the cards**.

My Card / My Status
As an introductory experience for understanding the concept of Status, we did the My Card / My Status activity.  Half of the players watched while the other half performed.  I began by explaining that each person's card represented her or his "status", how much power they had in social situations (2 was low and Ace was high).  Some kids seemed pretty confused about the concept, while others nodded their heads knowingly.  I assured them that everyone would understand once we got into the thick of it.

I set them in a group context (the first was a school dance and the next was lunch during school), and let them begin interacting in character.  No one was allowed to look at their own card; they understood their status by the way others treated them.  In a 10-minute scene, the audience had the pleasure and discomfort of seeing a wide range of status-based interactions: pleading invitations to lunch together, laughing at one person for their differences, ignoring people and walking away, excited embraces, and looks of disdain.  Although no one had looked at his or her own card, nearly everyone knew exactly where to place each other as we did the "status line-up" at the end.  The ways that others treat us send us very clear messages about our perceived worth and our role in a social context.

As we debriefed, I was struck by the comment one student said.  With the Ace card, he had the highest status in his group.  Others followed him and showered him with compliments during the scene.  Clearly uncomfortable with all of the attention, he tried to get some space.  However,  his admirers were unrelenting.  When I asked all of the players how it felt to be treated as the status on their card, Antonio explained, "If this is how if feels to be high status, I sure glad I'm usually over there (pointing to the lower end of the status line)."  I'm still thinking about this statement.  Why does he feel "low status"?  How does he feel about being in such a role?  What was particularly uncomfortable for him about playing a high status character?  Does he now have some insight into the experiences of others?  Does he want to change his own social experiences?

Status is Dynamic, Not Static
One of the things that most worries me about teaching Status is exemplified by Antonio's comment.  I never want students to think of themselves as a number.  Their sense of self worth should not be determined by how others treat them, nor should they see themselves as "high" or "low".  Rather, a more sophisticated understanding of Status shows that it is an ever-changing beast.  Status is the way in which we interact with others.  My status is different when I interact with my mother as compared to by interactions with my students or a bank teller.  What's more, status transactions--shifts in status--happen many times within one relationship.  Status transactions may even shift numerous times within one conversation.  That idea is the focus of the next activity.

Status Spectrum Shift
So that the members of our ensemble can think of Status in a variety of terms, I have them envision a Status Spectrum on a scale of 1-5 this time.  They move into pairs, and I tell them they will be playing in parent-child scenes.  They choose who is A and who is B, and I randomly assign A to be the parent and B to be the child.  The parent character begins the scene at the highest status (5), while the child begins at a 1.  Within the context of a scene which begins as a confrontation over the need for the child to clean her/his room, the two characters switch status over the course of the story.  It is a two-minute scene, so by the end of one-minute, both characters will be at a Status Level 3.  They continue to gradually shift in status so that the child is at a 5 and the parent is at a 1 by the end of the two-minute scene.
Then, they switch roles.

As we debriefed the experience, my students talked about how liberating it felt to put their "parent" in their place.  The most powerful message is this: You are not a number.  Your "status" is not stuck in one place.  We engage in a wide array of status transactions--on a micro- and macro-level--every day of our lives.

These concepts transform the ways in which we think about our world, the ways we think about ourselves.  They help us to understand that what IS is not necessarily as it SHOULD BE.  If our ensembles are safe environments for taking risks and engaging with challenging material, we can ignite the fires of meaningful change.

* I've further explored the teaching of "Ball" in the following posts: The First DayPick Me Eyes and Exploring Narrative
**I wrote about using this activity in 2011 in a middle school classroom.  See Introducing Status for a description of that experience.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Scaffolding Narrative Structure

We are in the business of telling stories.  As a teacher, I delight in sharing a love of compelling narratives with my students.  As an improviser, I work to tell real stories--not just look for the funny "gag" to get a laugh.  As a human, I understand the world and my experiences with others through constructing narratives.  We are natural storytellers. 

Highlight: improv coach focus.  It is my job to support my students' innate abilities to make meaning through story while simultaneously building the necessary skills to learn how to tell better stories.  What do I mean by "better"?  Funny you'd ask such a thing; it just so happens I have three points to consider.

1. A good story has a main character who changes and learns something.
Through repeated exposure to this mantra--to this overarching goal for storytelling--students not only learn about protagonists, but they have a basis for evaluating stories' plot/character development and theme.

2. A good story shows causal connections and focus.
Rather than being a "bed-to-bed" story or a "Then...then...then..." list, lean narratives serve the scene and the characters.  Compelling narratives are obvious in their next steps rather than random shots in the dark for surprised, uncomfortable laughs.  This takes a lot of practice.

3. A good story has a clear structure.
This structure may be any variation of the "normal world-->problem-->resolution" model we've come to understand through repeated experiences in telling, reading, and acting out stories.  Keith Johnstone calls this "platform-->tilt" (Read Impro and/or Impro for Storytellers for an in-depth study of these concepts.) does an improvisational teacher support students in realizing these lofty goals?  We plan, over-plan, observe, revise, and then plan some more.  Whether we're looking at one improv workshop or a unit over time, we must approach integrated improv as we do any other pedagogical and curricular tool.  In over-planning, we have options to consider and pull from.  That way, we can adjust the path of our class based on our real-time observations of what's happening at the moment.  We also scaffold to support skill-building, risk-taking, conceptual complexity, and autonomy.  What follows are brief descriptions of this scaffolding process in two contexts.

In both of the following scenarios, my end goal was to guide players through understanding and applying Kenn Adams' Story Spine.  (For a deeper exploration of this work, read his book How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater.)  This structure not only establishes a protagonist, the setting, and the norm; but it shows when the tilt/problem occurs, has a built-in process for integrating causality, and the resolution establishes the new norm/platform.  Its applications are both rich and varied.** 

Story Spine
Once there was...
Every day...
But one day...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Because of that...
Until finally...
Ever since then...

Scenario One: A Unit-Over-Time With a First-Grade Class
Before expecting primary students to make the jump to causality, I started with an adjusted story spine. (See my earlier blog post for details:
We then told numerous stories as an entire group using the Kenn Adams story spine.  We set these stories in different genres, and we always debriefed to find out who the protagonist was, how they changed, and what s/he learned.
Later, I introduced Character Cards.  These are wonderful tools for noticing and connecting; each beautifully illustrated card has some subtle clues which connect it to a number of other characters.  Two may end up being one protagonist and a side character, or they might be a protagonist and an antagonist.  After a few sessions of getting to know the story spine and then familiarizing ourselves with the fantasy-based character cards, we brought the two worlds together.  First telling stories as a whole group allowed us to model and discover a multitude of possibilities.  But the world really came alive when pairs of students minimally rehearsed and massively improvised stories that they acted out in front of the group.  The story spine was theirs...and it was delightful to watch.

Scenario Two: One Narrative Workshop With a 5th-8th-Grade After-School Group
This afternoon, my enrichment class ended with narrated and performed story-spine mini-plays.  To get there, I scaffolded storytelling through a number of exercises.
1. Word-at-a-time stories with various partners
2. "Ricochet": a word-at-a-time story with one person in the middle, giving every other word with three other group members alternating who is giving the other word.
3. Conducted story
4. Partners telling story spine stories simultaneously
(See an earlier post for another example and explanation of scaffolding a narrative workshop:

As we played, each member of these two ensembles gained skills in the structure and nuances of focused narratives.  What's more, these improvisers learned to co-create stories.  When I have an idea that I think is really quite fantastic, and the "conductor" in the game suddenly points to someone else, I may find that it's incredibly difficult to let my idea go.  I might think it's better than the one I just heard my team member say.  As our ensemble discovered this afternoon, the letting go and trusting that a collaboratively developed story is at least as worthy as one someone writes alone is THE LESSON.  Up next: the precarious balance of two principles of improv--commit and make-your-partner-look-good. 

**I first learned about the story spine through Laura Derry and Rebecca Stockley at BATS Improv in San Francisco. Rebecca's work in applying this concept to business and personal growth contexts has been incredibly inspirational and motivating for me as a coach and as a teacher.