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...
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.