Adaptation Midstream

Last week, as I began to launch our class's improv workshop, I had a clear understanding of the goals for the day's session: back-to-basics orientation, groupmind, and part-of-a-whole systems thinking.  I had prepared activities and thought through related warm-ups for the whole group and pairs to enable all students to access the goals of the day.  Many of these activities came from Viola Spolin's "Orientation" chapter in Improvisation and the Theater, and I had customized warm-ups to support the core ideas.

However, as an improvisational teacher, I'm always open to switching my plans midstream.  I'll come in with specific goals and more games than I'll ever need in a given workshop, but it's my job to notice when the group needs to go in another direction.  I'm still guiding the ship, but we're all paddling together...and we just may end up on an island I hadn't planned to visit.

This is exactly what happened.  We began with "Ball", but the game was so wildly successful as an opener (the group collectively counted to 58 right off the bat--we usually only get to 11 or 12 in the first round), that I felt the group was clearly communicating and working together already.  I did notice some different types of communication and decision-making happening, though...and I decided to explore these patterns with the group as we moved forward.  I think this new workshop flow all began with an idea I had about supporting the kids in using sound effects with Part-of-a-Whole/The Machine--a game in which each player is part of a whole machine.  However, as we progressed through the various games and activities, the content and style of their communication emerged as the core focus for this workshop.  Hello, new island!

Gibberish Ball
My class can be timid about looking "silly", so I wanted to wait before using sound effects or even playing Sound Ball.  Instead, I began with a round of Gibberish Ball.  I knew I wanted to play around with gibberish in scenes, so I thought it made sense to toss around some ideas for different styles of nonsense-speak.  Actually, gibberish isn't really "nonsense".  Without using traditional verbal speech, we communicate meaning through our intonation, body language, etc. using different styles of gibberish.  With this game, I intended to illustrate that gibberish could sound like various languages, could be a series of beeps and blips, could be guttural or light...it could be anything. 
In this game (and in all "virtual ball" games), player one throws a sound (and perhaps a movement) to player 2 while all players are in a circle.  Player 2 then catches/repeats what player 1 sent and sends an entirely different gibberish sound/sentence to player 3.  And so on.  It should all move rather quickly.
Side coaching ideas:
"Think about what your character is feeling.  Say it again like you REALLY mean it.  Commit!"
"Eye contact helps.  Do it again with eye contact."

Gibberish Ball felt somewhat successful.  We brainstormed some different gibberish styles, laughed a bunch, and made eye contact.  At the same time, I felt like we had just lost some of the momentum the group had built with our initial Ball session.  To get the kids interacting more, I quickly split them into pairs for some brief partner scenes.

Partner Scenes
All of these scenes are happening simultaneously.  As such, these games are not intended for performance.  Rather, they allow all students to participate in a less stressful manner--taking risks, exploring characters, playing with how to communicate.  The kids each played in three scenes, and they had two different partners over the course of those three scenes.  Each time, I asked them to decide who was "A" and who was "B".  This allowed me to randomly assign who was to speak first, speak in gibberish, etc.  For all scenes, I asked partners to start positively--their characters like each other and are happy to see each other.

Both Speaking in Gibberish
Since we had just brainstormed different styles of gibberish, I asked partners to perform a scene entirely in gibberish.  Player A was to speak first, and their manner of gibberish speech would define the "language" the two would be speaking.  I gave them a specific context: their characters were siblings and there was a cat in the scene.  I told them the cat was not going to die in the scene.  (Middle schoolers love to kill pets in their improv scenes!)

One Speaking in Gibberish
The players then thanked their partners and turned around to meet their new partners, immediately choosing who would be A and B for the next scene.  I then told them that B would have the first line, and that the line would be in gibberish--preferably a different style of gibberish than their first scene.  Player A would interact and communicate in English, but it would be as if the two were speaking the same language (otherwise, the entire scene would be about trying to understand each other).  I also gave a context for this game.  I told them they were good friends out on the yard during lunchtime.

One Communicating in Emotional Noises
The players found an ending to their last scene, and I then explained the last round of scenes.   The students stayed with their same partners, but this time the player who had been speaking English in the last round could ONLY communicate using emotional noises.  I began this explanation with a series of emotional noises (sighs, laughs, gasps...) to illustrate what the heck I was talking about--and to show that they could show a range of emotional expressions.  Again, I gave a basic context for the scene.

I had hoped we'd have time for a performance game, but the scheduling gods were against me on that morning.  We did, however, have time for a final debrief.  As we circled up, I asked the group to think about which of the three scenes felt the most real.  Their responses were quite thought provoking:
  • The emotional noises allowed the characters to really change.
  • The emotional noises helped the two people connect to each other.
  • The time when we were both speaking gibberish felt the best because we could understand each other; we were speaking the same language.
My second question was about communication and control.  I asked if it mattered whether how one was communicating--if one person was in control of the scene or the relationship.  Their responses mirrored what I've heard in adult workshops:
  • The person speaking English could control what was being said and interpreted.  They could just make up what they wanted.
  • I disagree.  The person who was speaking gibberish could control the scene if they really committed to what they were doing and showed a lot of emotion.
Ack!  Out of time!  Alas, such is the life of a teacher...
As I run out of time for an in-depth debrief and/or performance game, I make a mental (and physical!) note to return to these concepts and questions.  How do we communicate?  How do we connect to one another?  Who is in charge of a conversation, of a relationship?  Can this ownership be shared?  How?  What roles can sound effects play in a scene?  What roles can we play as we slow down, stop talking so much, listen and react in meaningful ways?

My next steps will be to revisit gibberish/emotional noises, play with silent scenes and eye contact, play some Sound Ball, and use sound effects in Part-of-a-Whole.  Sounds like a fun workshop!

Spolin's Wisdom: The Fight for Creativity

Hooray--I'm back to blogging!  After performing in a ton of shows, muddling through STAR tests, etcetera, etcetera, I can sink back into writing about integrating improv into education.  Ahhhh....
I've been reading a bunch of fabulous work by inspirational theater folks: Augusto Boal, Neva Boyd, and Viola Spolin have been my recent teachers as I dig into their texts again and again.

I'm always reading and rereading ideas, theories and activities published by other coaches and educators.  Viola Spolin wrote the bible of Improv: Improvisation for the Theater.  While it's both dense and often overwhelming, this book offers new insights into learning, play, and drama integration every single time I pick it up.

I was thinking about classroom management related to integrating improv as I came across this passage in the "Understanding the Child" chapter:
"The teacher-director who forces set patterns of thinking and behavior (a 'right' or a 'wrong' way of doing things) on child actors is restricting them most severely; both the individual and the art for will suffer... If we remember that rote teaching...[is a summary] of another's findings, our students can then grow and unfold in a free atmosphere.
Today more than ever before we are faced with the need for developing crating and original thought--in the sciences as well as in the arts."

While I have often spoken out against curricular pacing guides, formulaic "learning" and calls for robotic "teaching", I haven't often thought of classroom management and academic expectations in the above terms.  Although Spolin is referring to the young child's rigid view of "right" and "wrong" in staging (e.g. Never turn your back on the audience), neither should this rigidity exist for the teacher in a classroom in which risk-taking and innovation are valued. 

Rather than telling a group of learners and players to "speak up", a coach/teacher can show them that "the audience needs to hear your voice" through play and imagining.  Instead of constantly admonishing students and expressing our frustration with disruptive behaviors, we can find ways to explore these issues with the class.  We can demonstrate these challenges through discussions of what works in told/read stories and plays, and then we can make the connection to learning in a classroom context.  Through these explorations, we can discuss volume, commitment, characterization, side-conversations, and calling out (upstaging a fellow player).

At the same time, maybe these kids have got something right.  Maybe a dinner scene doesn't always have to involve "cheating out", and perhaps the kinesthetic or vocal or playful students really CAN learn and communicate in ways that are quite different from our narrow "sit in your chair and be quiet" set of expectations.  As a teacher, if I take the time to take a deep breath and give the students the space to show me a different way, if I accept that maybe I don't really know everything and that perhaps my assumed rules need to be tossed aside, I may be delighted by the new road upon which I can travel with my students.  And isn't that sense of delight what keeps us going--as teachers, as professionals, as members of this class community?