Saying Yes, One In-depth Workshop, and Emotional Coaching

Last week, I was scheduled to co-facilitate a professional development intensive for teachers in San Francisco.  Due to factors beyond my control (burnt out + broke teachers + an educational environment that devalues genuine professional training = relatively low enrollment in this course), the course was cancelled.  I was disappointed, but I looked at this unexpected change in scheduling as both a personal and professional opportunity to take advantage of some bonus time. 

However, I was then thrilled to hear that a few of the participants wouldn't take no for an answer.  They contacted me and requested a small, local, one-day training customized to meet their needs.  Following my improviser's mantra, I said, simply, "Yes!"

When you can look at changes such as these as opportunities, riding the waves rather than fighting them and drowning in a sea of attempted control, you find yourself experiencing less stress and more delightfully surprising moments than a rigidly scheduled life will provide.  Last Monday, I did the following with this small group of committed, energetic teachers:
  • Introduced and reflected upon the Principles of Improv--discussing how they impact the participants personally and as teachers
  • Played a bunch of community/ensemble-building games
  • Worked within some structures for building narratives
  • Applied some of these strategies to ensemble-building and personal direction reflection
  • Experimented with emotional ranges and shifts in games and scenes
  • Played and laughed hysterically with some performance games.
  • Coached on how to coach and integrate improv into the classroom--classroom management, behavioral expectations, feedback and debriefing
So...what would you like to hear more about in a future blog post?  Comment or email me, and I'd be happy to write about what's most helpful and relevant to my readers.

Speaking of requests, one of my readers recently asked me to provide some details on "Emotional Coaching".  I referenced this game in a recent post about character work, and we used this same strategy in the workshop I offered for teachers last week. Although I think he gave it a different name, I first learned and practiced this exercise with Rafe Chase at BATS Improv in San Francisco.  Similar games are described in a variety of improv books, including Unscripted Learning by Lobhman and Lundquist.  It's a useful exercise for deepening and grounding your acting in reality and emotions, and it can be used as a performance game--in the classroom and on the professional stage. 

The logistics of Emotional Coaching are as follows:
- Brainstorm a wide variety of emotions with your group.  Alternatively, you can come to class with a written list of emotions that you've created.  However, I think the brainstorming process is engaging and primes the group for thinking about a range of emotions.  It also prompts an interesting discussion of, "What is an emotion?"  For example, I was once in a group that used "sleepy" and "gassy" as emotions.  But, I digress...
- There are a multitude of emotion warm-up games you can play next.  If you have time, I recommend playing with facial expressions, posturing, intonation, and non-verbal interactions.  You can also incorporate levels of emotions into various warm-ups.
- Emotional Coaching Activity One: Pair up all of the players and have each duo decide who is A and who is B.  Choose one to act and one to coach.  The actor will be having a conversation with a (fictitious?) friend or family member on the phone.  The coach will use the brainstormed list and any other emotions that come to mind to tell the actor how and when to switch emotions.  The coach will usually move to an obvious next step in emotional shifts, although occasional juxtapositions can be interesting. 
Side coaching for this game includes reminding the actors to really FEEL the emotions...showing them to the audience using voice, pausing and being silent, using emotional noises, etc.  You may also side coach to remind the players to be a character who is not actually.
In my case last week, all of the players played themselves in what sounded like real conversations they have with family members.  It deepened the level of playing and personal connections, so I went with it. 
Switch so that the actor is now the coach and vice-versa. 
- Emotional Coaching Activity Two: Have two players in a scene as the actors and two players act as their coaches.  For example, player C might coach for player A and player D might coach for player B.  Encourage the actors to start out without any problems, and have the coaches start switching the emotions after a minute of so.  The trouble will come; don't rush it.
What makes these scenes so rich is the give-and-take, the adjustments of status, the connections between the characters/players.  To enable this true emotionality to emerge in the playing, coach the players to have as much eye contact as possible throughout the scene. 

When debriefing this activity with students and teachers alike, the players tend to love this exercise.  They felt--and the audience watched--real emotions up on that stage.  Isn't it somewhat surprising that these genuine feelings emerged through a seemingly artificial scenario with someone yelling out "angry" and then "hurt" and then "loving" during a scene?  As a player, I've also felt that sense of freedom and delight during and after these scenes.  Perhaps it is because the planning part of our brain is free to rest during this game.  We have so much to which we have to pay attention, and we have no control over the emotional shift that is inevitably about to occur; we can simply focus on the moment at hand.  Perhaps it is also that our emotional coach takes us to places we wouldn't have ventured if left to our own devices.  This element of surprise is what keeps the scene alive, and it's what brings us somewhere new. 

Becoming Someone Else

Be yourself.  Find the true you.  Don't try to be someone you're not.  
These are the encouraging words I use to coach my students as they traverse the challenging waters of (pre-)adolescence.  Parents, friends, the media...they're often trying to get us to be a version of ourselves that fits their needs.  This is all a bunch of bologna, really.  Being true to oneself--in fact, finding and developing one's identity--is one of the main goals of the crossing the bridge between adolescence and adulthood.
So, how does all of this fit in with theater arts--improvised and/or scripted theater? 

Be someone who is NOT you.  Stay in character.  How would your CHARACTER be feeling right now?
As I side-coach through games and scenework, I find myself contradicting my own words of guidance.  How does this make sense?  Oh, yes, but it does...

A few weeks ago, my eighth-grade students chose how they would like to perform as a part of our showcase before their promotion ceremony.  Three students decided to perform as an improv troupe.  As I write this, I am struck by how impressive this choice--in and of itself--really is.  I've known adults who have practiced improv for years and are still intimidated by performance.  When I formed a new troupe, we rehearsed and built our group dynamic for six months before we performed.  These three had all of ten days to get to know each other in a totally different way, decide on performance games, work through warm-ups, build a knowledge base about characterization and scenework, and figure out their dynamic.  A tall order for anyone...and one these students took on without a second thought.  Incredible.  But, I digress.

Back to character stuff:
As with many, many new improvisers and new groups, The Three were struggling with common issues about halfway through their rehearsals--always playing similar characters, starting out (and then staying) negative in scenes, and not allowing their characters to change.  I stepped in to coach on a number of levels.  First, we played with characters using gibberish, accents and a wide variety of names.  Next, we played completely positive scenes--silently and then reintroducing spoken language.  As a part of this, we explored Johnstone's concept of "Platform" and "Tilt"*.  Finally, we came back to scenework through Emotional Coaching and Open-Ended Scenes.
[If any of my readers would like me to more fully describe any of those sessions, I'd be delighted to do so.  Just request it via the comments section of the blog or email me directly.  Ooh...digressions...back to character, Carrie!]

After a few Emotional Coaching scenes, Meg and Billy played in one of the most elegant, lovely scenes I've ever witnessed.  It started out positive, developed some natural conflict, and ended with a surprising twist: Billy's character said "I love you" to Meg's character.  And then Meg's character was genuinely affected.  There was eye contact and a real sense of relationship.  Their relationship changed in a meaningful...and eventually obvious...way.  It was beautiful improv.

The thing that is so incredible about all of this is that we are talking about two 13-year-old kids rehearsing an improv scene in front of a peer and a teacher.  None of the three students knew each other all that well.  They were just true to the artform, true to their characters, true to that version of themselves that was not really them.  For a moment, those two students--those two actors--moved beyond their own identities to embody characters who spoke through them and related to one another.  That is what theater can do. 

As we express the emotions and show the actions of someone who is not really us, I believe we come that much closer to finding our true selves.  We can allow different, temporary versions of ourselves to be changed.  And perhaps this character evolution will open a window into the shifts that may be possible in our own dynamic identities which are all too often smothered in a static sense of reality.  Or, heck, at least it's darn entertaining theater.

I believe Meg summed it up perfectly at the end of the day with our Core 7th/8th-grade class.  I asked the class what they thought was special about our school, what they treasured, and/or what they would miss as they were moving on to a new school.  When it was Meg's turn to speak, she told the class, "I feel like improv has given me the gift to take chances and do things that I wouldn't normally do.  Today, I was in a scene where my character told another character that she loved him.  It wasn't even that weird.  We were two different characters, we were real, and then it was over.  I love that I can be a different character, not be judged and then go back to being myself."

*Keith Johnstone introduces these concepts in Impro and then fully analyzes them in Impro for Storytellers