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!”