Saturday, July 2, 2016

IMPROV EVASION By Michael Golding


 
In my improv workshops with at-risk students, I encourage them to be open about their lives, hoping that will lead to emotional sincerity and a sense of realism in scenes. To gain their trust, I have to be open about mine. There have been times when the workshops have been therapeutic for me, particularly when experiencing loss.

A few years ago just as a new semester was beginning, my father passed away and I had to take a week off to attend his funeral. If I didn’t have that workshop to return to, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first few months.  My students were loving and extremely supportive. Almost two years ago one of my best friends died, who was a major player in the Canadian improv community. I hopped a red eye flight to Canada for his memorial after a Thursday session and was back in class the following Monday, bleary eyed and exhausted. The students I was working with were incredibly nurturing and helped with the healing process.

Handiwork of my students.


My wife is a frequent topic of conversation with my students. They are fascinated by who could marry this wacky, hairy guy. Frequently, I’m bombarded with questions;  “Do you have kids? No? Why not?” (“Because I have all of you in my life.”). “Can we meet her?” (“Sorry, she has something called a job.”). “What do you tell her about us?” (“I’m not certain, but I think they know where we live.”). "Are you the same way at home as you are with us?" ("She WISHES she had that Michael Golding.").  “Have you ever cheated on her?” (“Let’s have a chat about boundaries.”).  

One time she did pop up in one of my classes, because she was driving me to the airport so I could fly to a festival afterwards. They reacted to her as if she was a celebrity; “She’s real! Oh my God, she’s so pretty!”  When I told the class that we were going to grab a quick bite at a nearby House of Pancakes before heading to the airport, one student slid up to me and whispered “Ah, man - take her someplace nice. Like a McDonald’s.” 

A year ago my wife and I separated.  It was not a mutual decision and the loss left me devastated. A month after she left, I was hit by a car while on a group bike ride, which broke my collarbone requiring surgery to have a titanium plate with ten screws implanted. That certainly shifted emotional focus for a while. The Vicodin and Morphine helped too. A month after the procedure, I was back in class.



While I have discussed the accident with my students, including sharing the x-ray of my titanium enriched collarbone, to date I have not mentioned the separation.

I continued wearing my wedding ring. Call it denial, but I just couldn't take it off. The first class I taught after my wife left I was brief when she would come up in conversation. “She’s in Canada looking after her sick mother,” was my standard response, and then I would quickly move on to another topic. Talking about my wife in class always gave me joy. Now, it was extremely painful. I continued being upbeat and humorous when she was brought up, but inside my heart was breaking. 



As the Thanksgiving break approached, the students asked if she was coming home or if I was going to join her. I lied and said I was going to rendezvous with her in Canada. Wished I thought that one through. After the holiday break I was inundated with “How was Canada? How’s your wife?” “Is she back home?” Again, I lied my ass off.

I continued wearing my ring for most of the next semester and again, was short with any inquires about my marriage.  In previous workshops, I frequently shared photos of my wife that were on my cell. As part of the healing process, I deleted them just as the spring semester was about to commence. Now, students were extremely suspicious that I had no pictures of her on me. I was digging myself deeper into a hole. They also noticed I was no longer wearing the ring. I claimed that I was acting in a short where I played a single man. The hole was about to reach China. Instead of telling them that my wife was in Canada taking care of her mother, I augmented it to “Unfortunately, her mother died, and she’s in Canada settling her affairs.” That was probably the first time I was (mostly) honest about my situation. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly last April.

The students gave me shit for not being with my wife during her time of need. Almost came clean; “Believe me; I wanted to be there with her. But given the present state of our relationship my presence would have been awkward for both of us.” Instead, I obfuscated with “I couldn’t take time off from work.” From the back of the class a student yelled out “lame!”


Losing my mother-in-law was unexpected and another emotional blow. My father-in-law had passed away the year before.  After my wife left, my mother-in-law and I found ourselves comforting each other and dealing with the grief over our departed spouses. It added a new layer to our relationship. She was an amazing friend to me right up until the end and she loved hearing about my students. It wasn’t until she passed that I felt the full force of the separation. Unfortunately, this was another item from my life that I could not share with my students.  Shortly after her transition, I finally took my wedding ring off for good.



Taking the ring off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. For over thirty years, I would constantly play with it, twirling it around as I spoke. Now that it’s gone, my OCD won’t give me a break. My hand still reaches for it, and I’m repeatedly shocked when I can’t feel it. The imprint of the ring is still there and I find myself constantly gliding my fingers over the indentation. Occasionally in class I get lost in the sad revelation, but the nature of the students always brings me back to the moment. Inattention from me can quickly be interpreted as “iPhone break!”  Then, they’re all in their happy place and it’s an uphill battle to reel them back in.

Right now I’m two thirds of the way through a six week summer college course with at-risk high school students. Beyond mentioning that I’m married, I’ve given no further information. The group hungers for more; “What does she do for a living? How come you don’t have any pictures of her on you? When are we going to meet her? Do you tell her about us? How come you're not wearing a ring?”

A close friend recently suggested that maybe it's time to come clean with my students. She feels that they will be nothing but supportive. 

Or, I could get a larger shovel.



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.  


Monday, April 11, 2016

From David Shepherd’s Journals: Working with Non-Professional Improvisers




David Shepherd, who in 1955 with Paul Sills created Compass, the first professional improv company in North America, has always been drawn to working with non-professional improvisers. He sort out groups that had no theatre experience from schools, churches, synagogues, senior citizen and community centers. David encouraged some groups to play in foreign languages, reasoning the audience would follow along if the emotion was sincere.

The Improvisation Olympics, which David created in 1972 with Howard Jerome Gomberg, (and which spawned i.O. in Chicago and the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa, Ontario) was designed to promote interest in theatre. According to David, “Improvisational theatre, which involves no scripts or sets or props, is an ideal way to get people interested in the theatre. Also, the Improvisation Olympics, which is associated with sports, is an ideal way to involve young men and women in the theatre.”
 

In late 1981, David brought the Improvisation Olympics to Chicago. With Charna Halpern as his co-producer, the two designed a series of tournaments that involved professional and non-professional leagues. Several years later, David wrote about his observations working with non-professionals in his journal.

Chicago Improv Olympic handbook


 

From David's Journal. April 1986

THEORY:

Non-professionals can be interesting to observers because of intimacy. Intimacy prevents big flaws of non-professional "acting": exaggerated feeling, self-consciousness, forgetting lines, phony gestures, unnatural responses, interactions too slow or too fast, unbelievable characterization, imposing an idea of the scene that's not organic to the scene.

A coach can lead a few players into an intimate transaction, for instance at a bar or beauty parlor, at least for a few minutes. To do this the coach must know the desired transaction (e.g. betting on a game or gathering information about a trip). The coach must also know how to lead players into the intimate: explain it clearly, prevent players from veering away from it.

EXAMPLES:

What’s happening in an intimate scene, players are performing for each other. Because the scene is already textured improv with innuendo, mockery, conscious exaggeration, apology, stoned agreement, etc., we accept it--even though it's done by non-professionals.  EXAMPLES: Polish cook and waiter fight in Polish; Colonel and friend discuss red cars and women; Connie puts Mark down, I relate to Scott Vehill about cleanliness.

The main advantage non-professionals have is authenticity. Their tiffs and laughter ring true; if you can catch them at an unguarded moment, you get dialog and action as interesting, I believe, as that of the professional. Another advantage: they don't burden the budget and may even contribute money to it. Another: if you're doing a piece about a local theme, a local player is more likely to get the point, the emotions, and the accent, than a professional imported for the production.

STANDARDS:

In 1984 I was in Los Angeles recruiting for teams to play into an ImprovOlympix. We already had the "Free Radicals" and the Canadian team, among others. "Why not a Russian team?" I asked, driving across town to a well known Russian restaurant. The owner listened to my story about teams of Chicago cops, rabbis, comedians, techs, inmates, musicians. He asked how we worked. I described a process: training of the team, commitment to competition, warm ups, taking a suggestion from the audiences, running with it, being scared, winning or losing, exactly what we’d been doing in Chicago.

In response, he sang to me, very slowly and loudly, the oldest, most traditional Russian folk song he could pick. His eyes and hands spoke about what he was doing: a national rejection of improvisation in favor of something known that's been tested, that expresses the same sentiment century to century, and that demands interpretation--tremolo, change of rhythm or volume, attack, dynamics.

So what can improvisation offer in response?

First of all improvisation represents the energy, not of individuals taking turns to speak or sing, but of a group. The product is only as strong as the group. If the group is not together; if members are not relating to each other, then the result is disappointing. On the other hand, sometimes the group plays far above its abilities. Improvisation also represents the insights and feelings of a group. You get up a totally new statement of a theme, or a totally new story, within minutes of meeting. There's an excitement in this speed, this forced growth of a seed that blossoms within an hour or two.


David Shepherd, center, working with a group of non-professional improvisers


Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Power and Joy of Guessing in Improv by Michael Golding




My Theatre Appreciation course for college and high school students relies heavily on improv formats.  While I stick to the academic objectives of the curriculum every semester, each new group I work with interprets the formats differently.  Rather than force the students to bend to my improv will, I uncover a new approach to meet them halfway. By incorporating their input, they help me to redesign the course for that particular semester, which inspires me to create new formats and embrace a different avenue to my pedagogical style.

My current class, which is a combination of high school and college students, views every format as if it’s a guessing game. While that is appropriate for certain formats, such as Viola Spolin’s “How Old Am I?” and “What Am I Listening To?” it can be intrusive as a class of close to thirty-five students in the audience are screaming out guesses as two to four students on stage are exploring a format.

The positive flip side to this is that the students in the audience are in the moment, as they are actively searching for something specific in the format that is being presented in front of them. Guessing is a game and there is joy in the tone of their guesses and I started to ponder how to harness that element of enthusiasm.

Knee deep in another Theatre Appreciation class.


Ordinarily when I conduct a format with two players, students in the audience tend to tune out if something engaging doesn’t occur from the start. They start looking at their cell phones, texting, or conversing with the student next to them. It’s the reality of the nature of my course, which runs from 3:30 – 5:30pm. Students are tired, particularly the high school ones who have already put in a full school day, and if something doesn’t involve them directly, they go to their happy place. I don’t have this problem when leading group warm-ups at the start of the class, because the exercises are physical and everyone is on their feet and focused. Until someone's cell phone rings. But, I digress.

I started experimenting with adding a guessing element to every format. The main rule is that the students cannot yell out guesses as the format is being explored. That occurs either after the format has been played, or when I pause it periodically to elicit input from the audience.  I’ll address the students with a series of questions, which are actually established improv games.

Questions may focus on;

Environment:  “Can you guess what the temperature is?”

Emotions: “Can you guess what the player is feeling right now?”

Character: “Can you guess what the character is thinking right now?”

Activity: “Can you guess how the players could be doing this differently?”

I’m still toying around with this approach, which so far has been successful in keeping everyone in the class involved. This could be the way to go this semester. A simple flip of terminology.

This is just a guess on my part.   


Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

 


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Harassment and Sexism in Improv by Michael Golding



 
Lately I’ve been reading multiple posts about harassment and sexism in the improv community. Considering trust is a key element to a successful improvisation, I find this highly disturbing.  A major contention amongst female improvisers fifty years ago was that if they were cast in a scene, they were more likely to play a mother, wife, girlfriend, nurse, secretary, than say a lawyer, doctor, boss, police officer or scientist. Not certain how far we’ve evolved in that respect.  

Years ago I had an actor in one of my professional workshops, who was clearly a misogynist, but considered himself a feminist, (because he had sisters).  For the purpose of this article, let’s call him “Dick.” If he was asked to suggest a role for a female player, invariably it was wife, girlfriend, secretary or nurse.

If Dick was in a scene with a female player, it was going to be a seduction scene, whether the scenario warranted it or not.  Those who were familiar with Dick’s modus operandi would either play along, adhering to the yes and philosophy, or find a way to shift the situation into another area. One time Shelly, a new player to the workshop, confused by the lack of collaboration she had with Dick in a scene about a fortune teller and client, asked him afterwards what his objective was.  “I was trying to seduce you,” Dick answered incredulously. Surprised, Shelly responded “Oh, is THAT what you were trying to do?  The class erupted in laughter. Dick was confused by the response of the class.  He later speculated that Shelly was clearly a lesbian, which is why she didn’t pick up on his offers.

When I called him out on this after the workshop he referenced a quote from Elaine May; “when in doubt, seduce.”  I referenced the wisdom David Shepherd and Paul Sills shared with me when I studied under them; “when in doubt, focus on the where and activity.” Regarding his casting suggestions for women which were gridlocked in the fifties, I pointed out that Elaine May once did a scene with Mike Nichols about a son telling his mother that he wanted to be a registered nurse, which was freaking hysterical to audiences of that era. Perceptions and approaches change. Dick wasn’t particularly enlightened by that observation.

Elaine May seducing Mike Nichols
  
A pivotal moment in the workshop was when Dick and Jennifer (someone Dick had a crush on) were improvising a scene about a married couple whose relationship was in its death throes. The set-up was that the relationship had gotten so toxic; they could barely stand to be in the same room with each other. That didn’t matter to Dick. Right off the bat, he started mauling Jennifer as she was packing to leave.  I stopped the scene and asked Dick what he was doing, considering the context of the scene.  Dick said he was playing Viola Spolin’s Contact game (players touch whenever they say something)  to elicit an honest emotional reaction from Jennifer.  Her reaction was honest. She was obviously uncomfortable being groped while exclaiming “This is why I want out! You don’t respect me!”

I decided to continue the scene from the moment we left off, with a change; I had Dick and Jennifer switch roles. It empowered Jennifer. Her physicality was clearly an attempt to control and dominate Dick, rather than seduce him and the hostility behind the husband’s actions was clear. However, Dick was receptive to being touched, despite the fact it had been established previously in the scene that the wife was repulsed by her soon to be ex-husband and he quickly segued from revulsion to arousal. I stopped the scene again. “What’s going on here, Dick?  The wife wants out.”  He’s changing my mind,” Dick reasoned, “I think this marriage can be saved.”

So I decided to continue the scene one more time, with another change. I replaced Jennifer with Cliff, who was twice the size of Dick, and had the scene proceed from where we left off.  His hands were all over Dick, who segued quickly from “I think this marriage can be saved” to “what the hell are you doing? I don’t love you anymore!” Cliff was persistent, forcing Dick to use one of Jennifer’s previous lines; “This is why I want out! You don’t respect me!”

I side-coached with one more direction, “switch roles.”  Back in the husband role, Dick acquiesced that the relationship was over, apologized for his behavior, and kept his hands to himself.  Suddenly the scene had more of an atmosphere of authenticity than before. Discussing the scene afterwards, Dick was surprisingly more empathetic to the role of the wife and how the husband refused to respect her boundaries, admitting “Yeah, the husband was being an asshole.”

Did Dick learn anything that day? I hope so. But it provided me with a new four step approach when dealing with harassment and sexism in male/female scenes:

·        Play scene as originally cast.

·        Have the players switch roles and continue scene.

·        Replace the female player with a male player in the same role and continue scene.

·        Discuss the results of switching afterwards. This is paramount.

Ninety percent of the time, the scene becomes more realistic – and maybe, just maybe, the harassing male player has learned something about boundaries, respect and trust.

I’ll check back on this in another fifty years.

In the meantime, enjoy Mike Nichols & Elaine May improvising the scenario of a son telling his Jewish mother he wants to be a registered nurse.



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.  





Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Life Story By Michael Golding



In my college workshops with at-risk high school students, I try to utilize their life experiences as much as possible when exploring themes, situations and characters in scenes, games and formats. The emphasis is on realism, which is often not the case with this population who lean more towards outlandish, unrealistic, and violent scenarios.

An in-class written assignment I use to elicit those experiences is called Life Story.  The set-up is that a producer bought their life story to be turned into a play. The student has to come up with a title, genre, and a few sentences describing what the play is about.

As I read through the papers, scene ideas pop out at me as I gain insight into who these students are. I write down notes on each paper to get the student to think a little deeper about the story.  This semester’s batch is particularly intriguing;

Life of Color (drama) A student deals with stress and anger through painting. Color saves me. Art saves me. Art takes all the bad thoughts away when I paint. I consider myself art. I myself am art. Art is everything to me. (My note: Lovely. Let’s come up with a scene where you encounter stress and anger, then deal with it through the activity of painting.)
 
 Beautiful Tragedies (drama/horror) A girl who lives with her grandmother and an aunt who is a felon, learns to deal with police, prison and the will to try and overcome it all. (My note: I’d like to see more of the characters who inhabit this world of yours.)

Addicted (suspense/drama) A girl who is being raised by a single mother, who she rarely sees, falls for someone that she knows is an asshole but can’t seem to let go. (My note: Let’s see a scene where she first met and fell for this guy.)

Roller (drama/romance) Girl is involved with a boyfriend who is into serious drugs and becomes aggressive when using. (My note: Can we see a scene about what he’s like when he’s not using?)

Viewing Things Differently (drama) A close friend’s betrayal and the repercussions that follow. (My note: Let’s see a scene about what the friend was like before the betrayal.)

Records (drama) A young teenage girl’s life depends on records, gets hired to work in a record store. (My note: Let’s do a scene where you apply for the job).

Ricardo (drama) Argument with brother leads to a fight that goes too far. (My note: Do you and your brother fight often? Over what? Are the arguments ever resolved non- violently? If so, let’s see one.)

There are students who don’t exactly do the assignment as described,  but still offer something interesting to work with;

Game Day (drama) A teenage boy comes up with an idea for a million dollar game and releases it on the internet. (My note: Let’s see a scene where you are selling this game to someone.)

Run Away Fugitive (action) Teenage boy breaks out of prison, steals a car, changes his appearance and goes on the run. (My note: What crime did he commit to be incarcerated? How does he survive on the run?)

The 411 (drama) People are always asking a teenage boy how to do stuff, because they assume he knows everything. Turns out, he does. (My note: Let’s explore various moments where people assume this of you.)

Money Gang Bang (action) Gang member gets shot in the forehead by a rival gang drive by. (My note: Let’s explore what leads up to that act and the repercussions afterwards.)

Shippers Found Dead (horror) Tech company uses zombies as slave labor to ship out merchandise. (My note: Can we come up with a scene that explores how the shippers became zombies?)

Once I’ve handed back the papers with my notes, I then get the students to come up with a who/what/where scene based on their story that can be explored through improv on stage. The student doesn’t necessarily have to act in their own scene. He or she can cast and direct it. Additionally, the student has to design a set floor plan, based on floor-plan symbols from Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, which is a recommended textbook in my class.  The floor-plan provides the student with a sense of staging, set design and focusing on the where.

When the scenes are up on their feet, I begin to side-coach as the students improvise to uncover the beats. My directions hone in on specific improv skills, which are also essential life skills.

Side coaching directions:

1.     Five Second Delay:  Players have to wait five seconds before responding to each other.

2.     Contact (Spolin):  Players have to touch each other in a different way whenever they say something.'

3.     Inner Monologue:  Thirty second monologue on what is going on inside player’s character’s head.

4.     Gibberish:  Speaking in an unknown language.

5.     Explore activity:  Players have to add substance and detail to what they are physically doing.

6.     Focus on emotion:  Players have to explore what they are feeling at that moment and find a way to express it physically.

7.     Switch time:  Scene is taken either ahead or back in time.

8.     Switch location:  Scene continues in a different location.


Looking over the life stories from this class, various themes begin to reveal themselves to me; betrayal, friendship, single parent households, social inadequacy, anger, stress, work, fear of future, substance abuse, gang-banging, sibling rivalry. This group has given me a lot to work with this semester and they discovered that they have a lot more in common with one another than originally thought. Shared stories bring students together. The bonding process has begun.








Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.  





Sunday, October 4, 2015

Improv Mid-Life Crisis By Michael Golding




A little over two months ago I was struck by a car while cycling, resulting in surgery to repair a fractured collarbone. A titanium plate with ten screws has become a permanent fixture in my body. Now half man, half machine, I will be setting off metal detectors when I fly in the future. If a doctor’s note isn’t sufficient for security, believe me, I am prepared to show my scar. 


 
Unfortunately, I had to postpone a trip to David Shepherd’s home in Western Massachusetts to finish his improv archive project. David is the father of modern day improvisation and over sixty years of materials from his collection were going to be donated to an institution which will be accessible to the public. For now, the project is on the back burner. It will get done, hopefully within the next few months.

A major concern during recovery was whether I would be able to teach in the fall.  The college I work for has a high school outreach program, where I teach an after school theatre appreciation course for at-risk teens who receive college credit. I was offered only one course this semester, which meets two afternoons a week from 3:30pm – 5:40pm. The objectives of the course are explored primarily through theatre games.  I was uncertain that my stamina was up to the challenge and for the first time wondered if I was getting too old to work with this age group. Weeks of pain medication diminished my focus and passion. I simply wasn’t looking forward to the class. Was it possible that I was experiencing an improv mid-life crisis?

When I addressed that concern with my surgeon, he laughed and said “unless you’re teaching gym, you’ll be fine.” Obviously the man was unaware of the population I work with, or how physical I can be when conducting a workshop. Discussing the matter with my improv friends, Shepherd, Ed Asner, Nancy Fletcher (creator of Act Now, an improvised movie format for adolescent girls) and Howard Jerome (co-creator of the Improv Olympics and Canadian Improv Games) they were unanimous in their advice; pace yourself, sit down, and bark out orders.  Brave new world for me. Anticipating the round-trip commute to the high school in Compton on the notoriously congested highway filled me with anxiety and dread. The shoulder strap across my tender collarbone still causes discomfort, especially when I make sudden maneuvers or stops.

With improv consultant Ed Asner

It was a physical challenge conducting the first two sessions, lecturing more than I usually do, which only has a shelf life of a few minutes for the students. It may look like they’re nodding out as their heads slowly slump down, but I know they’re looking at their iPhones. I can see the glow from the screens on their faces. Maybe they’re Googling me or texting what am awesome teacher I am. Exhausted, I ended both sessions a half hour early.

I can’t sit still when teaching and my healing collarbone felt the strain. Many of my movements while instructing are reflexive, such as jumping on and off the auditorium stage, which I knew was ill advised.  As much as I wanted to phone the class in, I couldn’t. The students demand moment-to-moment attention. While I have conducted these type of workshops a gazillion times before, it was clear by the expressions on the students’ faces that it was their first time experiencing a learning-by-doing approach rather than listening to a long, boring lecture and it enthralled them. It certainly kept me focused.

By sharing that I was injured and showing them an x-ray of the titanium plate and screws on my cell phone the students perceived me as a badass. I wished my shoulder didn’t look like someone threw a pair of scissors at me to gain their admiration. In turn, the students were eager to share stories of family members who had hip and knee surgeries and what they were like before and after the procedures. All great ideas for future scenes.

Does this x-ray make me look fat?

By the third session, I had more of a grasp on who the students were. There are over thirty in the class, which is not unusual. All Hispanic. Normally, there is larger ratio of girls to boys in my classes. This time out, the ratio was reversed.

The boys ooze machismo. The themes they love to explore are hooking up, going to strip clubs, scoring weed, getting high and gunplay.  Because many are hustlers and have to live by their wits on the street, they’re natural improvisers. They don’t like to stick to the rules of the games and elicit laughs from the class by mocking them. None of this is unusual. They just need a lesson in the difference between play and game. With play, you can do whatever you want. With game, well, there is a structure with rules.

It quickly became a high wire act for me. You don’t want the side-coaching to come off as a reprimand, which either diminishes their enthusiasm or in their eyes a betrayal of trust. “Hey, I was just trying to shake things up,” one student moaned when I corrected him.  Sometimes, I wait until after the session, where I start my notes off with “You’re a natural at this. However…….”

An early observation with the boys was if they don’t realize we’re engaging in a game, they organically play by the rules; listening, agreement, teamwork. For them, we’re not playing a game until we are actually on the auditorium stage. If I warm them up while they’re sitting in the audience, it becomes more personal and conversational. I discovered that with the group story game “So What You’re Saying Is.” In the game, a player starts with a simple statement (“I went outside my house for a walk.”).  Another player would begin by saying “So what you’re saying is,” repeat the sentence he or she heard, and then add onto the story. The goal is to create a story with as many players as possible, chiming in when they have the impulse.

Exmple:

Player 1: I went outside for a walk.

Player 2: So what you’re saying is, you went outside for a walk, so you could get away from your parents.

Player 3: So what you’re saying is, you went outside for a walk, so you could away from your parents, because they think you’re spending too much time with your boyfriend.

And so on. There are other variations of this game, but this version resonates with the students.

I was amazed by how large and extravagant the stories became. Of course, all dealt with drugs, strip clubs, hooking up and getting high. My inner monologue suggests that in future sessions I should try to steer them towards exploring other themes that might motivate the girls to jump in. Or, I may have to break them up into groups of five, rather than letting thirty students fight for control and observe how the stories develop that way. My brain was percolating with possibilities.

The girls are shy, hesitant and rarely volunteer. Yet, there is thoughtfulness in the way they play, and when partnered up with some of the boys, diminishes their overactive testosterone a tad.  My sense is the boys don’t interact much with the girls outside of class or during the regular school day, so this is new to them – working with a girl as a collaborative partner, rather than viewing them as an object.

When I introduced Blind Walk, a trust game that is fraught with dangerous possibilities, the boys were surprisingly respectful and protective of the girls. In the game the group is in a circle and a blindfolded player walks back and forth across the circle. A student in the circle has to gently stop the blindfolded player from walking into him or her, then slowly turns the blindfolded player around, makes eye contact with another student in the circle, and gently launches the blindfolded player on his or her way towards that student. The blindfolded player has to be as relaxed as possible while walking, knowing that that the circle will protect him or her from getting hurt.

I was impressed. Normally first time out with this game, players are spun around furiously before being sent on their way, students in the circle are making jokes or yelling “watch out!” or someone in the circle might start backing up, or ever worse, step aside, as a blindfolded player walks towards them. Unfortunately, that admiration was shattered when a boy was sent across the circle. Lots of ass grabbing, head thumping, and crotch smacking. It’s early in the semester.

Now, as I bravely tackle the hellish round-trip commute, my brain is on fire running over my workshop plan and the results of it afterwards. It seems like my improv mid-life crisis was premature.  I have a lot of work to do with this group, and surprisingly, I appear to be into it.


Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Practicing What I Preach by Michael Golding





Over the past three years, I’ve experienced a series of abrupt personal losses.  The latest one has torn a hole in my heart, smashed my view of the future and has me raking over the coals of my past searching for some clue as to how the hell I got there. To be honest, I’ve had better summers.

I am blessed to have a wonderful support group of diverse friends, and they have certainly risen to the challenge of being consistently there for me.  My immediate improv family has been relentless in guiding me as I forge through uncharted water, with advice that mirrors the principals of improvisation.  David Shepherd, the father of improvisation, has often said that improv skills are essential life skills.  

Submerged in grief, I find myself practicing denial, not agreement. I should be handling this life crisis with a moment-to-moment approach. But, I’m frequently playwriting in my head, trying to predict, manipulate and control the unknown. While I should be accepting helpful suggestions with a “yes, and” mindset, my first thought is “yes, but.”

Constant activity is the key to maintaining my stress levels. Yet I find myself physically paralyzed, refusing to move, explore and discover something within my space that leads to a more productive kinetic energy.  I’m aware of the powerful connection between body and soul – however I resist making the effort. My listening skills are unpredictable, easily offended and will file away any recommendations it simply does not want to hear. 

This is surprising behavior for one who has been immersed in improv for forty-three years now. 



Fortunately, some improv skills die harder than others. While it is a monumental effort to be in the moment, build on ideas, embrace the unknown and listen – I find that there are other skills that are deeply imbedded in my damaged id and are in fact, second nature to who I am.

Whenever I engage in conversation about my situation with a friend, I automatically lapse into playing characters.  The act of role-playing as people who are key principals in my situation has provided me with insight and empathy. I’ve rediscovered the power of pauses and silence to take in a moment, thus allowing sincere emotion to rise. As the result of that revelation, I’ve realized that very little was said in my more potent conversations. Whether on stage, in a workshop or in real life, it takes courage not to be constantly chattering.

I have a long journey ahead of me. As in life, improv is replete with mistakes and bad habits. Occasionally, a magnificent moment occurs which makes the effort worthwhile. There are no guarantees in life or improv.  All you can do is be real and embrace the unknown – which improv provides the tools for.

For people like me who have been in this improv game for a long time, when you stop practicing what you preach, you lose the core of who you are. I almost forgot that. Thankfully, my improv family had no intention of allowing that to happen.

  
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.