This week I brought my approach to improvisation to students at the middle school here in Shorewood, Wisconsin. The school’s drama director Joe King kindly invited me to speak to them. We all know 7th and 8th grade can be a tough and awkward time so I wanted to empower the students to make stronger acting choices and make a direct connection to other choices in their lives.
Working unscripted with no time to prepare can be intimidating for professional actors and I imagine it was intense for these teenage students. I didn’t throw them into exercises, though. Instead I first shared with them a list of 10 skills for making better improv and life choices.
10 SKILLS FOR BETTER IMPROV AND LIFE CHOICES
- I am present in this moment, mentally and physically.
- I can use my power of observation to see others around me.
- I know what I want, what I need, and what I have to do.
- I can be honest with myself and others and react truthfully.
- I am capable of helping others regularly and whenever necessary.
- I know my tone, volume, and cadence affect how my message is received.
- I can use specific details when interacting and telling stories.
- I can add to a conversation without negating or contradicting other people.
- I understand how to create a relationship.
- I know how to set clear intentions for myself.
I didn’t know how many of these students act regularly or take acting seriously. But I do know 100% of them face daily issues, such as peer pressure, and can always be better equipped to make good choices. So, in this case, acting only served as the vehicle to deliver the more universal messages.
After discussing the list, I selected students to participate in 2-person scenes, and I emphasized the importance of choosing an intention, choosing a relationship, and choosing a setting. I pushed them to go beyond how they are connected (e.g., “classmates” or “friends”) and think specifically about how they regard or behave towards each other. I made it more challenging by not letting discuss the details so the scenes started when I called “action” and ended when I called “cut.”
If they got stalled coming up with ideas, I directed them to think in simple terms. I suggested asking themselves, what do I need, what do I want, or what do I have to do. Giving that need, want, or have a sense of urgency will be helpful, I added.
While it must have felt new and strange to these students, they handled the challenges of doing a new activity—while led by an person with whom they aren’t familiar—with grace. The ones I called on didn’t hesitate to start a scene and take direction when I had them do it a second time. I explained how these choices can be made in a matter of seconds eventually.
The ultimate point I made for the young actors is who you are coming into this room is the same person you were outside of it. You bring the same thoughts and feelings that exist out there in here with you. You don’t magically become someone else because you’re in an acting class or playing a role.
If this age group can make the connection between choices made in the imaginary world and ones made in the real world, perhaps they can get a chance to see the potential negative consequences from a choice. When that discovery is made at a safe distance, they have a chance to “correct” the real-world choice before it takes place. Then, improv will have served them as a creative way to problem-solve or avoid a particular problem altogether.