Tag Archives: Greenhouse

Picture Book Improv: Blue Hat, Green Hat

This year, inspired by Bill Arnett’s post about reading Richard Scarry books as Harolds, I started kicking off improv class with a picture book. My middle school students were, in theory, too old for picture books. (I’m not sure anyone’s too old for picture books, actually.) But starting class off with a picture book helped them all focused on the same thing and gave me useful shorthand to use in my side coaching.

The Book: Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat

Improv relevance: Pattern-based games, heightening, pacing, rule of three (loosely), reincorporation

Follow up exercises: Anything pattern-based. There are eight thousand pattern games, and everyone’s version is wrong except yours, probably. That’s fine. Pick your favorite pattern warm-up, then try breaking the pattern on purpose. Incorporate building and breaking the pattern into openings, scenes, and games.

Shorthand I took: “Is this a hat or an oops?” (Did you step on stage to show us more examples of the same thing, or did you step on to change something?) “Look for the oops!” (Players on stage, heighten. Players off stage, get ready to edit.)

 

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Each page has four animals, each wearing the same kind of clothing in different colors. The turkey is always last, and the turkey is always wearing the clothing wrong.

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After we’ve seen this pattern three times, it speeds up. We see one animal wearing something, then the turkey’s “oops” right away.

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We the clothing pattern six times before — finally! — the turkey gets it right. He’s wearing everything we’ve seen him mis-wear throughout the book, and he’s wearing it all at once. But then we see that he’s worn this outfit to a pool, when everyone else is in a swimsuit. Oops.

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By the second page, the book has promised us that the turkey will always mess up. Establishing a pattern lets us vary, heighten, and eventually break the pattern.

I’m not sure that improv games — I mean particularly the organic, non-scenic pieces of a Harold — need to be any more complicated than that. Establish the pattern, speed up or heighten the pattern, break the pattern. As we get more adventurous, the patterns get more sophisticated and the variations get wilder, but it’s the same core idea.

 

As I said above, I followed this book up with pattern-based warm ups. I also led a Conducted Story inspired by the principles the students pulled from the book:

  • Establish a pattern, then break it.
  • Show something about three times, or show three versions of a thing.
  • Stories feel over when something from earlier comes back at the end.

This gave us some of the best stories I’d seen so far from any group, kids or adults. Giving the students a framework made their stories more creative, not less. The players loved this exercise so much so much that they used a version of it, minus the conductor and plus some physicality, as their Harold opening.

3 Song Hot Spot

I know Hot Spot is a performance piece in Truth in Comedy, but I use it as an energy- and team-building warm-up, an exercise taking turns in the spotlight. Nobody is in the spotlight for long, and everyone has to get into the spotlight at some point.

In the improv for teenagers class I taught this year, we battled perfectionism and a tendency to separate the kids who were fluent in pop culture from the kids who weren’t. Hot Spot highlighted these pitfalls. Players didn’t want to jump into the middle unless they had the right song to sing. A song that nobody had sung yet, or a song they were sure they remembered all the words to, or a song that would help them fit in.

While everyone spun their wheels on the side, searching their mental playlists for perfect songs, some poor soul had been stuck in the middle for what felt like forever, and he only knew half the chorus to his song.

So I gave them three options: “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” “ABC’s,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Yeah, those all have the same melody. The point is that everyone knows them, and there’s no way to look cool singing them. The point isn’t to do the perfect thing. It’s to do something.

Suddenly, they were tagging each other out. They were singing at the tops of their voices, with commitment, expression, and silliness. They were singing back-up vocals for each other.

When I launched them straight from 3 Song Hot Spot into a Harold, they worried less about saying the perfect thing in their opening. They listened better and piled onto the game with more energy. They were more playful and less prone to freezing up from trying to be original. They showed more of themselves, and they played the way I want to play.

The Very Hungry Dragons

Back in December, I wrote about the improv elective I was going to teach at The Greenhouse, the classical school where I work. I had a blast all semester with the six kids — four girls and two boys — who signed up. They named themselves the Very Hungry Dragons, and I looked forward to them every week.

They had their final performance last weekend at Westside Improv, and they wanted to do a Harold.

I love Harold. Harold is intuitive to me. However, if you learn Harold at iO (and aren’t on indie teams in the mean time), you receive over 144 hours of instruction and practice before your first Harold performance.

Students at iO spend many of those 144 hours, spread out over the better part of a year, developing their instincts for timing and pacing. You learn those things through practicing a lot, seeing a lot of shows, and watching good TV shows, movies, and plays. You develop an intuition for when something feels over, or when it feels like something should be called back.

My kids had more like 14 hours of instruction and practice spread out over the semester. They each were required to see one local improv show, though some saw two. They are home schooled adolescents, which often means that their parents have strict rules about how much TV they watch. My biggest worry for the show was that they wouldn’t have had the time or resources to hone their editing instincts.

So I took that aspect away. I sat in the front row, signaled when they should edit, and occasionally called out things I wanted them to try. (For instance, after an edit, I’d say, “I want to see the pianist again, after his recital is over.”)

I also helped them make connections that they hadn’t had time to develop on their own. (For instance, in one thread, a boy won the lottery. In another thread, two girls were trying to sell a rare and illegal animal. “Girls, who have we met who has enough money to buy your pet?”)

But the scenes were all the kids. They drew out their own themes, relationships, and characters from the suggestion. They were engaged with each other, they reacted in the moment, and were their own goofy selves. I was just there to direct traffic.

Other quirks I enjoyed about teaching this particular group:

  • No matter what the suggestion in 7’s and 6’s, they always said, “I’m hungry!” as one of their 6’s. They are preteens and teenagers. They are always hungry.
  • While they did not have the shared pop culture knowledge that most improv classes have, they were all studying medieval and early Renaissance history together this year. A disproportionate number of scenes had peasants, royalty, and dragons. They especially love dragons and Dragon Queens, and without, bless them, any hint of Game of Thrones.*
  • They were quick to see how improv principles applied to the rest of their lives. They actively worked on being better listeners and sharing focus with one another, and they talked about trying to continue those practices at home with their friends and siblings.

The Greenhouse focuses on a virtue every year, and this year’s virtue was awareness. You can’t learn improv without becoming more aware of yourself and of others in the process. Their homework assignments this year were designed to cultivate awareness in between classes. Two of my favorites were:

  • Pay attention to when you’re tempted to argue this week, and find a way NOT to argue.
  • Spend some time looking closely at your room; what would a stranger guess about you from what they saw here?

The Greenhouse’s continual emphasis on servant leadership ties into improv well, too. The skills you work on in improv — good listening, being honest about your emotions, building others up, bravery, being generous with yourself and others when things don’t go as planned — are the same skills you need to love your neighbor well.

 

 

I’m offering the class again next year for home school students over the age of 12. Click here to learn more about it and here to register.

 

 

 

 

*I have found myself lost in more than one scene lately, because I am not especially interested in reading/watching Game of Thrones, and that’s what adult students these days are drawing from when they play with fantasy.

Why your kids (and you!) should learn improv

I wrote a letter to parents of kids who would enjoy taking my improv class later this winter. Most families just know me as a Latin teacher, and they may or may not know what improv is or how it could benefit their kids.

Here’s what I wrote to them.

Improvisation — creating unscripted theater on the spot — helps students develop their performance and leadership skills. It’s also a laboratory for learning to love their neighbor in the moment, and it’s an enormous amount of fun!

Your student might want to take improv if:
  • They love creative writing once they’ve thought of something to write about, but they wish coming up with new ideas didn’t feel so hard.
  • Their biggest complaint about the annual school play is that their character is in only a portion of it, and they want to be in the whole thing. They would live onstage if they could.
  • They would have auditioned for a bigger part in the play if it weren’t for all that memorizing.
  • They want a chance to perform at an actual improv theater at the end of the semester.
As a parent, you might want your kids to take improv if:
  • You want them to listen well rather than just waiting for their turn to talk.
  • You want them to grow in confidence and learn to take the lead sometimes.
  • You want them to share focus with others rather than always needing the spotlight on themselves.
  • You want them to understand that they can be a leader without being the sole person in charge.
  • You want them to cultivate awareness and generosity in their daily lives and have a lot of fun doing it.

If you or someone you know home schools a kid age 12-18 who might like this class, there is more information here.
If you’re thinking, “Never mind about home school kids ages 12-18 — I am an adult and I want to get good at that stuff, too!” then check out the free class I teach at Westside Improv.