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 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.