If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage. – Del Close
When we behave as through our scene partners are intelligent and creative, that very behavior will encourage others’ creativity and intelligence to come out and shine. This attitude was integral to how Elizabeth Komos and I approached leading the week-long Girls Improv camp with the Athena Project. Adolescent girls are often given messages from society and it usually isn’t that they are geniuses and poets; the media often portrays girls and women as less kind, funny, and intelligent than men. By dismissing preconceptions about the abilities of girls and having faith in their inherent creativity, I hope we helped the students to exceed any self-limiting beliefs they held.
There are plenty of assumptions about the abilities and interests of young people in improv. Typically, teen improv groups focus almost exclusively on short-form or game based improv. I must say that scenic-based improv can be more challenging to teach. While improv games have distinct parameters and clear instructions, the “rules” of scenic or “long-form” improv are flexible and nebulous. There is nothing wrong with teaching short-form – it can be lots of fun and we did play many improv games. However, in my personal experience, the real joy of improv comes from the creation of scenes with characters and relationships. The students made such beautiful discoveries and experienced such growth in class with these scenes. Although they also enjoyed the short-form games, I think they relished the freedom that creating a character and scene allowed. It would have been such a shame to assume that they don’t have the ability or interest to do them and leave scenic improv out of the curriculum.
Treating anyone like a genius and poet necessitates giving the support needed for them to access their own creativity. We attempted to give the freedom to create and explore with the support needed to build confidence and skills. Here are some of the principles we used when instructing Girls Improv:
· Engagement first and foremost. If the students weren’t engaged, no amount of other planning would matter. That is why fun was central to our curriculum.
· Mix it up! 6 hours per day of improv class is a lot – for adults and especially for kids. That’s why we would intersperse exercises where the students would likely be challenged with fun and simple warm-ups and games. Brain breaks are important for all of us.
· Create a curriculum. Know when to stick to it and when to throw it away. Even if I love an exercise, if it is not resonating with the students then it isn’t the right one to use at that time.
· Break every exercise into its component parts. And then break down those components into their components. Start there. See how the students are taking it in. You may find that you can move more quickly. However, if not, that’s ok too. This approach seems to build students’ confidence and skills. (This is related to the educational concept of scaffolding that I learned as an educator at Camp Yes And with Dr. Jim Ansaldo and Lacy Alana, LCSW. They do a wonderful job of using this concept in the development of their programs.)
· Kids (and adults) do enjoy a challenge. It was actually a bit surprising how much the girls seemed to enjoy exercises that pushed them a little out of their comfort zone. Each day we would do a wrap-up activity when we would ask each student to share their favorite part of the day and I was often surprised to hear, it was the challenging exercises where they learned new skills and not the “fun and easy stuff” that was a favorite.
· Just let them create! We didn’t censor their content – we let them create new universes and characters that were bizarre and beautiful. Sometimes, their content was a little dark and we let them explore the dark side of things. (Had there been any content that was hurtful to others, we would have intervened. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.)
· Let go of your agenda. Before we began the week, Liz and I had this grand idea for teaching a challenging format by the end of the week. However, that format would have been far too challenging and the students would have just been frustrated without the accompanying growth. So, Liz and I gave up that agenda and created a format for their show that allowed the students to have fun on stage AND still use the skills we wanted to impart. Say “yes” to challenge AND remember that the challenge must fit the needs of the students (and not the ego of the instructors).
There are plenty of negative stereotypes about adolescent girls that get reinforced regularly and it is time to bury those ideas. The students were kind, supportive, and ready to learn. If the students in our class were in any way representative of their generation, we should feel really good about what is to come. These girls showed wisdom, creativity, and capacity for depth – in short, they were all geniuses, poets, and artists.