Teen Improv Fight Club by Michael Golding


It is not unusual for the at-risk teens I work with in workshops to be reluctant to embrace the unknown and allow an improvised scene to flow organically within the structure of a game. They require advance information with dialogue and action before participating, so they don’t appear foolish. Directing focus on the rules of a format, which grounds players in the moment, eventually
weans the students off their perceived safety net. The current group I’m working with has provided a new challenge, leading me to formulate a new approach.

In the middle of a throng of students

With several decades of working with at-risk populations, I’ve become more flexible with how the rules of a structure are perceived and played. Being an improv martinet can be counterproductive in allowing the identity of the group to emerge. It’s a fine line to walk; are rules being ignored because the players found an innovative way to achieve the objective – or they simply didn’t listen to the guidelines and decided to do whatever they want?

At a recent workshop two players were given a scenario to improvise by the class (brother tells his sister that her boyfriend is cheating on her). The players immediately started strategizing on how it should be performed. Normally I would chime in with “No, don’t plan it. All you need to know is who you are, what you’re doing and where you are. That’s it.” Instead, I allowed them to strategize, because they were on fire collaborating and connecting with each other.

The students watching started contributing their suggestions on how to play the scene.  I almost put a stop to that – determining that it was up to the two players, not the audience to decide what to do. But the class was enthusiastic, the players liked some of their suggestions, built on them, so I allowed the process to continue.

As the scene commenced, the class proceed to side-coach, which I have encouraged in previous workshops with the guideline “say freeze, first. Wait for the action to stop, then add your direction.” That wasn’t happening this time. The class was overlapping, yelling out suggestions, sometimes debating amongst themselves over choices. None of this was contentious. The players would pause to consider options, occasionally asking questions for clarification, then move on. While the atmosphere became raucous there was a positive energy between the student audience and players working together to navigate the intricacies of a scene that was presented by the group. There were shifts in time, locations, emotions, activities and additional characters were added and removed. When the scene was over everyone felt they contributed to its success, and left the session feeling joyous and congratulatory towards each other.

Thinking about the session on my commute home, I felt that I had just witnessed a new guerrilla theatre/cage match approach to improvisation. Perhaps the birth of a new format; Teen Improv Fight Club. The first rule of Teen Improv Fight Club is: You don’t talk about Teen Improv Fight Club.

Considering this current group, I have a feeling they would find a way to circumvent that rule.

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 and Canadian Improv Games. He was the artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York and created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. Michael is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles working with at-risk teens and traditional college students. he co-wrote and 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, Barned and Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, education and Human Development.


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