Last week I went to Worcester, Mass., to teach improv at Claremont Academy, a high school made up of a diverse population of teenage kids. Not only are you dealing with different races and cultures, you are also dealing with adolescents.
For an improviser, this was not a glamorous gig. It was not writing for Colbert or being cast on SNL. This was missionary work. I have taught improv to teens before, and I’ve seen how it can work magic on their self-confidence. I am not exaggerating when I say you are saving lives.
Just ask Danny Balel, who is an excellent improv teacher and heads up the program at Claremont. When he was in high school, he was getting high and had no direction. Then in ninth grade he was kicked out of school for concealing a weapon. When he transferred to a new high school, improv and theater saved his life.
Improv was not available when I was growing up. If it had been, I can only guess how my life might have been different.
I was thinking a lot about my own experience in high school when I walked in to teach the freshman class, which consisted of 18 rowdy students, right before lunch. We were in an area of the school that was more hallway than classroom, where people could pass through. You needed to be conscious of the sound, since there were no doors.
Freshman year is hard, as you awkwardly make the transition from eighth grade to high school. And I was working with them at the start of the year, when there is still a lot of turbulence before they make a smooth landing.
As the class settled down, they wanted to know about me before we started. It was hard to tell if they were curious or just stalling.
One girl with thick black glasses sitting in the first row asked me if I was professional.
“Yes, I am,” I said somewhat confidently, which surprised me.
Then a girl with an oversized gray sweatshirt and braces asked: “Why did you get into it?”
I wanted to relate to them. So, I said “I was neglected growing up and came from a family where we weren’t allowed to express ourselves. I took improv so I could express myself.”
I am sure it went completely over their heads.
As we worked through the morning, it was clear that this class had a hard time suspending judgment of one another, which is necessary to do improv. It became obvious during a scene when a tall, goofy guy made a wonderful initiation to dance with the girl with the braces. She refused to dance with him.
I stopped the scene. “Why did you say no to his initiation?” I asked.
“Because he’s weird,” she said.
I looked at the goofy kid, who reminded me of myself, and I felt speechless and sad. Then suddenly I said, “I am weird, too. No one is more weird than me.”
The goofy kid’s face lit up and he got all excited and he gave me a high five. My guess is that he had never been validated for his wonderful imagination. Then I found my footing and asked someone to tag her out and support the dancing initiation, and a guy came out and they danced together, which is a very brave thing to do in the self-conscious world called high school.
That day, I realized how much improvisers really are weirdos. We get up in front of complete strangers not knowing what we are going to say, and purposely make ourselves look foolish on stage. Who does that?
But the quicker we can embrace our weirdness, the better we will become. By embracing our weirdness, we embrace our own brilliance.