Dumb Noises are not Cool or I was a teenager’s monster

RfG Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1993

by George Roman Babiak

“Shee-it, I ain’t doin’ that! No way!”

Fifteen year-old Kevin thrust his hands into his armpits in sullen defiance and shambled off the stage. He slumped into a steel folding chair and tugged the bill of his baseball cap down to the bridge of his nose. What little I could see of his expression indicated that what I had asked him to do was nothing less than utter humiliation. The other kids, all younger than Kevin, stared first at him, then at me, with icy detachment. Within moments of starting the class, I had lost them.

It was hardly an auspicious beginning for my first workshop with the fledgling improvisors of Rheedlen Place, a Hell’s Kitchen community center for children and their families. Rheedlen Place provides disadvantaged city children with an unthreatening place to go after school; a place where they can get some snacks, some counseling, and some help with their homework. Many, if not most, of the children come from dysfunctional families.

TheatreSports New York, the improvisational theater group that I was a member of, had long wanted to get involved with inner city kids. The director of Rheedlen Place, Michael Arsham, agreed that improvisation might, among other things, unlock the creativity that urban adolescents are often reluctant to display. Since I was the one who was most enthusiastic about the idea, I volunteered to be the instructor for the pilot project. Eight kids ranging from 11 to 15 were chosen.

Teaching The Rheedlen Gang (as they were known when they later appeared on the TheatreSports stage) was always an uphill climb, but it was never as difficult as it was on that first day. The exercise I chose for our warm-up was an undemanding game in which the participants stand in a circle and pass along a sound coupled with a movement. Each person has to do the sound and movement alone for a moment before altering it and handing it off to the next player. Although beginning adult improvisers often find “Sound and Movement” to be a reassuringly mindless ice-breaker, it made the kids feel alone, exposed, and worst of all, uncool.

Despite the rocky beginnings, I gradually gained the respect and trust of The Rheedlen Gang. One technique that worked well was showing that I myself was quite willing to enter a scene, and, yes, look quite foolish. If a scene was developing in an imaginary cave and one of the kids mentioned a monster that lived in it, I was always prepared to make an entrance as that monster. Before long, the stage was crawling with monsters (class clowns can be cool).

Different days required different tricks. Sometimes I would put myself at the same level as the kids. If someone was particularly hesitant about getting up I might have said “Hey, let’s you and me do one. Come on!” On other occasions, I issued a subtle challenge. “This is very, very hard. I’m not sure you can do this, but we’ll try.”

The Rheedlen Gang never became a group of adept, confident improvisers (who does?). But as they grappled with the obstacles of self-expression, they became much more personable and open outside of the games. We talked, we argued, we laughed. There was no way to measure their progress except in my personal relationship with them, but in those terms we had come very far, indeed.