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Sweat & Metaphors

The time has gone quickly since Tuesday when the Field Innovation Team had its orientation at St. PJ’s Children’s Home‘s campus. Mary Tyszkiewicz from Heroic Improv and myself have joined forces to create one of four content areas of an innovative curriculum. This curriculum is designed to help ground and focus people of all ages in disasters and crises.

We spent a day introducing the staff that manage St. PJ’s international program to a taste of youth-centered curriculum that deals with art, technology, science, and improv. Today we rolled out an experimental lesson to see how it would land with the kids.

We spent the day off campus at a park rotating the kids through the programs (while sticking to the shade and sweating in the Texas heat). This is a spanish speaking population, and many of these kids have traveled across Central America and Mexico at great risk to get here. If you want a hint at what they’ve gone through, you should check out the film Which Way Home, nominated for an Academy Award. It is one of the things that inspired me to volunteer my time and expertise for this project.

Mary and I spent all morning and part of the afternoon playing games with a variety of kids; boys and girls ranging in age from 5- 17 split into gender and age cohorts. My assumption was that the teens would be the hardest sell because that has been my experience generally with teens who have never had the opportunity to do anything performative. We wanted to test their threshold for complexity. The program I designed, Spontaneous Village, is focused on moving through three phases with a specific list of games and exercises along the way. Phase 1 is focused on familiarizing them with each other. Phase 2 is building on that familiarity with simple games that require collaboration, and Phase 3 is focused on using storytelling games to envision and problem-solve for the future.

There are several challenges. We need staff to translate for us and the kids. We need to find ways to connect concepts to their context, and we need to roll with the times when these games brushed up against differing cultural values. As expected, the teen boys were the most challenging. Many of them have had to trek across Mexico riding the infamous train often referred to as “La Bestia” or the beast. FIT’s own spanish-speaking staff were asked not to use that word when explaining things in spanish to avoid triggering the youth. What is important to the improv situation is that many of these boys have had to forgo childhood and become men through this treacherous journey. The staff often pointed to this as a possible inhibitor when engaging in less-structured play. In my opinion, they were as inhibited as any other non self-selecting teen I’ve worked with.

The breakthroughs came when I relaxed into being translated real-time rather than pausing phrase by phrase. Secondly, I just drew from my arsenal of aphorisms when I usually teach improv. Such as the fact that learners in games need to go through 3 phases: they need to fail, fuilure then leads to competence, and competence leads to confidence. I needed more than that for these boys to understand. So I drew on a comment from the recreation director and our picture pretest when we asked the kids to draw what they found “fun”. Most of the boys drew soccer fields, and the rec director had said they could play it endlessly. So I compared the process of ‘Yes and’ in the game “I’m a tree” to three passes between players on field leading to a goal in soccer, but in improv when we get a goal everyone laughs instead of cheering (but sometimes we cheer too).

Lights went on, and they left laughing and excited talking about the “Loco” things that they created together. Not everything we tried hit. I think with these youth, sticking with the first 2 phases of the program may be the way to go for now. Unless anyone knows spanish-speaking improvisers in or around San Antonio who would be willing to perform for and/or teach more games after I disappear at the end of next week. Anyone?

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