2006-03-09 / News

Kids get laughs while learning basics of improv

By Lanette Spranzo

Keith Munslow recently led an improv workshop for kids at the Jamestown library. Photo by Andrea vonHohenleiten Keith Munslow recently led an improv workshop for kids at the Jamestown library. Photo by Andrea vonHohenleiten Local teens learned the rules successful improv artists follow at a recent workshop at the Jamestown library led by Providence musician and story teller Keith Munslow.

Before beginning the warm-up exercises, Munslow helped the group define improv as "acting off the top of your head." "Since you have no script," Munslow emphasized, "you must remember what your co-actors say and do."

The first exercise then called for the students to gather in a circle and introduce themselves one at a time by calling out their names and making a motion that their peers could mimic. "Saying and performing their name just the way they did helps us remember who they are," Munslow said.

Next, Munslow got the group roaring in unison like tigers to mark the importance of connecting with fellow actors. Then, he had each student partner with another to count numbers, stamp feet, and snap fingers in the practice of attention and memory skills. After several warm-up routines, Munslow said they were ready to try "the real improv games," the success of which, Munslow maintained, depends on following three key rules.

The affable and wiry entertainer said Rule Number One, without which you cannot have improv comedy, is to "Take the offer." He introduced the game "What the heck are you doing?" by explaining that each actor was to make believe, or pantomime, a certain activity, like washing windows. As he demonstrated wiping an imaginary window, he said that someone would play an observer and ask the window-washer, "What are you doing?" In reply, the washer had to make up something completely different, like digging a garden, or taking out the garbage." The observer would pretend to do what the first person said he was doing, in other words, "take the offer" and carry on the act. A conga line of teens stepped up to mime an action. No one refused an offer, and Munslow praised the group for not letting inhibitions keep them from picking up the ball.

Munslow said improv students should copy the pros on television, who don't try to be funny, which he said is Rule Number Two. "Nothing is more hilarious than seeing someone deadly serious about an absurd situation," he noted. "Try as hard as you can," he added, "not to laugh."

The group then got into the games "Bus Stop" and "The Return Desk" which drove home a third important rule: to "Keep the ball in the Air." In the game "Bus Stop," an actor sits in a chair and wants only two things: to catch the bus, and to be left alone. "But then," Munslow, explained, "a person comes along and sits down with just one purpose: to take the first person's seat. "In getting the first person to move, you can talk, sing, make noises and motions, but you can't touch him or her," Munslow said. "And the sitter can't stay in that seat too long," he warned. " In the game's first round, most of the actors intimidated the sitter through unwanted conversation. "Hey, that's a really cool seat. Can I have it," one said, as she moved in on the sitter. "Hey, I know you... you're a friend of someone my cousin knows, aren't you?" a boy asked. Tactics got the sitters fleeing, and no one stayed in the seat too long.

Next Munslow suggested the actors not converse at all to get the seat. They tried the skit using sounds and actions like burping, tapping their feet, scratching their arms, and making weird noises to unseat the sitter. Said Munslow, "You now understand Rule Number 3 of improv: 'Keep the Ball in the Air,' even when you can't talk. Continue the skit to its finish, and stay in character."

The kids kept a witty, savvy pace of acting in the two final games. In "The Gibberish Expert," a talk show host interviews an "expert on something" who speaks no English and must rely on an interpreter to translate what he or she thinks the expert said. The translators relied on the expert's vocal tones, and gestures, as well as their own inventiveness to "keep the ball in the air" on each expert's pronouncements about cows, bugs, or feet.

In "The Return Desk," a department store customer did not know what he was returning. Both the person at the desk and the rest of the group, however, did know what the item - or animal was. The customer's job was to try to figure that out. The 'returns' included a parrot, a vacuum cleaner, and, finally, a pirate that the buyer said "would not even start." "I mean how do you turn this thing on - what does it need?" the customer asked. " "Well, a boat, probably,"the return desk actor suggested. The group rolled with it, but did not give it away.

Munslow's suggestion before closing: "Keep practicing, tossing up balls, and taking offers,"and practice with friends." He noted that the Web site www.humanpingpongball. com. has hundreds of warm-up routines and games for all groups.

Munslow's Web site, www.keithmunslow.com, gives samples of his musical and cartooning talent, and shows his 15 years as music director for Big Nazo Puppets, and his longtime affiliation with AS220.

The Friends of the Jamestown Library sponsored this free event for the island's 10to 14-yearolds.

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