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An Improv-able Success 

Teens gain confidence through comedy

Thursday, Jan 22 2004
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Photo by Wild Don Lewis

It’s five seconds before the show. There are no props, there is no makeup, and the actors haven’t had a chance to rehearse their lines because there aren’t any lines . . . yet. The lights come up. Suddenly a gang of performers costumed only in red polo shirts, slacks and sneakers invades the bare stage. One of them steps forward.

“Gimme a suggestion of a movie style!”

The audience stirs and a cacophony of suggestions shoots up from the house of the Avery Schreiber Theater to its thrust stage, shattering the “fourth wall” with all the confusion and velocity of a frightened elephant.

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“Tarantino!?” Michael Federico calls back from the stage, shrugging his shoulders.

The laughter from the audience is mixed with unspoken concern: What are they going to do?

“First thing I heard. Go!” commands Federico, stepping back.

Most of this troupe’s members have never seen a Tarantino film, or at least don’t want to admit to it onstage with their parents watching. However, that doesn’t stop them. Christopher Glasscock and Jasimen Syler, both 17 years old, step up. The two establish an uncomplicated but funny scene between a grocer (Glasscock) who can’t understand English and a customer (Syler) who’s simply trying to buy a loaf of bread. Then Cory Price enters and raises the stakes in the simple game of misunderstanding. The 14-year-old censors himself, but he definitely makes a bleeping point of making bleeping sure he gets his bleeping groceries.

“It’s up to them to figure it out,” says acting coach Linda Fulton. The 44-year-old improviser is the founder and director of Total Improv 4 Kids! — a troupe of comedic improvisers comprised entirely of children ranging in age from 9 to 18. “They’re each other’s eyes. I can’t be onstage with them.”

Fulton started the group with some encouragement from the late comedian Avery Schreiber. Tired of teaching people who just wanted quick laughs and fast fame, Fulton had consulted Schreiber after a particularly difficult class. During the conversation, she mentioned her preference for working with children. Fulton remembers saying, “They’re better at this stuff anyway.” Schreiber agreed. “He was the first one to tell me that I should just go ahead and teach kids,” recalls Fulton.

Five years later, Schreiber’s picture looks down over the Saturday afternoon rehearsal in session at the theater’s space in North Hollywood. The kids are doing four-person scenes. In this particular scenario, four guys are gathered round the tube to watch a football game, but they each have to deal with the fact that their wives want them to come home. The four boys — Ross Fee, Michael Frattasio, Glasscock and Federico are all sitting on a couch.

The scene begins in a pretty straightforward, easy-going way, with all four improvisers being football fanatics and going nuts whenever there is any action onscreen. But quickly everybody’s talking, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on. One wants to order food, another is busy arguing with his wife on the phone, while one of the guys makes fun of him. Meanwhile, the last actor left on the couch is trying to get everybody else to come back to the game. This sounds more lucid than it looked. After a few minutes of madness, Fulton stops the scene and asks the actors, “Is this scene working?”

“No,” is the unanimous reply.

“What’s missing here?” Fulton probes.

The boys are a little confused about what went wrong. They can’t quite put their fingers on the problem. Fulton turns to the rest of the group. “Help ’em out! Come on!”

The advice that follows varies from simple things the boys probably already knew, like “Listen to each other,” to some of the more complex ideas behind improvisation.

Fourteen-year-old Nellie Melton observes: “It’s almost like there was too much information. Like you have a table full of food and you can’t eat it all.” Fulton smiles.

 

Total Improv 4 Kids! caught my eye at a recent performance when another young man with the troupe cracked up the entire audience. He performed an improvised poem for the crowd about house parties. Then he played an executive at a cereal company who was faced with the problem of increasing sales or being fired. His solution? “Put nicotine in the cereal!” The kid was quick on his feet, outspoken and just damn funny. When I called Fulton to inquire about the group and this boy, she informed that he has Asburger Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He’s been with the group for two years now.

Others in the group face more typical teenage challenges such as low self-esteem, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and economic disadvantage. But the members’ dedication borders on the fanatical. Glasscock recently caught the flu accompanied by a fever but wouldn’t stay home, telling his mother, “I have to be there!” College-bound Syler lives in Torrance and routinely takes two hours of public transportation to get to the theater. When Fee’s family was told to evacuate during the recent rash of fires in the Rancho Cucamonga area, the one thing he grabbed was his Total Improv uniform. “This is my family,” says 19-year-old Gloria Galvan, summing up the kids’ general feeling toward the troupe.

Improvisation means different things to different people in the world. Some consider it an art form, some think of it as merely an exercise used to explore the depths of an established, scripted character, while others still have no idea what any of this means and just like to watch people say funny, spontaneous things onstage. For one boy it means “Freedom!” For one little girl it means “Being able to talk to people I don’t know!” And for the young man who wants nicotine with his corn flakes, it means “You don’t need to feel embarrassed or feel totally under pressure when you make a mistake.”

While Total Improv 4 Kids! is not yet fleshing out the cast of Saturday Night Live, Fulton says being part of the troupe has given the kids a welcome shot of self-confidence, sometimes dramatically so. For instance, after four years with the group, 16-year-old Ernie Davidson of South L.A. recently decided to graduate high school early and will be enrolling in college and plans to be a medical assistant. Galvan has been a member from the very beginning and technically was supposed to leave the group after turning 18. However, since she wanted to stay and everybody wanted her to stay, and since this isn’t Menudo, Fulton made her an assistant and still lets her perform with the company. Now, Galvan works with Fulton teaching improv to developmentally disabled adults in Pasadena.

It’s minutes before the Saturday rehearsal. Cars pull up outside, kids hop out and stream up to the theater’s front door. As the young improvisers meander in, they recount their weeks to one another. What happened in science class? Are you still taking karate? Did your mom bring treats this weekend?

Four short years ago Linda Fulton dreamed of this. Today she stands in the theater named for her friend and mentor, teaching whom she wants, how she wants.

“What do you think will make this scene work better?” she asks. “And be honest.”

“More support!” . . . “Listen more!” the kids tell each other.

Total Improv 4 Kids! will be performing once a week on Saturday afternoons at the Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, starting March 6 and running through April 24. For information, call (818) 481-8072.

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