02/12/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Improv for Jobseekers - by Katie Goodman

From all the energy and laughing you would never have guessed that just 20 minutes earlier the room was filled with apprehension and skeptical looks. My job as a comedy improv teacher for non-actors is kind of like a pediatric nurse. The doctor doesn't want the kid to hate her, so she makes the nurse give the shots.

HOPE brought me in to run an improv class with its students, as a way of encouraging them that everything they really needed was already in their heads. These are folks who have been told over and over (before they got to HOPE) that they are not going to make it. My goal was to play some improvised games with them where all the words and stories and solutions came from them, not a script, and where they often had to work together to be creative and funny. We wanted to give them a chance to see what they are capable of in a totally non-academic setting.

It's kind of miraculous that improv works for this. But twenty minutes in, they were jumping in and pulling material from their lives to make scenes and stories. And it was incredibly authentic. These guys have stories. I mean really. They have something to say. And because they have had it harder, they are beginning to see what they are capable of with the help of classes at HOPE and the amazing teachers who have total faith in them. What was really thrilling was to see the students actually notice their capabilities.

We did a stop-and-go type story where the director cuts the actor off and moves onto another actor. The HOPE students would add an unexpected and therefore funny line, like this:
A: "So the rabid dogs were chasing me down the street and ---"
B: "I turned a corner and right in front of me was -"
C: "Mayor Bloomberg."

And a couple of things happened.

First, their peers laughed with them, which gave them some confidence, just naturally by appreciating their creativity and their brain. Second, the students saw that they had been put on the spot, had been fully engaged, and had something juicy to add to the scene. Which means they have something to add to the world.

I have taught this workshop from my book, Improvisation For The Spirit which uses the tools of improv comedy in everyday life, all around the country to hundreds of different kinds of groups, and the amazing thing is that the result is really the same with all of them. But doing it with the HOPE group really made that obvious to me. No matter how hard you've had it, or how unsure you are, or how at square-one you find yourself, being creative can have the same result for all of us. We can become confident, wiser, supportive of others, trusting in ourselves and finding a belief in possibility.

I was inspired by these men and women as well as the HOPE Program administration and teachers who tried this strategy for its students. They never thought, Oh these guys can't do this. They thought, Hey this might be interesting and fun and useful. Let's try it. Which is exactly what improv games call for. And, well, to be totally cheesy, life.

-Katie Goodman

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