Monday, May 21, 2007

The Danger of Experience

I have a very odd schedule. I almost never have a clear, consistent "x" amount of days off. When The Second City Training Center is between terms, I'm teaching at Columbia College. When Columbia is on break, I'm at Second City. Last week was the unusual harmonic alignment of both Second City and Columbia being on break for one week both at the same time. And I still ended up at Second City on four of those days. Not complaining, though. I love what I do. I have two Writing 5 shows opening next Friday, so I had extra rehearsals with them. And I picked up teaching an Adult Weekend Workshop. This is where a group of grown-ups come in to Second City, usually from out of town, and take improv classes in the morning and writing classes in the afternoon.

I love teaching these, especially when the improv teacher is someone of strong caliber. This time, it was Bina Martin, who's an excellent teacher. Without intentionally sitting down and working it out, both our curricula dove-tailed nicely into one another. I was able to build on whatever she did in the morning and she was able to continue the work the next day. Improv and sketch writing have a lot in common. The elements that make an improvised scene work will also make a written scene work.

While I love teaching these workshops, there's an element of trusting everything will work out that's required by me and the students. Most the students come in with high expectations that a brief weekend just won't fulfill. I usually tell the students that I'll be covering a lot of ground over the three two-and-a-half hours that we're together and if one-fourth of it sticks, we did a good a job. The workshop is essentially Second City's eight-week Intro to Comedy Writing smashed into seven-and-a-half hours.

I have noticed that the majority of these workshops tend to be populated by two types of students: writers experienced in another medium and members of a comedy group from another state. This time, there were five older ladies who were experienced authors, mostly romance novels and children's books. Another three or four students were from a Baltimore/D.C. group called The Comedy Pigs.

Here's the danger of working with students from either category...

- They've had enough success through bad habits that it's hard for them to be open to trying a new way.

- They're so preoccupied in showing me that they're just not some other student, but someone who doesn't really need the class, that they miss a lot of the value available. Instead of learning, they're looking for validation for what they already do and know.

- They talk too much. They spend a lot of time relating their own experience or giving wizened feedback to their classmates. They forget they came to be a student.

These are extreme examples and while this past weekend had some flavoring of this, it was really a great group to teach. The folks from Pigs were especially eager to learn and absorb as much as they could from being in Chicago and at Second City. But there was one woman who on the first day was resistant to what was happening in the workshop. She never said it directly. She expressed this through loud sighs, not writing during the writing exercises and whispering to her friend when the focus should have been elsewhere. Bina had similar issues with her non-participation participation. Not surprisingly, she also seemed to be the most experienced writer in the group. I believe she's had seventeen books published. To her credit, she got better each day. And by that I mean, quieter and actually did most of the work we did in class. Again, not surprisingly, her writing assignment on the third day was among the weakest in the class, which were generally pretty good.

This isn't a story about me reaching out to her and connecting and turning her around. I don't have the time and, quite frankly, I'm not interested. If someone already has their brain locked into being miserable, there's not much I can do or care to do, especially in a brief workshop. Had this been a full-term class, I might have had a conversation with her, but she likely would have dropped out after the first class. I'd rather focus on the students who are hungry to learn and fold this experience back into whatever their goals are as a writer. Unlike our president, I believe there is such a thing as a lost cause.

If you're going to take a class, especially as an adult, be a good student. I enjoy taking classes. I enjoy learning and growing (I start two new classes at Columbia this week - Harlem in the 1920's and French I). It expands my abilities not only as an artist, but as a human being. I'm a good student. I'm attentive, I'm curious and I'll give it a try. I empower my teachers. And here's something I know, things almost always go the way you think they will. If you think you're not going to get value out of a class you're in, you're probably right. It's up to you to take responsibility for your own experience.