First, some exposition.
10 years ago, we started the KC High School Theatresports League at the Lighten Up Improv Co. It only lasted a year—just as things were ramping up, my business partner and I split, and I moved the last few matches of the season to the Quality Hill Playhouse. Rockhurst (featuring local actors Henry Vick and Jake Walker) and Liberty (with local improv ho Tommy Todd, among others) played for the championship, with Liberty's Exit 16 squeaking by in a game of 185.
A couple of years later, Exit 16 founder Rich Brown (who'd started playing with Lighten Up) headed to Portland for grad school and asked if I'd be willing to take over—I'd gotten to know most of the kids, so it seemed like a good back-up plan. With permission from the administration, I started leading weekly rehearsals, planning shows and chaperoning trips to Chicago.
That's the condensed version.
The question of "how do you work with high school kids" comes up a lot on improv forums. Sometimes it's about the tactics of running a troupe or league; often, though, it's more about how to treat them. I'm guessing a lot of the improvisers who ask are in the same situation I was—no background in education, minimal experience working with kids, and no kids of their own.
So, with that underwhelming list of qualifications, here are my random answers to the question:
- Treat students like improvisers first, kids second. Hold them to the same standards for performance and professionalism as any adult troupe. They can handle it. (And when they graduate and they are fellow improvisers, you'll be really glad you did.)
- Recognize that even if it doesn't always seem like it, they probably actually care what you think. And it may actually matter to them that you care. So...you know...tell them.
- Be the grown up. Be reliable. Be there when you say you will be. Do what you say you'll do. Always, always, always.
- Make rules, and stick to them. If you say "miss a rehearsal, miss the show," mean it. Even if it means the funniest, most talented, most popular kid sits out.
- Over-communicate. Forget e-mail—learn to text and use facebook.
- Put them in charge of things like promoting shows: making fliers, sending facebook invites, filming promos for their school's TV station, selling tickets at lunch, that sort of thing.
- Teach them to fish. In Exit 16, I do the run lists and casting for the first semester, then turn it over to the seniors for the second. The experienced kids emcee shows during the first semester, and newbies cut in the second.
- Keep the group small—for us, that means 12 or less. Smaller groups forge stronger bonds and get more stage time.
- Play often enough to improve with each show, but not so often the shows aren't events. (For Exit 16, that's once a month.)
- Get used to shorter attention spans. Show up for rehearsal with a lot of shiny things.
- Don't be afraid to be the fun, goofy aunt instead of the strict, scary one. If you know your stuff and teach things that help make them successful in shows, they'll listen when it counts.
- Realize that your most important job is to get them out of their own way. In the first few rehearsals, see what they laugh at. If your talented, funny kids are entertained, their audiences probably will be, too. Instead of forcing your own agenda on them, provide tools that help them be more of who they are. (The Annoyance philosophy works great with kids.)
We have an annual alumni show. It started in the second year, when graduates back in town for holiday break were invited up on stage for a few games. Now it's an event—two shows, packed houses and hilarious scenes by former players who'd been wondering if they've still got it.
Last night, there were 29 kids on stage—18 were alumni. Half a dozen perform regularly in KC. When the current group comes back in January, they'll be a little sharper...just because they've been on stage with all those confident, relaxed performers.
A little later this year—probably in March and April—I'll chop 30 minutes off rehearsal because spring gets busy and we're all a little fatigued. After the last show of the year, I'll be happy to have the summer off.
But right now, I can't believe I'm lucky enough to still be doing this after 10 years.