These days, it's hard for young people to always know how to respond to the conflicts in their world.
Urban Improv actors give students a chance to try out solutions to real-life problems in a safe setting.
They portray a situation, and then allow students to participate in or comment on stages of the conflict and the resolution, so they learn different and less-aggressive ways of solving problems. The Boston-area-based group also offers workshops for teachers on topics such as dealing with bullying, peer pressure, and prejudice in elementary-school aged children.
Toby Dewey, Urban Improv's artistic director, talked with Education World about the group's mission and the impact it's work is having on urban youth.
Education World: How is Urban Improv different from other improvisation troupes?
Toby Dewey: Urban Improv is not a troupe that is about entertainment. It is a proven violence prevention program that uses structured theater improvisation to address issues close to the everyday lives of young people. Our company provides interactive workshops that challenge students to deal creatively with major issues in their lives. Using professional actors, Urban Improv's work teaches violence prevention, decision-making, and impulse control. Through the improvisational process, Urban Improv develops the skills of problem-solving, conflict resolution, cooperation, and leadership.
Urban Improv actors open every workshop with a song around the theme of the day, and then move into a staged real-life scene. Our director will freeze the scene at various points and call on students to express how they think characters might be feeling in the situation. At the height of the conflict, students are invited in to take the place of an actor and to make the pivotal decisions that affect the outcome of the scene. In this way, students have the opportunity to play out the consequences of their actions in a safe, nurturing space, to discuss the decisions made by their peers, and to learn how to positively deal with these situations.
EW: What kinds of activities, if any, do you provide for teachers to use in the classroom?
Dewey: There are a range of activities and assignments that have been specifically developed for our fourth grade curriculum that include games and read-aloud activities on issues such as fairness, friendship, imagination, family, conflict resolution, peer pressure, and fear. There is also a middle-high school curriculum on VHS that comes with a teacher's resource guide that explores issues such as prejudice, racism and stereotyping, violence, conflict resolution, bystander issues, bullying, teen pregnancy, sexual harassment, and homophobia.
EW: Where do you get the material you use in your scenes?
Dewey: The material from our scenes comes from our own personal experiences, ideas that teachers and principals have given us, and suggestions from the students. The Urban Improv ensemble creates the scenes in rehearsal. We spend a lot of time making sure we have an understanding of the topic and then through improvisation, we create the scene. We discover what works and what doesn't work very quickly, since the students coming into the scenes will always let us know if the scene is unrealistic.
EW: Are there particular topics teachers ask you to cover in your workshops?
Dewey: A wide range -- from bullying and peer pressure to issues around violence. We have also done assemblies for schools and the most common request is around bullying and scapegoating. Other requests have been scenes around sexual harassment, substance abuse, depression, anorexia, homophobia and racism.
EW: What do you hope youngsters who have been involved with an Urban Improv presentation take away with them?
Dewey: Our hope is that the participants gain a better understanding of who they are and what alternative choices are available to them in specific situations. We think of Urban Improv as a rehearsal for life so that students can see firsthand the consequences of their actions and explore a variety of other ways to handle a situation. By developing these life skills the students are able to gain confidence in problem- solving, decision-making, cooperation, and leadership.
EW: What type of feedback have you received from students about applying Urban Improv lessons in real life?
Dewey: The results of an objective multi-year evaluation with the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute showed that children participating in Urban Improv have dramatic differences in behavior as compared to peers who did not participate. Teachers report an increase in pro-social skills -- such as self-control, cooperation, and positive self-assertion -- that are essential for children to resolve conflicts without violence. The physical experience for students of walking in another's shoes, making decisions, and deconstructing why we hurt others, builds social and emotional skills that allows them to be more respectful, empathetic, and to face high-pressure situations in life with greater confidence.