BY ACTING OUT, URBAN IMPROV GIVES YOUTHS VALUABLE LIFE LESSONS Author(s): Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff Date: April 7, 2005
Page: D5 Section: Living
For 13 years, Urban Improv has been performing skits for and with schoolchildren, designed to help kids deal with anything from bullying to homophobia to handguns. Now the theater troupe has something new: proof that what it's doing really works.
An independent study by psychological researchers at the Brookline-based Trauma Center, which compared four Boston fourth-grade classrooms that went through the Urban Improv program with four that didn't, found that Urban Improv had a positive effect. Based on observations and on reports from teachers, says Trauma Center executive director Joseph Spinazzola, the study found that the program kept aggressive behaviors from increasing, raised the level of "prosocial" behaviors such as cooperation and self-control, and helped children become more engaged and focused with their work. "It helped them home in, focus, and take in information," Spinazzola says not just in the program, but in their classroom work. "They're able to do that because of increased self-control. It helps them stop and think."
On a recent day at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, 15 fifth-graders from the Tobin School are experiencing that "stop and think" method in action. After a few warm-up exercises, the actors begin a scene in which several students tease a new classmate about his name.
"You must be our new student, Martin Roach," says the "teacher," played by Faith Soloway. The students both the adults playing kids and the kids just being themselves snicker.
"It's Ro- shay," says Ron Jones, playing Martin. "It's French."
"Classmate" Carla, played by Merle Perkins, fires back: "It's French for bug!' "
Everyone laughs, even as Martin grows increasingly unhappy. Finally, Urban Improv director Toby Dewey stops the action and interjects: "Tell me how you think Marty is feeling right now."
There's a pause. "He's feeling down," a small voice says.
"He's feeling down," Dewey repeats. "How many of you laughed?" Hands go up. "Everybody laughed," he says. "And you know that it's hurting his feelings, but you laughed anyway. What's that about?"
Another pause. "It's funny," a student says.
"It is funny," Dewey agrees. "But how does that feel? Has anybody ever been teased?"
Hands go up, slowly. "I got a bee sting and it hurt, but I got teased about it." "I shaved off my eyebrow and people teased me." "They tease me about my name."
"So why do people do it?" Dewey asks.
"To get other people's attention." "To show off." "To get some laughs."
Dewey nods, then directs the actors to start another scene. Marty's in the cafeteria now, and the teasing starts again. He teases back: "What'd you get for lunch? I got seafood," and he pulls the old gross-out joke of opening his mouth so everyone can "see food."
"Freeze!" Dewey says. "Why is he doing that?"
"He's trying to get back at them."
"Right. Is that going to help him? No, it's going to make it worse for him," Dewey says. Now comes the next twist: Using a common technique in problem-solving theater, Dewey brings some students into the skit and asks how they'd defuse the situation.
Some of them join in the joking, others tell Carla to quit teasing, still others urge the two antagonists to be friends. One boy offers to pay Marty $5 a day if he'll try to get along with Carla. ("I've been doing this 13 years," Dewey says later, "and they still surprise me. They still come up with things I've never seen before.") Dewey asks the boy whether he could really afford to give a friend $5 every day but doesn't come out and state the "right" solution.
"We do not impose our opinions," Dewey says after the workshop. "That's a very important part of it. We try to get them discussing issues."
Urban Improv plans to present workshops to 6,000 children next school year, on a budget of $400,000. The group raises that entire amount with an annual fund-raiser; this year's is tomorrow night. What troupe member Kevin C. Smith loves about the work, he says, is the moment when a kid realizes he's made a poor choice and gets the chance to think through how he might do it differently next time. "You see their eyes open, and that's marvelous," Smith says. "And once you've opened their eyes, their eyes can't close again."