By Kate Benedetti
Senior theater and speech education major Leeana Cargile is passionate about investing in the Jackson community. For Cargile and the 11 other students in the comedy theater group UU Improv, that means volunteering part of their weekend to teach a workshop at a local high school.
On April 5, the group spent the day working with students at Liberty Technology Magnet High School, which emphasizes career-based education.
“The teachers love to have us come in,” she added. “[Students] that are engaged and loving theater — that’s something you can’t teach; you have to show.”
For more than five hours, Cargile and her team led Liberty Technology’s theater students in exercises in “improv,” or improvisational acting.
“You have a given situation, off-the-cuff, and people act out a scene based on it,” she said. “Improv comedy is wonderful because you don’t spend a lot of time beforehand rehearsing what you’re going to do.
“It pushes actors way beyond where they may go in scripted drama because there is so much emphasis on the physical and on storytelling, not just story interpreting.”
For example, Cargile may tell two students to act out a scene in which they are robbing a bank — and the only line of dialogue provided is “That’s not mine!”
The rest is up to the creativity students drum up.
“The students were really enthusiastic,” said senior English major and UU Improv member Sarah Halbrook, who added the group has not put on formal workshops before but that they plan to host one soon at Jackson Central-Merry High School.
The idea for the workshop came in fall 2012, when Cargile was student teaching at Liberty Technology and working on a one-act play for Union’s annual showcase.
She said she mentioned her play to a teacher with whom she worked, who asked her to bring out her cast to perform for the students.
After the performance, Cargile showed the students improv games. They enjoyed themselves so much that the teacher asked if Cargile would be willing to work with them further.
In all, nearly 40 students attended the workshop, Cargile said.
To break the ice, Cargile and her team began the workshop with group games like “Bang” and “Zip, Zap, Pow” which emphasize quick thinking and name memorization. Then they broke the students down into groups based on skill set.
Many worked on exercises in pantomime, which involves “huge physical motions” and is very expressive, Halbrook said. Next, the students enacted spontaneous scenes based around a conflict.
Cargile had them come up with the stories on their own, following the classical pattern of narrative — introducing characters, introducing conflict and describing three attempts to solve the conflict, with the third being the successful climax.
Cargile said that the fail-fail-success pattern appears frequently even in today’s literature and films.
“There’s three little bears and three little pigs for a reason,” she said. “That’s how we tell stories.”
Many of the students were new to improv and inexperienced in acting of any kind, Cargile said. Keeping such a large and enthusiastic group in check and making sure everyone was engaged posed a challenge.
“It’s rare in those classrooms they get a chance to verbally express themselves … Trying to rein all that energy back in without squashing it completely is a balancing act,” she said.
Still, the experience rewarded the improv instructors at least as much as their students. Cargile described persuading a shy student to leave the sidelines and participate.
“She ended up having a wonderful time,” she said, adding that several of the students asked to join UU Improv and, when told that only Union students could be members, expressed interest in forming their own group.
“(Improv) helps with cohesiveness in a group,” said Halbrook, who hopes to see UU Improv teach similar workshops to student organizations on campus.
Formerly known as “Whose Bongo Is It Anyway?” UU Improv began as a fundraiser for Alpha Psi Omega, Union’s theater honors fraternity, but lately has become active both on and off campus.
“Outreach is our main focus this semester,” Halbrook said.
UU Improv will debut a show at 7:30 p.m. April 13 in W.D. Powell Theater.