Week 4 Reflection: Lessons from the Marshmallow Kid

Teaching Improv Comedy 

For five of eight years of living in Austin, improv comedy was a significant part of my life and work. I ran a youth program, “AP Comedy” for the New Movement Theater (currently the Fallout Theater) and performed regularly as a musical improviser. Improv and its training of action over deliberation has many useful life lessons, but it wasn’t until this week at AC4D that a previous 6th grade student of mine, the “marshmallow kid,” came back to me.

The Marshmallow Kid

The marshmallow kid did not have many friends in my improv class. He was odd, but accepted as a member of the class troupe. I gave him his nickname (behind the scenes) because every scene he performed involved marshmallows. “I’m the marshmallow King!” he’d announce, taking the lead at the top of a scene. Or in a another scene between two firefighters: “The school is full of marshmallows!” he’d explain to his scene partners, throwing a wrench in their established scene environment. I imagined him plotting on the wings of the stage about how to fit his favorite candy into every scene imaginable.

As we developed a relationship, I was able to ween my student off his metaphorical marshmallow obsession by guiding him to un-think before a scene, but once in a scene, listen to what’s been previously established by his troupe mates.

How Improv Works

An improv mentor of mine explained this concept with the Venn diagram below.

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Two people enter a scene typically one before the other. Each inhabit different characters, and in some cases, completely different worlds. It’s a mistake to believe that every scene must be dominated by one character, the scene playing to their world. Or that each scene must be a complete merging of the two. The magic of improv comes from two different characters finding a scene while keeping their own worlds as characters.

Acting, the AC4D Way

Now let’s replace Character A and B with AC4D students. The same concept applies, we as students are coming in with different learning styles, communication methods, we are in essence, different characters with a common goal in mind. Similar to improv training, at AC4D we are required to act, iterate, step back, repeat. Like the best improv scenes, they rarely begin with a plan in mind, and a mindless gesture or spoken line often ends up with productive results. It doesn’t always work. Just like improv, the earlier you can fail, the faster the lesson can be learned, and the project, product, or AC4D assignment improved. We all have preconceived notions about what the finished product should look like, or we have worries that a first draft of a work will be sloppy. Sometimes we will we get in our heads like the marshmallow kid. But if we respect each world of our AC4D classmates, but limit deliberation in favor of creating or visualizing, we can grow as students and end up with unexpected, powerful results.