Scholarship recipients share improv with teens in Summer Youth Employment Program
For the past year, WIT’s efforts to increase inclusion and diversity have included a robust diversity scholarship program as well as programming at Anacostia Arts Center (sustained by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts). Recently, a group of scholarship recipients who met at WIT’s classes at AAC taught a workshop to teen participants in the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. WIT talked to students Renee Namakou Ombaba, Asia Atkins, and Jade Foster.
What inspired each of you to sign up for improv classes at Anacostia Arts Center to start?
Renee: I started taking improv because I’m a performer who loves to perform. I sing opera, and I wanted to find a way to improve my acting in scene. I went to a “Women in Comedy” event in Alexandria, VA, out of pure curiosity. I admired the women presenting their work and telling their stories. Afterwards, I started to research opportunities for improv. I found an Improv for All workshop, and it was so much fun. Krystal [Ramseur], our instructor, told the class about the diversity scholarship offered by WIT. I applied for the scholarship and got assigned to a class at the Anacostia Arts Center with Dave Johnson, which has been my saving grace.
Asia: I was inspired to take improv classes because I wanted to become a better (public) speaker and listener. I felt that improv would provide me with the tools, resources, and personal awareness to do just that. I also knew that I would be in an open, welcoming environment around peers who were also looking to develop themselves or their crafts. I happened across a scholarship opportunity offered by WIT, and was fortunate to have been placed, soon after, to my first Level One class in the winter of 2018.
Jade: I was inspired to take improv classes at Anacostia Arts Center because I’m starting to get into directing and thought I should at least know something about acting, timing, and teamwork before getting behind a camera. Improv was the obvious answer. I live five blocks away from Anacostia Arts Center and grew up on W St., so it felt good to have somewhere I can be challenged creatively in my neighborhood.
Why did you keep going? What do you love about improv and how has it changed you?
Renee: I keep coming back to improv because I’m funny and I love to make people laugh. I never knew how much I loved comedy until I found myself at home dissecting television materials with the skills learned from class. Dave is great at breaking down the goals of each level and making the sessions fun and engaging. When Level One ended and we found out Level Two wasn’t happening for another three months, I took more Improv for All classes. There, I met Saleh [Karaman], who is always encouraging. I even competed in a FIST competition with a friend from Level One. Dave coached our team, and we were glad to be able to reach out to him for that presentation. We didn’t win, but we had fun getting out there and playing together.
I’m in Level Three now, which is the most technical of all the levels I’ve taken. Game makes you think, but I’m getting so much better at picking up patterns and pushing the right buttons for the game to work. I love watching groups like Madeline and Out Sick because they have so many good ideas that spark my own imagination. It’s really about vulnerability and the willingness to share your imagination, which is so important for my singing. I want to continue learning and using the skills to do something comedy-related in my future. The grant offered to our class for free improv lessons helps a lot. I couldn’t afford the classes otherwise. Improv is the dream I never knew I had.
Asia: I continued with improv because I was fascinated by all of the unexpected things that I had learned about myself and others. My knowledge around human behavior, emotions, body language, and engagement had all been transformed for the better. I can honestly say that I am a much better communicator now than I was prior to taking a course with WIT.
Jade: I’m a writer and found making voices, creating characters, being on stage very natural. The biggest lesson I learned with Dave [Johnson] in Level One was to relax and play. As an adult I find so few opportunities to really let go and enjoy myself, and improv was a gift to me in that way. But I also had to work for it — to let go of critique, to let go of my ideas of plot, and really just let my imagination loose. On the surface, I didn’t continue with Level Two because of scheduling conflicts. But in reality, I was afraid. Letting go can be difficult, however necessary. But I am forever grateful to the community I found with my cohort, and hope to find the courage to come back!
You recently collaborated to teach a session for participants in the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. How did that come about and how did you approach it?
Renee: Jade, Asia, and I took improv I together last year with Dave Johnson. The grant awarded to the Anacostia Arts Center offered us a unique opportunity to grow as performers and as professionals. We each took the class for different reasons, but we gained so much from the experience. It was an amazing course that created a close friendship and a love for improv that continues today.
This summer, Jade asked Asia to come and teach basic improv skills to a group of MBSYEP high school students. Asia quickly said yes because of her love for kids and her desire to share important skills with the students. I volunteered to co-facilitate the workshop with Asia because I have experience with the demographic and LOVE improv more than a normal player.
Asia: Yes, and once Jade reached out to ask if I was interested, I jumped at the opportunity! I reached out to Renee to co-facilitate because I knew that she holds a passion for the arts as well as teaching youth. She and I both have specific strengths and skill sets that balance well with each other. Prior to the class, we collaborated to create an agenda that incorporated inclusivity, engagement, and fun, while also touching upon the basic components of improvisation.
Jade: I work with Global Kids full-time. We’re an after school program in over ten schools around the city and we train youth in leadership, civic engagement, and foreign policy. What does that have to do with improv, you might ask? Everything! As our students this summer prepared for their very own “TED talk” styled speeches on how to make a change in the world, I saw many of them were uncomfortable in front of an audience. I thought improv was the perfect remedy. I sent a group text to my Level One cohort, and Asia and [Renee] graciously came to site and facilitated a workshop with our young people. It was just like old times!
How did the participants receive the workshop? What did they get out of it?
Renee: We played games with the youth, passed sound and motion, and did some short scenes that were so fun to watch. They laughed the entire time. I think we may have some improvisers among that group.
The students really wanted to learn the material. They have extensive imaginations and used a lot of their life experiences to create scenes. They learned how to be open on stage and have their choices validated by their partners and instructor. They used the skills learned for their public speaking assignment.
Asia: I feel that the participants were receptive to both our presence and the activities presented to them. There was full engagement throughout the hour, and it was a delight to see them become more open and creative as time passed. There were smiles and laughter from start to finish, and I feel the youth left the class with more confidence and self-assurance. The students were preparing for a public speaking assignment—the skills they learned they will utilize not only for the assignment but for years to come.
Jade: After spending every day with our students for almost a month, they welcome any and all visitors. But being teenagers, with some guest speakers, they fall asleep, they have side conversations, they get on their phones. I’m proud to say with the improv class there was not a phone in sight! Students were familiar with a few of the warm ups (as I’ve used them before), but once we got into scene play, they really got cooking. I love giving young people spaces to use their voice and for their voices to not be policed.
What would you tell someone who was thinking about taking an improv class? Why would you encourage them to do it?
Renee: I would encourage a person to take improv because it can help them in many ways including public speaking, emotional grounding, respect for others, LISTENING, and of course “yes, and-ing.” Improv can be a relief to a stressful day or an emotional outlet. It introduces you to new people and if you’re lucky, new cultures. Improv will open your mind to lots of possibilities. You are funnier than you think.
Asia: For anyone who has considered improv, I highly recommend that you take the leap and sign up. For anyone who has not considered improv, I also highly recommend that you sign up!
Regardless of your interest level in the arts or if you have past experience in performing, there is something for everyone to learn. It is a very welcoming, judgement-free environment that allows for participants to be their true selves. In my opinion, many people, as they get older, lose touch with their inner child and imaginative mind. An improv class would help to tap into your inner self and become free all over again—in turn this could make you happier in your day-to-day life and how you show up to others.
From my personal experience I have seen an improvement in my communication skills (listening), public speaking, leadership, and overall respect for differences in others. I will forever be grateful for the experiences that I have had as a student with WIT.
Jade: If anyone asked if they should take improv, I would tell them, Yes! Do it! Do it now! I would especially encourage study with WIT. The organization is supportive, professional, excellent, and prioritizes accessibility. Most importantly I would encourage others to take improv because you just might make a new friend! Even if it’s your own imagination.
Sign up for a Level One class at WIT today!