Tristan Detrait, an 11th-grader, is tentative about stepping onto a piece of paper on the floor. “On here?” he asks as he steps forward, joining other teens standing in a circle. It’s the first step in a game instructor Carol Roberts is leading, called “I’ve Got Mail.”
The rules are simple: Roberts and her assistant, Michael Dickinson, along with participants Detrait, Garrett Bourez and Jake Santana, stand in a circle with one person at the center. Roberts starts off, and makes up a category: “I’ve got mail for anyone… ” she says, “who watched the ball drop on New Year’s.”
If it applies to anyone standing in the circle, they must shuffle off of their piece of paper and find a new spot; whoever’s last becomes the new leader.
It’s an icebreaker for Roberts’ workshop, “Accidental Social Skills.” She was a member of San Francisco-based comedy troupe Femprov and uses the games and techniques of the improvisational comedy world. While many of the activities are the same, the goal is more than just getting a laugh: It’s to teach basic social skills to students with communication difficulties – without making it feel like a lesson. The workshop series is open to students in grades 7-12 with challenges like Asperger’s, Tourette syndrome, ADHD, anxiety or depression.
Roberts has long used comedy improv techniques, first in a traditional drama classroom, where even kids without challenges often found themselves on the margins.
“I soon learned an accepted fact in the drama teacher business: When kids don’t do well in teams sports, parents sign them up, drop them off and don’t say a word about behavior problems or difficulty making friends,” Roberts says.
She ended up as a substitute in a special education classroom, where she deployed some of the same games – and found they had the ability to animate kids who were otherwise withdrawn. Then it became something of a specialty, and Roberts began holding improv workshops for people on the autistic spectrum at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
“I fell in love with the Asperger’s population and wanted to do something more to help them,” she says.
Roberts eventually became certified as a coach of executive function skills – things like task initiation, flexibility, impulse control – with a focus on youth and young adults with Asperger’s. Now she teaches improv in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.
“Freeze! Now walk like you’re 107, like me.”
At the kickoff to her six-week Monterey workshop where Detrait is nervous about the icebreaker activity, the next activity is more complex, with giving and receiving instructions, and observing and imitating movements. In “Walk to Freeze,” a leader instructs followers on a way to behave until the group is told to freeze. Bourez starts off and says, “Walk like you’re scared.” He demonstrates by jogging in circles with his hands waving, as if he’s being chased, until the group freezes.
Next up is Roberts. “Walk like you’re really angry,” she says, hands on her hips, elbows sharply pointing out and lips pursed. “Freeze! Now walk like you’re 107, like me.”
Everyone laughs as Roberts walks bent forward, with her back arched.
“Walk like Michael Jackson,” Detrait continues the games as he moonwalks.
“I can’t do a very good Michael Jackson,” Dickinson says. Santana offers up some words of encouragement: “As long as you’re trying.”
“Trying” is the key word here. Roberts says the improv activities give these kids a safe (and fun) place among their peers to try things that can be difficult – maintaining eye contact, following directions, impulse control – without feeling hurried or judged.
In a game called “Mirror,” partners stand face-to-face, and a follower copies the leader’s movements. Santana and Bourez are paired, and start with their palms touching. Their hands then move downward, hands separating palm-first until only their fingertips touch, before circling upward.
The motions vary in speed and type, but after a few moments, Bourez has his eyes shut. Roberts gently prompts him to reopen his eyes, and re-establish eye contact with his partner.
The group wraps the day with a game called “Park Bench,” which challenges pairs to role-play a dialogue. Santana takes a seat and is cast as the annoyed, and Bourez is the annoyer. Bourez approaches, and Santana looks at the empty chair next to him and asks, “Excuse me sir, do you want to sit here?” Bourez responds with an annoying – and unpredictable – line: “’I’m a panda. What do you think I do for a living?”