Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: As the founder of Total Improv Kids, what inspired you to begin your own improvisation school that was specifically geared towards younger students?
Linda Fulton: When I was a kid, I couldn’t read or write very well, and school was torture for me every day. I always lived in fear of being discovered as being inferior to everyone else. No one ever knew what dyslexia was at the time, and it was never talked about. Therefore, I just thought I was just stupid and afraid of other people finding out. Kids would disappear into “special ed” and never be seen again, and I didn’t want to disappear.
I discovered improv when I was 14, and the games showed me that my mind had value and it exposed me to potentials I didn’t know I had that far exceeded those of some of my classmates. I discovered that I was, in fact, extremely intelligent and had a lot to offer. Improv awakened in me a hunger to discover more about myself and how my mind worked.
I was so indebted to improv for helping me realize my potential that I made it a life-long study just to satiate my constant curiosity as to what else improv could help me discover. In my quest for more information, I stumbled onto someone who would became my friend and mentor: Avery Schreiber. I was thrilled to know one of the nation’s leading improv masters, and I always plied him with questions and various philosophies or schools of thought. He came to know me better and, based on our conversations, he one day suggested to me that I should teach improv to kids. It was then I realized that I could pass on everything I learned over the years to them.
Through the fun of improv, I could really get these kids to begin to discover potentials within themselves just as I had, just by giving them the autonomy to discover and explore in a collaborative and safe environment. And so, I did just that and have been doing so successfully now for going on 17 years. It’s amazing to see how the kids take what they learn while having fun and playing games and apply it to their own lives, breaking out of their shells. Not to mention the bonds they build with each other while doing so. It’s a pleasure to witness.
BD: How would you describe the improv training methods and philosophies that you and your teachers utilize in the classroom?
LF: The main cornerstone of my teaching method is NOT to teach for comedy. In fact, I'm not really here to teach improv at all. I'm simply using the medium for educational purposes. That is where it starts. Then, I also try to give the kids some say in what it is they’re learning in my class. Kids are always told what to do and when to do it. In my class, we all work together, but under my guidance. That way, a certain autonomy is created among the kids that they deeply appreciate on a level not really cognizant to them but something they still react to when it comes to the class and their commitment to it and each other. This is especially apparent in their exploration of themselves through personally challenging games and games requiring intense cooperation to be successful. This new kind of work and self-discovery becomes so personally stimulating to their psyche and they’re sense of self-improvement that they become addicted to it and can’t wait for the next class. Improv is the perfect medium for learning empathy, spontaneity, creative problem solving, assertiveness, quick thinking, and cooperation.
It’s amazing to watch the inner growth these kids accomplish just from playing challenging games that require role playing. In actuality, the true goal of my school is to use improv for right and left brain integration, relying on the spontaneity improv requires, so the kids don’t have to time to consider any prior frames of reference and, therefore, have to react with their own true voice. In doing so, the kids experience instant validation to their own organic opinions and thoughts and realize that they do, indeed, have a good mind. They begin to believe in it and themselves, creating independent, creative problem solvers who work well in a group dynamic. The side effect of my type of training is that the kids become extremely adept at improv, and at an adult level, too! How cool is that?!
So, even though I’m considered an “improv school,” I’m not actually teaching them how to be improvisers. I’m using improv to teach them the skills that improv taught me over the last 42 years that took me from a terrified kid who could hardly read or write and felt stupid and unworthy to a confident and successful business woman now sitting on various boards and effecting changes in my community.
BD: Why do you feel that these core values connect with the students?
LF: I believe these core values connect with the kids, because they have an equal say in what they're doing. At least they think they do. This is something they don’t usually get to experience in general. But, what they don't know is that I already have the lesson plan decided before we start. In the beginning of the class, I discuss what the goal of the class is going to be, and I let them try to figure out how to go about obtaining it. That way, they think it's their idea and they give 110 percent towards obtaining that goal. Then, once it is achieved, they have a sense of gratification at their accomplishment as a group that they don't usually get anywhere else. There's also the individual accomplishment in obtaining those goals. I believe this is what really connects the kids to the work and each other.
BD: What are a few of the courses that are offered to students, and are there any requirements for students before studying at the school?
LF: The only requirement I have for Total Improv Kids is that the kid wants to be there. It's really difficult if the kid is only there because the parent makes them go. Other than that, the only thing necessary is the ability to play. I have worked with a lot of autistic children over the years, and with great success. Particularly kids with high functioning Asperger's syndrome.
BD: You have a talented group of teachers on staff at the school. What can you share with us about these individuals and their contributions to the school?
LF: My teachers are great. They all have extensive improv backgrounds; however, anyone who has an understanding of my method can teach what I’m doing. In my upcoming book, The Power of Improvisation, I have 50 games I use to teach various skills. All anyone has to do is play those games and watch the kids to make sure they’re getting the full benefit of the games’ purpose. These games can be very useful not just for improvisers, but for educators, psychologists, family therapist, and anyone else who works with kids.
BD: Total Improv Kids has become an award-winning institution, with its students even having performed in an Off-Broadway production. What do you feel makes the organization, its faculty, and students excel?
LF: I believe it's all in Total Improv Kids’ unique approach. First of all, I throw at them adult-level improv techniques and games. I just don't tell them it's hard. I figure if the kids can learn more than one language or how to read music, they can do this. More often than not, adults decide what kids are capable of without asking them or even giving them an opportunity to try something they might be interested in.
When I started my school, I decided to teach the kids just like I taught adults and, lo and behold, the kids caught on with far less difficulty than their adult counterparts. Therefore, I learned never to dumb down anything for my kids just because their kids. That would be insulting to them. They’re far more capable and I believe that making history by being the first all-kid improv group to perform Off-Broadway proves it. Now, they know they’re capable of anything they put their minds to.
BD: If your students could take away one lesson from the school, what do you hope that it would be?
LF: Well, one of the things I always tell them is that failure is their friend. Failure is another opportunity to try again, only wiser. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as they learn from them and not be afraid to take the risk to make them. I try to tell them that they need to be brave enough to fail. To take a chance and not be afraid to fall on they’re face. If they do, then pick themselves up and take another stab at it. Eventually, they’ll achieve they’re goal.
Also I want them to trust that little voice inside of them. I try very hard to get them all in touch more and more with their intuition. And, I have games for that, too! I think listening to that little voice inside is very important, and I want to acquaint them with it and get them comfortable turning into it. I think our “gut” has a lot to tell us if we would just listen.
BD: Are there any special events or activities that you are currently working on at the school that you would like to share with our readers?
LF: Actually, we have a new show coming up for the month of February. It's a new Valentine's Day show. That's going to be full of a lot of new bits that the kids have never done before. These bits are going to be very complex and very difficult. But, of course, I'm not going to tell them that.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about Total Improv Kids?
LF: Well, now that I'm ready to expand, I would love to tell your readers that if anyone has any interest in learning my methods and getting involved with Total Improv Kids, please come check us out! You can start at www.totalimprovkids.com. I'm always looking for new people, and I will be more than happy to train. Also, if there are any kids interested, I'm going to be starting new classes very soon. I’d love to work with you!