As soon as Joleen Ballendine walked into the classroom at the Boyle Street Education Centre, she knew this workshop was going to be different. As Rapid Fire Theatre’s director of education, Ballendine is used to teaching improv in a variety of settings and for a variety of audiences. But the students at Boyle Street—a charter school for teenagers who’ve had interruptions in their previous education—brought an energy to their session that took even her by surprise.
“The vibes were so good,” Ballendine says. “The students were super engaged. And there was so much laughter—more than I’d ever experienced in any other workshop. I just fell in love with the school.”
Ballendine has been part of Rapid Fire’s Outreach Program ever since it first launched in 2009. Since then, she and her RFT colleagues have introduced countless students across the city to the art of improv, often in areas where extracurricular activities are hard to come by.
And, as it happens, the love that Ballendine feels for her students runs both ways. “They’re amazing teachers, in that they find something positive in everybody’s performance,” says Mavis Averill, the superintendent at Boyle Street. In fact, these improv classes have become the highlight of the week for many students, despite having little to no previous theatre experience. “Even if you’re too shy to actually perform, then perhaps you can have positive experience giving suggestions,” Averill says. “Over time, as you become more familiar and more confident, then each student takes on a larger role.”
“The relationship with the kiddos was above and beyond,” agrees Kate Rolf, a teacher at Delton School in northeast Edmonton. Ballendine and her Rapid Fire colleague Sydney Campbell have been teaching classes to Rolf’s grade-six classes for the past two years, and Rolf has been so pleased with the experience, she’s now hoping to expand the program in the years to come.
One thing Rolf loves is how easily improv can be adapted to include school curriculum. For instance, when Rolf happened to mention that the students were studying space, Ballendine and Campbell modified that week’s games to get the kids to form celestial objects like meteors with their bodies. Other times, they would use scenarios like random park-bench conversations to touch on parts of the language-arts curriculum.
Teaching improv in the classroom has many tangible benefits. For some students, it can inspire an interest that will carry them through their later years—like the student in Rolf’s class who, after trying improv for the first time, went on to study at the Victoria School of the Arts. For others, improv can reveal new skills that may not show up in a traditional classroom. But even if it’s just a fun change of pace in the regular school day, administrators still strongly believe in the value of the generosity and openness that Rapid Fire performers bring to their work.
“No one is excluded,” says Averill. “And that’s a really nice experience for a student who has had many experiences of exclusion.”
Written by Michael Hingston, an Edmonton-based writer and book publisher
December 11, 2020