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  • Paul Deichmann

3 years later, a reflection

By Paul Deichmann

This fall will be the third anniversary of The Unscripted Project’s beginning, and 3 years that I have taught with them. To mark the occasion, I’ve been ruminating and reflecting on why I joined the team, and what has surprised, delighted, and sustained me these last 3 years.

Why I joined The Unscripted Project

As a student, improv was the cure to my anxiety and crippling shyness. In high school I could hardly bear to speak to my peers, let alone present in front of them or approach one as a friend. That all changed when I got dragged–almost against my will–into the ensemble of a production of Twelfth Night, because said ensemble badly needed guys. We improvised in the background to keep the scenes lively and moving, and very quickly I developed friendships, grew in confidence, and began to understand myself and others much more than I had before. I went on to teach theatre in a variety of settings, coaching and encouraging students to find themselves and connect with others through spontaneous play. I was so delighted to find Philip and Meera launching this non-profit to share that experience, of improv helping one develop the skills necessary for life and reduce social anxiety, that I leapt at the chance to join them.

Summer 2021: The first time the Unscripted team + board met in person, after a year of working together!

What the beginning was like

The Unscripted Program launched in the Fall of 2020, which was a trying time. Philip and Meera, always ahead of the game, smart and super supportive, had worked tirelessly to adapt for virtual classrooms the in-person curriculum they’d spent half a year building and testing–but there was still a question in the cyber-air: “would this work?” We didn’t know. The world’s collective spirit was all over the place–full of hope for a coming vaccine, but till then, trapped inside. There wasn’t much confidence in the ability of virtual learning to be fun–it was just what was necessary to do for now, until we could be back together.

Or at least, those were my beliefs, as I began teaching improv online. So much of what I believed to be the core of the wonderful curriculum I had seen, surely would only work in person! Surely, I thought to myself.

Fall 2020: an early class with the students at Franklin Learning Center

Never have I been so glad to be wrong. The students we met at that time were so excited for a break from the norm, and so eager to meet their peers in a new way, so needing to reduce their anxieties and develop their social bonds, that the games were fun, the technical problems secondary, the discussions rich, and the progress electric.

Entering classrooms

We made it back into classrooms as soon as we could. By the Fall of 2021 we were going into schools, and our work took on new dimensions: many of the students we were working with had never met each other, some had spent a whole year in a new school without seeing their peers in person. The end of virtual learning meant the beginning of new challenges, as we collectively tiptoed into a world with many new anxieties and tensions. I found students responded to discussion in new ways, and many relished the chance to be silly and carefree, while also recognizing how important the skills we were developing were. They responded powerfully to the chance to play and develop their sense of self through play.

Spring 2022: An in-person class in Unscripted's second year, at Science Leadership Academy

The skills for an ever changing world

Even as the chaos of 2020 fades into memory, the tumultuous times haven’t. Many of our students have responded strongly to the emotional side of social emotional learning. Our discussions have been deep, wide ranging, and often raw. Developing resilience, confidence and stronger connections with each other through play has been transformative for so many of our students. Students have delighted in a space to be silly, to develop those skills they don’t get many chances to practice (empathy, active listening, emotional availability, physicality) and to connect with each other in new ways.

Spring 2023: A recent class at Science Leadership Academy

And the looming future continues to stress the need for our program. The world is ever more an uncertain place, and students today feel that. They’re worried, often about how fast things are changing. Through improv we’ve been able to offer them a toolkit to embrace the uncertainty of our times, and to operate boldly within it. More than ever, improv is a crucial tool for developing the skills we need to thrive in the world.

My favorite game

A lot’s changed in the last three years. What students need is always fluctuating, but I’ve never felt that improv wasn’t the right tool to help them. And, my favorite game, the one I think has been the most effective in helping students, has been the same all three years, virtual and in person. And to boot, it’s wordless: The “Mirror Game” in which two (or more) players follow each other as if they were a mirror. It’s never failed to bring classrooms closer together, reduce classroom anxiety, and lead to many great discussions about connecting with each other through eye contact and active listening. It’s been incredible to see how listening to each other, even in simple physical ways, can bring us closer together and make us feel connected to each other.

Spring 2022: Students playing Mirror at Science Leadership Academy

Final Thoughts

Teaching with Unscripted I’ve seen students change their attitude from withdrawn to bold, from uncertain to confident. It’s a real joy to get to share what helped me connect with myself and my peers with those who need it most. I’m grateful for all the support that makes this program possible, and I’m looking forward to another 3 years of sharing the power of improv. We’ve developed so much as a team, reached so many students in the district of Philadelphia and beyond, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.


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