As we finish up our second semester of classes here at The Unscripted Project, we look back at a memorable first year. Katie Jenaway, our blog manager and one of our volunteer co-facilitators, sat down with one of our teaching artists, Tara Gadomski, to discuss the joys of working with The Unscripted Project and the challenges of teaching virtually.
Katie: Tell me a little bit more about how you became a teaching artist with The Unscripted Project.
Tara: I had previously taught improv to young people with Philly Improv Theater, so I had the experience, and I had taught as well in London when I was living there, but during the pandemic, obviously Philly Improv Theater was closed, sadly and still is, sadly. And it was completely kismet, or meant to be, that kind of thing, where every few weeks, I would take a glance at the theater job listings in Philadelphia and see if there was anything happening and see if there’s anything interesting that I would like to apply for. I looked at it, and it was last summer, and I hadn’t been teaching, because Philly Improv Theater was closed, and I saw this Unscripted, and I was, like, woah, this looks interesting, and it was the very last day that they were taking applications.
Katie: *gasps* Oh my god!
I didn’t know it was the last day, but I saw it and applied right away within an hour of seeing it, and then, Philip and Meera asked me to come in for an interview, and that’s when they told me that it was literally the last day they were taking it. It feels like it was meant to be
Tara: It was the very last day. (Katie: “Wow”) They were about to take the listing off this website and everything like that. and I was so excited when I spoke to them in the interview, because they had this, you know they talked about this philosophy of what they were doing in terms of using improv for life skills, and I thought that was really exciting and something that I wanted to do as well, because although teaching improv is a performance activity, because it’s a lot of fun too when you have students who want to be there and become better performers, but there is something much deeper to improv, I think as well, which I really love that that’s what they’re doing with Unscripted, so I was so happy when they asked me to join the team.
Katie: Yeah, I felt a very similar way, and I had a similar experience, where I found a listing that they were looking for volunteers through the Facebook Group for the Philly improv community, and I used to study improv at PHIT before the pandemic started, and I was really into it and had gotten really involved, and I was very close to finishing up the curriculum when the pandemic started, and I was like really bummed, because I was one course away from being able to audition, but when I found Unscripted a few months later, I was like, oh my god, this is a great opportunity to stay in it.
Tara: It’s so true, and you’re such an asset to have.
Katie: What were your expectations of teaching virtually?
Tara: Well, luckily, coming into this I had quite a bit of experience on Zoom in general because at the start of the pandemic, I did a couple of films on Zoom. One that I wrote and directed, which I ended up winning a couple of awards. I did it as sort of an experiment in filmmaking on Zoom, when all of a sudden, we were stuck at home, and I thought let’s all try this out. It’s a short film called I See You Now, which I said, I went to all these festivals virtually and winning all these awards, which is something I just did as an experiment, so that and then I also directed a proof of concept for a TV show, which I was hired to do with a couple of big name actors.
I did it as sort of an experiment in filmmaking on Zoom, when all of a sudden, we were stuck at home, and I thought let’s all try this out. It’s a short film called I See You Now, which I said, I went to all these festivals virtually and winning all these awards, which is something I just did as an experiment, so that and then I also directed a proof of concept for a TV show, which I was hired to do with a couple of big name actors.
I was pretty experienced with using the technology and I felt comfortable with that part of it. I also had worked with some young people. A friend of mine who has a kids’ theater group had done a show online, and I had helped her with the technology for that, so I had worked with young people on Zoom as well before going into teaching with Unscripted.
What really surprised me and what I wasn’t prepared for was the reluctance of some young people to come on camera and be participating this way, which completely makes sense, because it’s a lot to ask. What surprised me was how much some students really preferred to be creative in the space of the chat on Zoom and Google Classroom, so having to find ways to engage students not only on camera and sometimes just audio and sometimes just in the chat was the biggest learning curve for me in teaching virtually like that, but I feel like we were able to make it work and was happy to see so many of the activities in the curriculum in Unscripted were able to be modified for students who only wanted to participate in the chat, so we really could cover students at any level. Of course, through the meetings we had each month with the other teaching artists with Unscripted, we were able to exchange ideas for that.
There were some fun opportunities to do things that we wouldn’t have been able to do in person. Not that I thought it was better, but you saw how much the kids loved the scavenger hunt, right? Where they could bring something from their room and show it to the classroom and do a scene with it as a prop.
I’m very much looking forward to being in person, just for the ability to kind of encourage more participation and keep the energy flowing in a way that is a lot more difficult virtually.
Katie: One of the biggest struggles was keeping the rhythm and flow of transitioning between each exercise and each person’s participation. There were a lot of awkward silences.
Tara: Yeah, like when you can’t hear them, and you’re leaning in, and saying, “What? Can I hear that again?” “Like, are you there?”
Katie: Would you say that teaching virtually went as you expected it would?
Tara: I think it went about as I expected. I expected there to be challenges. The challenges I expected were different. I expected there to be more of a challenge in controlling the classroom. I thought it would be too much noise and energy. It turned out to be the opposite, where it was more of a struggle to keep up the energy.
But I don’t want to think that it was lesser than, because I think we all did a really good job, still. The students and the teachers that were involved really jumped in as much as they could. I think we made the best out of it. I almost think it’s not worth worrying about what it would have been like in person, because it wasn’t and it couldn’t be.
Katie: I felt like I went in with almost no expectations for myself, because I’ve never done this before, in terms of teaching improv virtually, so I had no idea what to expect and each class was so different, because kids are different and the classes are different and the time of day and the teachers and what the students are coming to the class with.
That’s something that Unscripted did really well is being able to adapt to the differences in the classes, and that comes down to the curriculum and the philosophy of Unscripted, which is not about making better performers, but it’s about using improv for life skills. It’s about having a safe space for kids to create.
Tara: That’s something that Unscripted did really well is being able to adapt to the differences in the classes, and that comes down to the curriculum and the philosophy of Unscripted, which is not about making better performers, but it’s about using improv for life skills. It’s about having a safe space for kids to create.
Katie: Were there any challenges that you didn’t mention already that you found with your classes?
Tara: It does sometimes get deep, and feeling out how the kids are really feeling is hard to do when you are not in the room with them.
“I’m a bully, and I’m beating up on other kids, but I’m beating up on other kids, because I have my own problems at home, and I need help, because I have problems at home, and that’s why I’m a bully.” I thought, wow, this is a great character. This is a really good example of how to use a character to think about something from someone else’s point of view.
For example, in Week 6, we do a lot of work with characters in improv. We use movement to come up with a character. In one of my classes, a student was punching the air and the character they came up with was a bully. They said, “I’m a bully, and I’m beating up on other kids, but I’m beating up on other kids, because I have my own problems at home, and I need help, because I have problems at home, and that’s why I’m a bully.” I thought, wow, this is a great character. This is a really good example of how to use a character to think about something from someone else’s point of view. It’s not right to be a bully, but maybe this bully has problems. Some of the other students were jumping in and saying, “Yeah, that’s true. They often have problems at home.” It was a great discussion, but it was really hard for me to feel how the kids were feeling, because we were virtual.
It was missing that little extra element where I could feel the energy in the room and really see the different kids, like maybe one kid looked upset, and I couldn’t see it, because they didn’t have their camera on, or maybe another kid was nodding, so there were things that I couldn’t see and gauge, because we were virtual. It’s such an important part of teaching, when you’re asking students to be creative, you want that extra layer of interpersonal communication, and you want to make sure that everyone is okay.
The curriculum leads to important discussions. What happens between the scenes is almost more important than what is happening during the scenes.
That's the end of Part 1 of our reflection. Stay tuned for part 2 later this week!