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The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Needs Improvment: a theatrical class for students to grow

During G-Block, in the auditorium, students are surrounded by a supportive and non-judgmental environment where they preform freely in the class Needs Improvment.

Wanted: Students who appreciate performing arts and are interested in improv.
Details: A passionate and dedicated group of teenagers create applicable life lessons and a supportive community.

Needs Improvment is an advanced drama class at the high school which has been mentored by performing arts teacher Mark Vanderzee for 15 years. However, it is led by student captains during G-block in the auditorium. The class not only offers an opportunity for students to better their improvisation skills, but presents them with a supportive environment and beneficial life lessons.

Vanderzee’s role is to assist the captains when needed, but give them the space to lead. He says that he values building community and relationships in the class and hopes to give everyone the tools they need to achieve that.

“Building community in the class is how I really feel I can make a difference. I think the class works best when it’s a room where they’re really making strong connections and are able to support, challenge and listen to each other,” Vanderzee said.

To simulate relevant topics for their improv, students are asked to research current events and then share their work with the class. Vanderzee said that this brings awareness to any sensitivities in the class, but also creates suitable jokes that the audience would understand.

“It is an opportunity for us to see if someone has been affected by something that they’ve read or seen and be able to be there and support them. The other thing is bringing it into the work and creating ‘in- jokes’ that everyone in the audience is ‘in on’ because it’s in the news,” Vanderzee said.

Senior and co-captain Griffin Schoreder said that sharing news stories can also help the class bond and learn about each other’s interests.

“One of the biggest things about this class is forming a community within the class so that we can all rely on and trust each other in scenes and outside,” Schroeder said.

Aside from focus-based classes, the students participate in “free-form Fridays” every week. During these classes, students practice their improvisation skills through quick games for the entirety of the block. According to Vanderzee, by practicing free-form, the students are pushed out of their boundaries in order to generate inventive ideas. He said that practicing free-form helps the students gain comfortability in their weaknesses.

“When we’re in performance, typically, the things that we don’t feel so good at, we don’t try. So I really encourage them to try new things in class and work the muscles that they don’t consider their strongest muscles,” Vanderzee said.

Senior and co-captain Andie Cohen said that the concept of “story not plot” has stood out to her this year. The phrase recognizes the advantage in really creating depth for characters and relationships, rather than an orderly transition of events during an improvised performance. Cohen said that this knowledge inspires her to think about her personal identity and relationships with others.

“I translate that into my everyday life as much as possible, because I want to consider the perspectives of people around me. I think: ‘What did they want from me? And what do I want from them? What can we share mutually,” Cohen said.

Obstacles can be common in improvisation, as performers might have their own idea of what “should” happen before the act commences. Junior Allen Burlak said that he appreciates how supportive the class is when things go awry, and how accepting everyone is of making mistakes.

“Not all scenes are going to work out the way that they worked out in your head, but something that I personally really love about the classes; no matter what you do in the scene, if you put in your effort, everybody is always supporting you whether or not the scene worked,” Burlak said.

As a class mentor, one of Vanderzee’s goals is to assist the students in responding to setbacks. He said he hopes to prepare them for the realistic difficulties in life—not just Improv.

“I really draw a lot of attention to when things start to go awry in a scene. What happens to you? And what are the tools that you can employ to get back on track, because obstacles are unavoidable in life,” Vanderzee said.

Every year, the current students contest against old alums through improv games. The showdown is called the “Old School New School Battle” and is an opportunity for the class members to acknowledge the great history of the class and the bonds it has made. Vanderzee said it is an opportunity for the alumni community to share how they have applied improv in their adult lives.

“That’s pretty awesome to see the alums come back and share how they’ve used improv, whether they’re biomedical engineers, finalists on survivor, or teachers. Little of it is actually still doing improv, but it’s more about the life skills that they’re taking with them,” Vanderzee said.

Throughout the year, the students gain substantial amounts of knowledge regarding improvisation according to both Vanderzee and the Improv students. Schroeder, who is currently taking the class for a second time, said it has been inspiring to watch the students grow this year and to constantly be pushed by them to his fullest extent.

“Being able to see everyone else start from the base level that they were at in the beginning of the year, to where they’ve come to now has been really inspiring for me,” Schroeder said. “It makes me want to push them forward because then I can push myself forward as well.”

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