" Improv Boosts Kids' Confidence"
Twice weekly, these Northern Valley kids – who range in age from 9 to 15 – gather for an hour to explore how and why things are funny, and to take in the basic tenets of improvisational comedy. The notion is to help the kids channel their inner Sacha Baron Cohens and Jerry Seinfelds. Their guides to the comedic underbelly: Greg and David.
However, the class isn't designed specifically for kids with Hollywood aspirations. There are some of those, but most of the children are there just to have a good time. And it shows, say their parents, as the class is one of the only activities they attend willingly, no kicking, no screaming.
Moreover, parents say they have seen unexpected results: Kids who are more confident, at home and at school.
"I always knew [my son] was a good speaker," says Lisa of William, 15. "But this gives him that feeling so that even he knows he is a good speaker now."
A family affair That's the point of the course, says its founder, Alpine resident Maggie Hess. Her brainchild was a family affair – it sprung from watching her son, Josef, interact with his friends after school. Hess noticed that Josef and his buddies were funny and engaging when they hung out with one another but that they retreated and were reserved when not part of a group.
Hess saw the kids' introverted behavior as a warning sign, one she spotted because of her tortured history with public speaking. The wife of jeweler to the stars Jose Hess, Maggie Hess was comfortable throwing and entertaining at elegant dinner parties but went cotton-mouthed when it came time to address employees at her jewelry shop. To deal with the paralysis, she took public-speaking courses and thought something similar might come in handy for Josef and his peers.
"I saw the kids were not socially prepared; they were shy," Hess says. "They tend to hold all that energy inside."
No longer. Through a series of exercises, the kids learn improv fundamentals. They figure out how to anticipate what someone will do. How to listen. How to react. They do it by interacting with and carefully studying one another.
At one point in the hour-long session, they stand on the stage in a semicircle. Each kid tells a story or event that happened to him or her. When the story triggers a memory or reaction in another student, the other student will contribute a comment of his or her own.
"I sleep in Tenafly, but I use the bathroom in Bergenfield," says Stevan, 15, who explains his home straddles the borders of both boroughs.
Then friend Jared, also of Bergenfield, chimes in. "Bergenfield is called Tree City, U.S.A.," says Jared, 15, before opining on what that means.
Scared at first No punch lines, per se. But the humor still rises to the surface.
The yuks do not always come easy, say Hale and Tuculescu. At first, students play the role of wallflowers, standing off to the sides of the class and not talking or participating much, never mind laughing. Class participants are often "blocked by being scared," Hale says. But things loosen up.
The pair say that's natural – that comedy is the perfect tool to pry people from their shells. It's the reason businesses and other organizations often send employees to comedy training -- to take the edge off pressure-filled activities such as delivering presentations or speaking in public.
For Conor, 9, the improv class has solidified his dreams of landing an agent and possibly landing a comedy gig in the not-so-far-off future. In the meantime, the lessons are being put to good use.
"I'm starting to use a lot more details in my speaking and writing," Conor says.
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