This middle school drama was all improv


By Helaina N. Hovitz

Something was quite noticeably missing at I.S. 89’s spring production of “1001 Arabian Nights,” and that something was the rigid movement and monotonous line recitation typical of any other middle-school play. Manhattan Youth’s after school drama club put on a performance full of organized chaos.

Just minutes before the show began last Saturday, a dozen girls giggled nervously backstage, decked out in brightly colored saris, taking last-minute stage directions from co-director Lance Windish.

The general story lines of the original book were kept the same, and each scene change was signified by full-cast belly dancing to loudly blasted Arab music. Those students made the rest up as they went along.

The play began when Tiffany Fung, 12, stepped onstage and into a tangle of the hot pink cloth that hung in dangerously low rows from the ceiling. “I was so nervous! In the beginning, I was trapped in the drapes! But overall I loved it. This was very different from what we did a few years ago.”

Anna Bernath, 13, said she loved not having a script. “We were given stories which laid out a structure, but the tableaus and dialogue was improv,” she said. “It was planned, but never has been the same twice, we have never said the same things in the same positions.” Anna plans to go to the Professional Performing Arts School next year to stick with performing. “Drama, singing, anything.”

It took a full semester to put the play together. Co-director Constance Tarbox taught the children belly dancing for one full class session of each week, and the other weekly session was dedicated to acting. Between hugs from the children and shouts of praise after the show, Tarbox explained how hard she, after school coordinator Theseus Roche, and Windish worked to allow each of the students’ personalities to shine through.

“We wanted to bring a circus-like physicality into the theater…we helped them make it look cleaner,” she said. “This was a success because we had personality. Every rehearsal was about the kids having fun onstage.”

Ilan Mandel, 13, who will be attending Columbia’s Math Science and Engineering high school next year, said: “I’m the tech crew. Just me. Lights and tech…. Even the lights are improv…I have a little bit planned though.”

Mandel is the only tech-savvy member of the drama program, and has been with the club for the past two years; he also exhibits his talent outside of school by DJing parties.

The cast did a remarkable job of taking their cues from one another without hesitation, and it was clear to the audience that these kids were not only comfortable onstage, but incredibly creative and quick-thinking. The show called for a great deal of physical comedy, especially when cast members were required to slash away at each other and fall to their deaths, literally throwing themselves into the performance.

The play’s narrators spoke directly to an audience that consistently found themselves in stitches, but the performers never once broke character. They had as little time as one week to learn the skits that were added to the performance last minute.

Nicolas Setix’s mother said her 6th grader “likes the group a lot. I would like to see him continue with drama, big-time.” When she asked her son whether or not he would continue with drama next year, he seemed surprised, responding, “Why are you asking me? Of course I’m already committed for the next three years.”

While the performance looked like it was all fun and games onstage, it demanded a deep level of time and dedication that some of the original cast members couldn’t commit to. Theresa Palmere, 14, who plans to attend Beacon High School next year, said: “Most of the 8th graders quit because they had other things to do…once you join drama, it’s got to be your top priority.”