Anyone who's watched children at play knows they're natural improvisers.

"Children are always using their imaginations to take their play into unexpected directions," April Olt said.

Olt, who has served the past seven years as director of Grandview Heights High School's fall play and spring musical, is leading a new program this month for Edison Intermediate/Larson Middle School students that offers them the opportunity to explore the basics of improvisational theater.

Those lessons can help students react to the unexpectedness of life, which has no script, Olt said.

Imagination & Improv, a workshop for students in grades 5-6, took place Sept. 15 in the high school choir room.

Improv Sportz, a session for seventh- and eighth-grade students, will be Saturday, Sept. 22.

The workshops are being offered in partnership with the Edison/Larson 4-8 PTO and came about after Olt took the reins of the annual fourth-grade play last school year.

"The PTO approached me about offering some additional performing and theatrical opportunities for students," Olt said. "We've used middle school students in a couple of our recent high school productions and two elementary students were cast in our 'Meet Me in St. Louis' spring musical a couple years ago.

"Doing these workshops are a natural flow from the work I did last year with the fourth grade," she said. "Giving students some early exposure to theater can get them excited about it and hopefully inspire them to get involved in the school plays when they get to high school."

"We're always looking to create enrichment opportunities for our students in or out of the classroom," PTO President Dot Keil said. "These workshops are a way to extend the experience our students have with the fourth-grade plays."

The workshops are designed to give students the basics of improvisation and comedy techniques, Olt said.

During the workshop, fifth- and sixth-graders practiced a number of exercises commonly used in improv classes.

In one game, students portrayed statues in a museum that moved while the "guard," played by Olt, turned her back to them. They had to stand completely still -- except for blinking and breathing -- when she was looking in their direction. If they moved even a little, they were out of the game.

The students also participated in a modified game of freeze tag. Two students portrayed characters and improvised a scene until Olt called out "freeze." The students then froze in position and another student tapped one of them, assumed his or her position and continued the improvised story.

"Participating in those kinds of games helps develop communication skills," Olt said. "In some cases, you're attempting to communicate nonverbally. Performing, especially for young people, helps them become thoughtful about speaking in front of other people."

In classes she teaches at Columbus Children's Theater, Olt said, "I tell them all the time there's not going to be a job you're going to have where you don't have to use some communication skills."

Improvisation is a team-building exercise, she said.

"The most important thing in improv is to set up the idea of trust and building relationships among the actors, and that's applies to any age group," she said. "The improv stage is a place where anything can happen. You have to be prepared to answer 'yes' to anything that's suggested on stage."

Olt said she thinks the basic lessons of improv the students will learn in the workshops can be applied to real life.

Life is an improvisation, she said, in which one often must react to the unexpected.

Sixth-grader Carrie Furbee was one of 14 students who participated in the workshop.

"I thought it would be fun to try something new," she said. "I was interested in finding out more about improvisation."

Carrie said she found the key to improvisation "was not to think about it too much.

"You're better off if you just let your mind and imagination go where they want to," she said. "Otherwise, you might just freeze up."

The younger students were assisted by Mary Beth Kauffman and Aria Cadeau, two Grandview Heights High School students who are veterans of the high school's theatrical productions.

"I do a lot of work with kids at CATCO and it's always fun to work with younger students," Kauffman said. "What I like best is seeing their reaction when the pilot light of their imagination turns on and their creativity takes off. It's fun."

Cadeau said she saw her younger self in the Edison and Larson students.

"I remember being part of an improv activity in middle school and it was the first time I felt included and like I was doing something I loved," she said. "It got me excited about getting involved in theater and I hope it does the same for some of these middle school students.

"When you're doing an improvised scene, it's a chance to be a little silly and crazy for a while," Cadeau said.

The strong turnout for the first workshops indicates there may be a chance to continue and expand the program, Keil said.

"I'm very encouraged that there could be enough interest to turn this into a club or troupe that would meet and perform regularly," she said. "Our community always supports the performing arts in our schools and this may be another avenue to pursue."

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