Community Comes Together To Host Improv Workshop For GPS Students

GPS Improv Workshop
Photo courtesy of Beth Bussotti

The improv team at Gravenhurst Public School (GPS) is the only local team at their age level, and after several public performances, the community came together to treat them to a workshop at the Opera House on March 4.

Beth Bussotti, Grade 1/2 Teacher at GPS, started the improv team after getting into acting herself. When she fell in love with it, she wondered how she could give back to her students through her newfound love of performing. She organized a field trip to one of her shows before holding a workshop alongside other teachers and local actors to gauge interest in a group. Enough students were interested that the improv team at GPS was born. Now in their second year, the team is made up of 13 students in Grades 6 to 8. They meet every Tuesday to practice their skills and play improv games.

Pretty much we just laugh for a whole hour,” Bussotti said.

Throughout the formation of the club, Bussotti sought the help of high school drama teacher Earl Sacrey. His students have helped mentor the younger actors and get them excited about drama before high school, so the two groups came together for the workshop on March 4.

“Everybody just said yes”

The event came to be thanks to Fine Films Gravenhurst, which screens films at the Opera House. The company has invited the GPS improv team to open for their showings several times, and after a performance in January, the team at Fine Films offered funds to support the team and promote arts in the schools. Bussotti envisioned a workshop with local professionals, and the community made it happen.

I asked the actors to come in to facilitate and they said yes. I asked the Opera House for the place, they said yes. I asked Fine Films, I said, ‘Here’s my bill.’ Everybody just said yes,” Bussotti said. “I know that the take-home for me is that there’s this really great community of people that we have that are willing to give their time and resources.”

GPS Improv Workshop
Workshop instructors David Wray, Beth Bussotti, Robin Clipsham and Earl Sacrey. Photo courtesy of Beth Bussotti

The Opera House is usually closed on Mondays, but the venue made a special exception to open up for the improv group since one of the workshop leaders was only available that day. Along with Bussotti and Sacrey, local actors Robin Clipsham and David Wray helped facilitate the workshop. Boston Pizza even gave them a deal on their lunch.

Nine high school students attended the workshop alongside the GPS improv team, collaborating with the younger students from roughly 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The group did the workshop on stage at the Opera House, making it extra special for the students. They’re fascinated by the space, and it’s a point of pride for them that they’ve been able to perform there at public events.

“When we rehearse, we rehearse here at the school in the music room, but I think it’s really special for them to see themselves as being the person on the stage and people are watching them and fascinated by what they’re doing,” Bussotti said. “I love it because I have all of their parents and siblings and everything always taking up the first rows and just loving every minute of it.” 

Parents are happy to see their kids doing something productive, new and different, Bussotti said. Some students see improv as their place to fit in since they’re not into sports and other activities while others enjoy it as a supplement to their other hobbies, making it a diverse group.

Bussotti has high hopes for their future. The Canadian Improv Games is an annual improv competition in Scarborough and she hopes to be able to bring her public school team to compete someday. Having something to work toward would help them progress to another level of skill, she said, and she hopes other public schools in the area will start improv teams as well.

“It would be nice for my kids to meet different kids from different schools who do the same thing,” Bussotti said. “Another dream of mine too is that other public schools do the same thing so I could also have a group of teachers at this level to collaborate with, and we could plan events together.”

Finding a passion for performing

Photo courtesy of Beth Bussotti

Isabella Barnes, age 12, has been on the improv team since the beginning of the school year. She always had an interest in theatre, so she decided to join the team to see if it would ignite a passion for performing, and it did indeed.

“For me, the best part about working with the improv team is we’re all pretty used to each other, so it’s comfortable and easy to do scenes with them without feeling judged or like I’m doing something wrong,” Barnes said. “They are all super patient when you mess up so it’s easier to learn from mistakes.”

She enjoyed working alongside the professionals at the workshop and thinks the practice will help improve the talents she’s been building while on the team.

“I learned different skills such as how to communicate with the audience better, thinking on your feet to keep the scene moving and more,” she said.

Putting skills over spotlights

Local actor Robin Clipsham, also the artistic director and program coordinator at Muskoka StageWorks, was around the same age as the students in the workshop when she discovered acting. One of her teachers in Grade 8 selected her as the lead for a school play, inspiring a mix of horror and delight inside her.

“Even just to stand up in front of a group of people and open your mouth, hear your own voice, that is not something I could have done in Grade 7,” Clipsham said. “Every time the teacher asked me a question, I can remember feeling my stomach just drop.”

GPS Improv Workshop
Photo courtesy of Beth Bussotti

Simply hearing her own voice was intimidating, but acting helped her work through her shyness and learn a variety of skills, which is exactly what the improv club is doing for students at GPS. That’s part of what led her and her colleagues to establish an improv community in Muskoka back in 1993. 

After receiving mail about the Canadian Improv Games, Clipsham worked with other teachers to create a team at Bracebridge Muskoka Lakes Secondary School (BMLSS). They competed for 15 years before making it to nationals, which was a “peak experience” for her.

Once Bracebridge had a team, Huntsville and Gravenhurst followed suit and created their teams in the following years. There were teams in Sudbury, Parry Sound, Barrie and more, but much of that community has faded away.

“All that’s gone because of the pandemic,” Clipsham said. “We’re just slowly, slowly, slowly building the ladder again. It’s just like a tsunami came in and wiped out the whole village.”

Learning, listening and sharing

Clipsham is hopeful the Gravenhurst teams will help revive the local improv scene. She leads workshops regularly, but the event on March 4 had a wider spread of age and experience than she’s used to. 

Robin Clipsham works with Gravenhurst students during the March 4 workshop. Photo courtesy of Beth Bussotti

It was wonderful to see student breakthroughs during the exercises, she said. At one point, the group came out on stage as a swarm of mosquitoes while another activity had them silently work together to create different shapes and structures. The students embraced the workshop and its lessons, allowing for the impactful yet fleeting moments that characterize improv.

“I love groups like that because you watch the older ones helping the younger ones and illustrating some of the concepts,” she said. “It’s not just a game and I think that’s what’s so important to understand is that this is really communicating a set of skills.” 

The skills are largely based on socialization, team building and flexible thinking. Some games are silent, forcing participants to observe each other quietly to reach their objective. It requires them to listen and see each other more consciously. 

The way actors have to commit their focus helps reduce anxiety and improve communication, so it’s less about performing and more about making connections. Many of the young people she encounters seem disenfranchised, lost and scared after the pandemic, so improv is a great way to bring students together in a shared activity, she said. 

Her adult students range from 20 to 70 years old, and they also take courses primarily to meet people and socialize rather than learn performance skills. On top of that, improvisation is a form of meditation, Clipsham said. It teaches people that there are no correct answers, only offers, ideas and sharing. It’s a wonderful team sport that exercises essential skills, so she hopes its popularity will grow.

“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we didn’t have people who thought they were the only people with the answers?” Clipsham said. “There are so many more possibilities when you open up and you talk to people and you let them in.”



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