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Students improve with improv

PineCrest Elementary School artist in residence DJ Hamilton explains to Zack Blackington how to act like an animal during in improv skit. - Photo by Jesse Beals
PineCrest Elementary School artist in residence DJ Hamilton explains to Zack Blackington how to act like an animal during in improv skit.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

To many of Amanda Erickson’s third graders the “World’s Biggest Bubble Gum” and other goofy-named games were just that — games.

But to PineCrest’s artist in residence DJ Hamilton the games are the students’ first, and he hopes, not the only taste of theater.

Clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, Hamilton’s teaching style is just as casual. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, he first led the students in calisthenics to bring the energy level down from wired to brimming enthusiasm.

Their attention from this point on was undivided.

This is Hamilton’s 20th year in the Washington Art Commission’s residency program, but his first at PineCrest. The school was selected this year based on a proposal from Zoe James a second-grade teacher at PineCrest.

“There’s validity to doing art in education,” James said.

Performing arts, a passion for James, teaches problem solving skills and gets students comfortable with taking risks and making mistakes she said. The grant proposal and eventual residency was part of Jame’s masters degree project.

The arts committee supplied a matching grant, supported in part by the school’s PTA and Washington Mutual Bank. She hopes to continue the program next year and add a visual artist.

The drama classes, which are offered to third- and fifth-graders, center around improv. The students are given a scenario and are given the green light on how to convey that to an audience.

In this class there are no right or wrong answers.

During last week’s class the students played “Please Please Can I Keep Him.”

They were put in groups of three. One played the parent, one played the kid and one acted like an animal of their choosing. The actor’s objective as the kid was to persuade the parent to let him or her keep the animal. They learned about tactics and objectives — key elements for any actor. They also had fun.

One student got the nod from “dad” and a few laughs from the audience by promising to save him money by switching the family’s car insurance.

Hamilton hopes the students will come away from the class with a “greater understanding of their own talent and a basic understanding of the elements of theater.”

He is not so much interested in the product, but the process it takes to get there.

“We’re not going to do Hamlet in two weeks,” he said.

Hamilton’s 10-day residency, which was spread over three weeks, ends Friday, Nov. 21.

Selected students will, however, perform for their peers and parents improv games they learned in class such as “Salesperson from Another Planet,” and “World’s Biggest Bubble Gum” 7 p.m., Friday Nov. 21 at the PineCrest gymnasium.

James has invited area theater groups to watch the show and offer the youngsters more opportunities in the performing arts.

“They love it,” Erickson as she observes their antics, “Some of them have really excelled at it.”

Hamilton caught the acting bug himself while in school. He said it gave him an outlet, a place where getting a lot of attention was good rather than getting him in hot water.

Among his accomplishments is his founding of the Theatre Babylon on Capitol Hill in Seattle and retired as its artistic director. It produced up to a half dozen plays a year.

Over the 20 years as an artist in residence, Hamilton said he has noticed a difference that Title IX has made. The girls, he said, are much more coordinated and more confident in their abilities.

He also used to spend a lot of time teaching the concept of improv, but with the emergence of television shows such as “Whose Line is It Anyway?” the children are familiar with the concept.

His lessons focus on improv because it allows students to dive into acting without being intimidated by scripts.

He hopes to also instill in the children a desire to do more theater in school as they get older.

“The social skills learned from being in a play are crucial,” Hamilton said.

“The ability to communicate who you are and what you want is crucial for everyone,” he said.

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