by Lou Mancinelli
Improvisation. Acting on the free flow of thought. Such a concept is often associated with jazz, different types of theater and other various art forms. But whether you are playing basketball, and the man the play is designed for has just slipped, or cooking and you are missing a spice, improvisation is present in our everyday lives in ways we may not realize.
In fact, it can also be used to teach self-improvement and conflict-resolution. For the past six years, former New York City and Philadelphia lawyer and Chestnut Hill resident, Tema Feuer Esberg, has done just that. In addition to the teaching, Esberg has over 26 years of experience on the stage and in film.
“It’s a great, fun way to hone really important life-skills,” said Esberg about practicing improvisation, “like being in the moment, eye-contact, spontaneity and thinking out-of-the-box.”
Esberg has utilized her tactics and classes to teach people as far ranging in age as students at Germantown Friends School to adults in her own private classes and to city residents through the city’s Mural Arts Program. Often, companies or organizations will invite her in to facilitate large group sessions and build group rapport in cases where communication and teamwork are essential.
This fall, beginning Oct. 11, Esberg will share her techniques with her class, “Intro to Improv,” at Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St., through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree. The class runs until Dec. 6.
The class, while it has its elements of and is rooted in theater, is more about helping individuals develop their awareness, self-confidence and their ability to excel, even without a set script, and less about teaching students the finer points of theater.
“I feel that improv class helped me to think more outside the box, to really be able to think on the fly,” said Abe A., a former student of Esberg’s. “As a result, I feel that my speeches have generally been funnier, and my composure has been better. I feel like the theatrics/entertainment quality has improved significantly, as well. I treat my speeches more like performances than just reciting what I wrote. I’m much more confident with freestyling when I’ve lost my train of thought, to the point that nobody even notices that I’ve lost my place.”
If you have ever seen the popular television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you can get a sense of what part of the class might be like a few weeks into its sessions. Students might be given three words like cat, tomato and shoehorn, and asked to create a dialogue with the other students on the spot using those words.
Before that, Esberg begins her eight-week program with simple introduction games. She might ask students to say their name with a certain affected tone, while doing a gesture like twisting the hips, and ask the class to repeat the name and gesture. Or she might give students a neutral sentence like ‘the grass is brown,’ and have students run from one side of the room to the other and say the sentence loudly and clearly enough so that everyone in the room can hear, and with a certain emotion, whether it be a sad or excited one.
While the activities are simple, they begin to build confidence in individuals, according to Esberg, who graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1991, where she studied religion. After graduation she went on to law school at Pace University in New York City. While at Emory and on the side in New York, Esberg, now 42, enrolled in theater classes.
“A lot of times people may not realize how they are honing their skills,” Esberg said. “If you are the type of person who thinks about everything before you do it, or you are someone who is not good at letting go, [these games] help to build rapport, because you have everyone in the class responding to and affirming you.”
The games help one begin to notice the type of inflection one’s voice has at different times, and how that inflection is related to the timing and tone of one’s speech. Students begin to become aware of the physicality attached to their speech.
In addition to the classes she teaches through her company, Eskot Entertainment, and MALT, Esberg has facilitated building group rapport and taught conflict-resolution through improvisation at college orientations, workshops and conferences for schools and organizations.
For example, if you are in a situation where bullying is a problem, you can use improvisational workshops to generate discussion, she said.
At 15, Esberg’s career in the theater began near her hometown in Cherry Hill. That is when she was recruited to work with the New Jersey Division of Mental Health Services in its outreach troupe. Esberg, one of only two teens in the troupe, went into the community using socio-drama techniques to facilitate dialogue and conflict-resolution for victims of domestic violence, recovering alcohol and drug addicts, seniors and others.
More than 25 years later, her work focuses on that same thing she fell in love with as a teenager. But it wasn’t until the birth of her first daughter, Maya, in 2000, that Esberg began to reevaluate her life. Meanwhile, the idea to pursue her passion for theater had “been in the back of [her] head all these years.”
“I became a lawyer because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” Esberg explained. “When I was that young, I didn’t realize that I could choose a career I really liked. I thought you had to live according to a more prescribed norm.”
So after graduating from Pace in 1994, she practiced law in New York City. While in New York, she took classes at HB studios. When she moved with her husband, Doug, to Philly in 1997, she saw a flyer one day for the Full Circle Theater, a local improv troupe.
After she joined the troupe, Esberg began to meet many individuals involved in the local improvisation and theater scene. Those relationships led to Esberg’s appearance in numerous performances in various community theaters like the Stagecrafters’ performance of “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” in Chestnut Hill.
In 2004, she began teaching classes in improvisation. Last year, Esberg expanded her knowledge of improvisation when she attended Thomas Jefferson University’s Mindfulness Institute. She has also studied the subject at the Omega Institute in New York.
“When I first quit law, I got a lot of big eyes,” Esberg said. “People assured me I could always go back. Now, people say to me, ‘I wish I could follow my passion.’”
“Intro to Improv” will be given Tuesdays, Oct. 11 to Dec. 6 (except Nov. 8), 6:30 – 8:30 p.m., Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St. More information at www.eskot.com, www.mtairylearningtree.org or 215-843-6333.