My favorite game is not my favorite actual happening. I’m referring to a game we played in an acting class way back when I was a teenager. The teacher who introduced us to the game used it as a stream of consciousness drill. It worked out so well, and we all became so proficient at it that our teacher had us perform it for a larger group of students than just those taking her particular class. We thought we were hysterically funny; we weren’t.
Years have gone by and the game is still being played all over the country. Truth be told, “Blind Date” is far more suitable as a workout drill for adults than it is for teenagers. But then again, anything requiring a degree of reflection is better suited to those with some real life experiences to draw on, either through their own eyes or the eyes of another.
Our acting class had thirty of us in it. The mix of boys and girls was pretty equal. About 60 percent of the students were wasps and the balance was a rainbow society. It was the very early 50s; the racial divide was just what the name implies.
As a reference, it was just four years after Jackie Robinson became the first Negro to enter the rarified air of Major League racism.
I doubt if Southern California felt the heat of separatism as much as many other parts of the United Sates; we were certainly a far removed society from that of the Deep South.
By now, you most likely are wondering what baseball, Jackie Robinson, and integration has to do with a high school acting class. The answer summed up in one word: everything!
We students were in for an awakening. Our brilliant teacher, a gorgeous strawberry blonde woman named M.L. Jones, was as much a life teacher as she was an acting mentor.
Miss Jones, an aspiring actress herself, was intelligent enough to get her teaching degree early on as a backup as she made the daily rounds trying to break-in to a world she had dreamed about since childhood. Like so many acting teachers before and after her, not every dream comes true. M.L. Jones was one of those teachers who was absolutely adored by her students. She had a way of making us all, without exception, feel good about ourselves. She always made time to go the extra step it takes to make a teacher an exceptional teacher. What I was about to learn from M.L. was a slice of endearing and not so endearing life. In her own way, she was far in front of the so-called pundits whose responsibility in society, they thought, was to explain to everyone what was right and wrong with people.
Miss Jones lived at a time when her leadership was unnoticed by most around her. She toasted our differences and found alternative directions for most of us by pointing out our individual areas of excellence. I can remember one Monday morning showing up for a Theater Arts workshop she was conducting. I had just had my hair cut so short that I looked like a drowning rat. It was the baseball season and short hair was the thing to do. I really looked disgustingly bad. There was no hiding it. All of my classmates had either the giggles or something demeaning to say when they caught site of me, everyone except M.L..
We were standing at the side of the stage when I caught site of her holding a pencil up as she squinted and looked at my head as if she was a surveyor of a building location. When I looked at her with a question in my eyes about what she was up to, Miss Jones pointed out to me what a marvelous head shape I had. She sure had her ways about her. Can you imagine, almost bald, gaunt and unattractive, and this woman tells me what a great head shape I have. It took me forever to figure out she couldn’t have been serious. Anyway, it made me feel good, at a time when I needed to feel good. Can you dig it?
“OK all of you, settle down, we’re about to do our Blind Date drill. Now that you’re all seniors, I’ve decided to add a little spice to the drill.”
At this point I got the wrong idea, as did many of the other students, especially the guys. We thought this was going to be a time M.L. was going to heavily touch on sexual overtones as the main ingredient of our scenes.
NOTE: Here’s the way the “Blind Date” drill works.
The teacher chooses two students – a man and a woman – to go up on stage and take a seat facing each other either at a table, on a bench, or at whatever is available. They might also begin their scene while standing as if they just came upon each other at a prescribed meeting place.
The premise is they are meeting for the first time on a blind date.
They do not begin until the teacher calls out what their attitude and mental attributes, positive or negative, are for the scene. The teacher is, in essence, functioning as a profiler by describing the characteristics of the people our two actors will portray.
As an example, the teacher could say to the guy – he is taken and almost overcome nervously when he sees how attractive the gal is. The gal might be told she is deeply disappointed at the way the guy is dressed.
Neither actor is allowed to speak to each other. Instead, their individual emotions are verbalized as stream of consciousness when they turn and tell their story to the audience. Each actor speaks until receiving a change signal from the teacher.
The teacher may change the required attitude for either one or both of the actors as the scene plays out. At any prescribed moment, the teacher signals either one or both actors to switch from stream of consciousness to dialogue, keeping the same attributes in place as part of the scene.
Without exception, each scene takes on an almost completely different flavor when we change from the internalizing of emotion to the dialogue between two people meeting for the first time. During the two full school semesters playing the “Blind Date” drill was a never-ending challenge and reward sequence. None of us ever knew what the outcome of a scene might be.
It came at a time just a month or so prior to graduation. Most of our classes had been academically wrapped up. It was the best of times, going to school totally void of pressure. It was baseball and a seemingly endless variety of fun and games. Time skipped right along – the senior prom, grad night, and then back to the serious business of baseball.
The last weeks of our contemporary theater class were upon us. We all looked forward to a last crack at the “Blind Date” game, not only because of the fun and games aspect but because Miss M.L. Jones alerted us to be expecting a little different approach this time around – something to take with us. In the classroom, we all anticipated a last shot at laughs all the way around. We were in for a well-planned surprise.
M.L. Jones began the class with a serious countenance, which in itself was a surprise.
“What’s happening out there?” She asked us.
(No response, not even a whisper was heard).
“Well maybe you haven’t noticed but the University of Tennessee admitted its first black student.”
Again the classroom became quiet, not out of surprise or shock but simply because none of us knew what to do with M.L.’s announcement.
“Okay then, let’s get right to Blind Date.”
I think a student or two asked about what the surprise she had planned was but the request was ignored.
“For today’s first blind date, the first couple up will have recently graduated from a southern university; that university is the University of Tennessee. Both of you are extremely confident people. Both are good students and both are articulate. I’ll give you the rest of the background after you have taken your places on stage.”
It once again grew quiet in the theater when M.L. called out the two participants. The two she chose were well-known and popular around campus. The girl was white, the boy was black.
“The year is 2002. There have been many social changes in our country. When you say hello to one another you are outside the restaurant the two of you have decided to have coffee at. Your mood is pleasant, but this will be the first time either of you have dated outside of your ethnicity. As you begin to internalize you share all of your true emotions, everything from within, including fear.”
What the first couple did with it was enlightening to experience. We had grown up somewhat and M.L. Jones was aware of who we had become. It came out as her gift to us although at the time it is doubtful if any of us understood the depth of our teacher’s ability to teach.
The next couple to take the stage was cast in reverse. The girl was black, the boy was white. The time period was current times. If they did date regularly the consequences could be of extreme proportions, especially compared to what the first couple was asked to portray. The meeting place was an out-of-the-way bowling alley, extremely noisy and crowded. They were to meet at the front reception desk.
The two began to play the scene and all of us were enthralled with the reality of their presence. After a few moments, M.L. signaled them to stop as she simultaneously offered an additional instruction to them. They were now to play the scene as if they were seated at a park bench. They’d been dating for two months.
Surprisingly, the two of them play the improvised scene as if it was being lived in the moment. They talked of their struggles with most people not accepting their ongoing relationship. Then, the girl became solemn as she spoke of her Father’s displeasure. Miss Jones brought the scene to an end, and announced who the next team would be.
She used the term “team” and we got that the mixed couple premise had come to an end for the day.
I can’t recall how I was feeling in that moment. I do know a new adult form had been introduced. The power of the substance would take years before a truer form was there for me to grasp hold of.
Senior Prom night, one final item to relate. There they were the second couple from class. It became clear to me why the scene was so unbelievably real. They were actually a couple. It may have been improvisation at a high level of performance, but I wonder if the two of them could have really pulled it off with such great believability if they had truly been meeting on a “Blind Date.”
M.L. Jones had found a way to help them, as she found a way to help every one of her students. Stanislavsky maybe a driving force for me, but when it comes to improv my thoughts often drift back to M.L. Jones.
What a difference a few decades make.