By Rebecca Jefferson
This interview was conducted at the café in Prairie Lights in Iowa City. Intern Grace, in her Friday best, arrived with a Starbucks latte, whose logo I helpfully hid in solidarity from the Prairie Lights Employees with the Matcha green tea latte I’d ordered.
How did you get started with the IYWP, any why did you want to get involved?
So, I tried to be a volunteer working on the sites for two straight years. It’s so ironic, and Mal and I kind of laugh about it, because I have improv on Wednesday nights and that always, no matter what, was an issue getting involved with a site. Another big day was Monday, and I had these night classes, so it just never worked out for me, which was a huge bummer. And I thought ‘man, this organization is so cool and I really want to get involved, so I actually, late into my sophomore year, emailed them, just cold emailed them, and I was like: ‘hey do you guys have any internships available? I love this organization and I think that what you guys do is miraculous, but I can’t be a volunteer at a sight, so can I do something more internally?’
And they were super sweet and got back to me and we set up an interview and the rest is history! It was my first real job interview that I’ve ever had and I’m so glad it was that. Because Mal and Lisa and Leigh are like so wonderful. But I was so sweaty that I have a vivid memory in my mind of all of them wanting to shake my hand and me being like I physically don’t want to because I’m so sweaty. On the record I was wet, I was dripping wet!
You said you’ve done a lot of internal work, and recently you helped put on a very fun workshop, so tell us about that workshop and some other things you’ve done with the IYWP.
I’m on the programming squad with Mal, so the main things that we do are focused on planning curriculum and activities for events that the IYWP puts on. So, the main thing both years that I’ve been involved in this organization, that I really enjoy doing and have taken part in, is the Junior High Writing conference. We spend a lot of time planning activities for different age groups to cover different wants and needs.
But this semester, since Mal is so nice and knows Paperback Rhino outside of me, we were kind of talking about a collaboration between the IYWP and Paperback Rhino. It was very complicated because Paperback Rhino is not a student org and the IYWP was just absorbed into the University, so it was very hard to coordinate an event that would work for everybody. But Mal and Lisa met with Jamie and I, we’re both the co-captains of PBR, and we kind of thought: ‘well we could do a show that benefits the IYWP, we could do a kid show that has kids performing in it,’ and then what came out was—I think it was mostly Lisa who was like: ‘well what if you train our interns about activities that they could do in their classrooms, because improv is so valuable in that way?’ And we were like, ‘absolutely!’ That’s how that idea really started.
The Funny-Up Workshop was a night where interns and site coordinators and kids could come and take away activities that they would be able to use in their classrooms. They also could learn techniques by doing which would help in a situation where things are kind of losing control. Which, I think, as interns, we experience that no matter if we’re at a sight every week or if we just work at special events. There are things that happen that’s like, ‘okay, didn’t expect that.’ So, it always helps to be able to think on your feet and say ‘okay, I can make light of this situation or I can redirect very quickly.’ It’s very helpful.
So, since you brought up the Junior High Writing Conference, we’re going to go off script a little. Could you give us a sneak peek of what’s to come?
Yes, of course! Well, this is an exclusive. Paperback Rhino is going to be teaching a workshop at the Junior High Writing Conference, which we did last year and everyone really vibed with it! So, we’ll be there. There’ll be all kinds of activities—we’re doing comics, sketches, spoken word poetry, etc. The conference is just so amazing because kids want to be there. (that’s what was awesome about the Funny-up Workshop too, people were coming because they wanted to be there and felt like we had something to give them).
What’s your most memorable moment volunteering with the IYWP?
Okay so, there was, I really don’t even remember what year it was, it was two semesters ago maybe. We did a workshop with a group of kids, I don’t think it was necessarily age restricted, it was a pretty wide age group but there was a lot of younger kids there, just really young kids. We did it at the Iowa City Public Library. There was a girl there who came, and she said: ‘I really don’t like writing, I don’t like reading, I like to draw and I’m gonna be drawing all the prompts for the day.’
It was just the prog squad there and we didn’t really know what to say to her, we wanted to be like you can’t just draw you have to write. But Mal handled it really well, she’s like super experienced with that kind of thing, and she was like: ‘that’s fine, you can draw but you have to draw what the prompts are asking you to write.’ The girl was like: ‘that’s fine,’ and she was really young—she was probably like seven, and she was very quiet very—typical artist, she was very introspective and just wanted to be with her work. And she would not show anyone what she was working on. So, the prompts kept coming and by the end of it kids were supposed to go up and share their work.
We were teaching them different forms of poetry, like we taught them odes and other forms, and at the end we were asking for volunteers to share and she didn’t come up and didn’t come up. She hadn’t said anything the whole time. And at the end, when we got to the ode she raised her hand and we were like: ‘oh, yeah okay. is she going to show the picture or what is she gonna do?’ She goes up and she had written a full ode, and just really took to it, and with each turning image in her poem she had drawn a little image. And we were like: ‘oh we thought that you only just wanted to draw.’ And she was like: ‘well, I realized I could kind of do comics, I can write what I draw.’
And it was just like, watching her find a form that works for her as a combination that she hadn’t thought of, and that we hadn’t thought of, and just watching her come out of her shell, It was very very cool. It makes the other stuff when you know you’re not reaching a kid, like you can have seventy of those, but to have the one that you do reach it just kind of makes it all equal in whatever way. So that was probably my most memorable moment.
Yes! That’s a good one. It’s nice to see students flourish when they have the tools to!
Yeah! I kind of felt that same way when we planned—I can’t remember the name of it—it’s like a day where we have students of marginalized groups– (the interviewer and interviewee try for five minutes to jog each other’s memories on what it’s called) we spent so many weeks planning it, but we had so many writers— middle school high school teens of color and they come in and we do a day of different hot button issues relating to marginalized groups. So, like Immigration, LGBTQIA+, we did woman’s rights, we did native peoples’ right as well, and we have them do like a chain reaction of what they learned that day and the across the line acceptance stuff. Ugh, I can’t remember the name, I’m so humiliated by that! (The interviewer promises to confer with Lisa on the name). It was very cool to plan and just know that the room was going to be filled with people who this country is skewed to silence and that their voices were going to be so loud and heard so loud because it’s about them. That just felt really good to plan and be a part of.
Why do you think writing and Improv are important, and how do they feed into each other?
So, I have never done improv literally until I walked into the audition my freshmen year of college. I did not know what it was; I had no prior knowledge of it. The people that are deciding whether you’re going to be on a team always ask you, ‘why are you here?’ Improv is a huge thing in Iowa City so a lot of the people trying out had been like, ‘Oh well I did a JSAJ speech in high school or whatever’, and I remember that my reason—I remember saying it because I felt that way as a scared 18 year old and I feel that way now as a scared 21 year old. But um, I wanted to be creative and I wanted to find a group of people that nurtured and enhanced that creativity. And I think that the same is said for writing, writers are nothing if they are not with each other. They learn from each other, they read from each other. You know, every writer’s always like: ‘Oh the best way to get better is to read.’ And I feel that same way about improv. I am nothing on that stage when I am doing something alone.
And that’s alot of what we worked on in the workshop was—we did this thing called Human Beatbox, and it was that one person came forward and did a sound or a noise and another person would come forward and do a sound or a noise. Then they layered on top of each other to create this wonderful weird beat. With one person, it’s just one weird person going like “beep beep beep”. You know it’s very strange. I feel like the two intersect in the way that they’re a collaborative creative effort where we learn from each other to be better and to create something that’s whole. So that’s how I feel like they intersect, but what was the first question?
(laughs) Why are they important?
Oh, why is it important! I’m talking so much I’m losing track (laughs). I think it’s so important to utilize creative artistic energy no matter what. I don’t think it’s important like ‘oh for creative people, it’s so important to perform and be out with their creativity.’ No! I think it’s so important for people, especially young people, especially malleable minds. Minds that are still growing and changing and still forming ideas about the world. It’s So crucial for them to have creativity and to put forth creative energy.
You know, we have art majors on PBR, we have English majors, but we also have finance majors, philosophy majors, pre-med majors. We have a variety of people who come from all kinds of backgrounds and strengths and they all use the creative side of their brain. And I think that writing is the exact same way. I hate it when people say: ‘I don’t like to read’ or ‘I don’t like to write’ or ‘I’m not a good writer, I’m not a good reader’. Yes, you are! I think it’s so important and that’s why I think the IYWP is important, going back to the first question, because they’re teaching young kids that you don’t get to pick and choose if your artistic or if you’re, the word I hate so much, if you’re ‘artsy’. You don’t get to pick and choose that; everybody has that side it’s about nurturing it. Because life is richer when we can imagine places and scenarios in our mind. Life is richer when we have the moments where we live inside our own minds and can bring that to fruition for a while. And that’s what both writing, and improv is. And I think that’s for everybody, it should be for everybody.
That was beautiful! Everyone we work with is so smart!
Everyone in the WORLD is so. Smart! Excluding the president. Okay, I said it. Put that in.
I’ll put it in (laughs).
The president is dumb. That should just be a section.
Yes. But back to you, I’ve experienced what you’re talking about, and I agree that it’s very real!
I’m so glad to hear that. I am a firm believer that everybody, when given the chance to nurture that spirit, has that spirit. You know what I mean? I’m so grateful just from the way that I was raised that it was always like ’yeah, whatever you feel like doing that’s what we will nurture within you.’ That was so powerful and the reason why I feel that way today. Both writing and improv are such a huge part of my life and my college experience. It’s such a gift to be able to go into the community and say ‘look, you have never done improv, but you love writing and you work for this organization that teaches writing. All you have to do is show up and look at how good this is. Like look at what we can make. It’s not scary, it’s not hard. It’s fun. Because you’re bringing something that just lived up here, that you didn’t even know was living up there, out—and look at how it turned out. So, yeah.
What’s your favorite improv game/setup/scene/skit and how would you build a lesson plan out of it?
Ho-ho! Buckle up! When I was a freshman there was this warmup that the Old B’s, the people in PBR that have graduated, did. The Old B’s were so talented, they were so good, and we ended up winning best improv team in the nation that year. It was really their influence that made it happen, I wish I had enough hubris to be like ‘it was really me’, but it was absolutely not. So, it was really them that cultivated that. They used to do this warmup called Human Beatbox (I know I’ve already mentioned this), at the start of practice they’d be like ‘let’s do human beatbox’ and we’d circle up really close and we would say ‘alright we’re gonna go round in a circle, just flow with it, don’t make eye contact with each other, just feel your rhythm and add on to it.’ And we’d go around and there would be layers, so it’s one person who, layer by layer, makes a noise, the other one adds to that and we’d jam with it for awhile. Sometimes it would go so well that we’d get chills because we had just made that up. And other times it would just be so bad that we’d have to stop and be like, “yiikkees…” But we would do that, and we did that frequently, not every practice, but it was pretty frequent because it was a really good idea generator.
I was just a mere freshmen, and towards the end of the year, maybe march, I say ‘hey what if we do this as our opener to a longform. We get a suggestion from the audience of anything and we create that anything in our beatbox and we break up and that informs a long from,’ which is a series of relating scenes. The longform is also what we compete with and what we close every show with, it’s a huge thing. And the Old B’s were so wonderful, that they cultivated the idea and they were like: ‘absolutely we can do that!’ And now it’s an opener that we use, so that’s probably my favorite.
At the workshop we talked about ways to make a lesson plan out of Human Beatbox. So, you could get a suggestion of a place from a kid, and another group of kids will go up and create that place with their sounds and noises and kind of create a flow. Then the students write about what they see and heard and saw and smelled in that place. Because they witnessed it unfold. Like five kids can come up into a hotel lobby and the rest of them can write about, ‘Oh well I saw a bellhop dinging a bell’ ‘I saw a luggage cart being moved from the elevator’ ‘I saw a tourist husband and wife on their honeymoon.’ And you can see what you wanna see from that because in beatbox we can’t tell you what we’re doing. We have to leave it up to you decide what the noises we’re making and the little actions we’re doing are. And that’s what it is.
I think that would be a really great way to explore a space, through hearing it and letting your imagination take the driver’s seat. To say: ‘okay we have a place, now what’s something that can happen in that place?’ There could be a bellhop who’s in love with a receptionist, and well, what happens? Well, the receptionist is in love with the vending machine guy. You could really investigate a place and create a plot through something that you’re seeing. I think an investigation of the five senses is a cornerstone of writing! When I’m writing a new project, I’m always like ‘let me explore the five senses and what can I learn from one or more of those senses about the space I’m in or I’m creating? It’s so easy to ask kids to find a place that they like and describe it, but what if you ask them ‘the space that’s laid out in front of you, what’s happening that we can see, and what’s happening that we can’t see?’ And that, I just think that’s immeasurable.
That sounds so fun, I might borrow it!
So, I tried my hand at a sort of improv scenario for your last question: It’s 200 billion years into the future, and all that’s left of humanity on earth for aliens to find is a picture of you. What are you doing in the picture/how do you look, what impression do you hope aliens get about humanity from the picture?
(at the recorder) are you hearing this? Are you hearing this? (laughs)
Ok, so, 200 billion years–
We’re not going to worry about how the picture has been perfectly preserved—maybe it’s a polaroid.
Ugh and I love! What am I doing in the picture? So, in my cheesiest self, I’m with—Do people get cheesy with this or do they get funny?
Well, this is the first time I’ve asked this question. I always choose a different one.
Ok! Um…I am at my happy place, which is at my nana and papi’s house, those are my grandparents, and they live in this small like 2000-person town, really near to my home called Lebanon, Illinois. And my grandma, in the summer she will, they have a pool, and she will go out in this beautiful turquoise flower pool cover-up. And she will go into her garden barefoot, a rose garden, and she will go, and she will pick flowers. She will usually be picking them for—this is so cheesy—but she will usually be picking them for me to take home. And she’s A) my favorite person and B) my really really good friend, like my very special companion. And so, she will be picking the flowers for me to take home and in my picture, I’d probably be next to her in that garden, it’s this very like lush beautiful garden with many different flowers, just mostly roses. So, I’d be next to her on a wonderfully—I’m a big fan of dry heat, I know that’s not popular, but I love dry heat, so it would be like a ninety-eight-degree day, no humidity ninety-eight degrees. I would just be next to her, maybe with both of our backs facing the polaroid and we’re just picking the flowers.
And what would people think about humanity? I mean, my face is very intense they’d probably be like why is this woman so intense-looking but also I think that my nana radiates such tenderness and care that I hope they would look back on it and be like ‘oh, in an age when we thought that humans were so destructive and like really took advantage of different resources on earth and lost a lot of things for us in the future and were so reliant on their machines–’ I hope they would look back and be like: ‘oh there was tenderness and there was at least a moment of just good weather, because we all know that’s on its way out, but you know there was also a moment of peace and a moment of tenderness and genuine human connection. I hope they’d be like wow peace, tenderness, human connection, and! Okay we all know they won’t have flowers, so they’d be like ‘What are those!’
I feel like the alien who finds that will replant earth to just be a giant rose garden. And it will be like all that’s left is the roses.
Yes! Oh, and hopefully it will be called Nana’s Garden! That’s my dream yeah.
Oh, is that scribbled on the back of the polaroid?
Yes, I will make sure of that! Yes, Nana’s Garden. So that would be what I want them to see, just a happy place.