For Linda Fulton, it all comes down to the concept of play. To be more specific, spontaneous play.
The veteran improv artist, teacher and coach preaches that there is absolutely nothing more important or fundamental to a child’s mental, emotional and social development than spontaneous playing…and, unfortunately, kids don’t do enough of it these days.
“In today’s social climate, we don’t see kids building forts, riding pieces of cardboard down hills, inventing games, playing outside or really using their imaginations nearly as much as kids in the past, and that’s not only a shame, it also inhibits them from learning things like empathy, cooperation and how to communicate,” Fulton said. “So we use improvisation to get kids interacting and building life skills. We get them experiencing life, learning and accessing parts of themselves they didn’t even know existed. And we have a blast doing it!”
Fulton is the founder of Total Improv Kids, the nation’s premiere improvisation school for children. A fixture in North Hollywood since its inception in 1999, Total Improv Kids and Fulton herself have built both a local and national reputation as a leader in teaching kids the craft. But make no mistake, this isn’t an acting school. This is a place for kids to come learn, grow and find their true potential. The school’s mission statement reads as follows:
The mission of the 501c3 nonprofit Total Improv Kids is to provide children an opportunity to explore their intellectual, creative and intuitive selves while promoting individual growth, responsibility, confidence, social comfort and leadership skills. With a focus on having fun, Total Improv Kids pledges to also help students hone their communication, concentration, memory and problem-solving abilities in a supportive, non-competitive environment. The ultimate goal is not only to make all children who work with Total Improv Kids better artists in the craft of improvisation, but also more well-rounded individuals, independent thinkers and leaders in the community.
It’s through improvisation that Fulton believes children can best learn valuable life lessons that they’re not getting on their own or even with traditional schooling.
She says there is something special that happens when two or more kids start interacting with each other in an improvised scenario that they simply can’t get from any classroom or anywhere else.
“First of all, human interaction is vital to not just the development of our personalities, but also to continued brain growth at a higher function,” Fulton said. “Improvisation is all about interaction. Not only that, but it creates scenarios in which that interaction can thrive, thus promoting problem solving, ingenuity, creativity, communication and countless other skills that will benefit these students for the rest of their lives.”
It can also help them overcome obstacles, just like to did for Fulton herself. Fulton spent most of her San Francisco childhood as an undiagnosed dyslexic. As such, she struggled mightily with school and felt completely lost. Then, at 14, she was one of a small handful of kids to take part in her high school drama department’s experiment to teach improv. It literally changed her life.
“I can’t say enough of what improv did for me in my darkest hours,” she said. “It not only got my brain working and learning in a completely different way, it also forced me to come out of my shell, to work with others and to explore a depth in me that I didn’t know was there. It both challenged me and allowed me to look at things from a new perspective, one I could actually learn from. I saw my fellow students, problems, myself in a new light. It showed me that I had a future.”
Fulton would eventually be accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then go on to study improv with some of the masters, including Paul Sills, Keith Johnstone, Dick Schaal and her mentor Avery Schreiber. It would be Schreiber who would encourage Fulton to take her passion and skills and focus them on working with kids.
Since launching Total Improv Kids, the school has grown in size, outreach and reputation. With students ranging from ages 8-17, classes take place every Saturday at The Sherry Theatre in North Hollywood. Total Improv Kids worked for years out of the Avery Schreiber Theatre, which Fulton owned and operated in tribute to her late mentor, but the building was leased a few years ago. Classes feature both veteran performers who have been with Fulton for years and new students eager to play. And Fulton challenges encourages them all.
“This school has always been a place for everyone,” she said. “And it always will be.”
In class, students play a wide variety of classic improv games of varying difficulty levels that all have Fulton’s personal spin on them, making them unique to kids. Her brand of improvisation has come to be called “The Fulton Method” and its designed to take classic improv games and use them as a powerful supplement to traditional learning methods; giving structure, encouraging collaboration, supporting individual exploration and growth and having fun playing!
One example of a game is “Kitty Wants a Corner,” where all the “mice” form a circle around a “kitty” and must use skills like non-verbal communication, connecting agreement and eye contact to switch places with each other while the kitty isn’t looking, hoping not be noticed. Another is “Name Six,” where participants form a circle and pass around a bottle as quickly as possible while one player tries to name six items in a category (e.g. TV shows, cartoon characters, candy bars, etc.), helping to hone mental agility and prevent brain freeze. Still another is “Allen’s Alley," where an interviewer is given a question and goes around to the “neighborhood” asking the question to improvers who answer as various characters, giving them necessary character-building skills and practice with spontaneity. There are hundreds of games to choose from and often times, Fulton lets the kids decide which to play.
“Part of what I teach here is empowerment,” Fulton said. “We have a tendency to treat kids as if they aren’t capable of making mature decisions and the reality is that’s just not true. They’re people and they have opinions and thoughts and ideas. And if you give them a little bit of responsibility, they can amaze you.”
Fulton applies that philosophy when it comes to producing her shows with the class. Total Improv Kids averages a show a year (though Fulton will only produce one when she feels the kids are taking it seriously and ready to perform). The school has performed all over the city, including at legendary venues like The Ice House and The Improv in Hollywood. Total Improv Kids has taken part in festivals and done charity shows for organizations like The Pioneer Program and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center. The school has even traveled to New York City, making history by becoming the first all kids (no adults) show to perform Off Broadway. Fulton is currently looking to take a new batch of students there in the next year or so. With each Total Improv Kids show, the kids run it while Fulton sticks to producing and coaching. The result has been numerous awards and accolades for Fulton, her school and her students, including recognition from other artists, local city officials and most important to Fulton, proud parents.
“The moments that mean the most to me are when you see a kid break out of his or her shell in class or when a parent comes up to me and tells me how much of a transformation they’ve seen in their child,” Fulton said. “I have countless stories where that has happened and that goes to show just powerful improv can be.”
Fulton has worked with students of varying social and learning levels, including some with disabilities like she had. In each and every one, she said, there has been growth, mentally, emotionally, socially and scholastically.
Fulton is currently looking to expand her school and broaden the outreach of her message. She has started teaching adults her methods to help coaches, teachers, counselors and parents relate to and teach kids differently. She is putting together her first seminar on The Fulton Method and she is about to release her first book called The Power of Improvisation. Her expansion is to serve one purpose.
“I want as many kids as possible to experience what improv can do for them,” she said. “We have to get kids playing more. Kids are sponges and they want to learn. It is up to us to find the ways they can learn best, to really absorb the life lessons and what they need to thrive as they grow. Improv does that. It encourages them to reach their true potential and to have so much fun doing it!”
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