Improv Theatre Workshop for Veterans

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at a Virginia Beach Military Housing Center’s community room, and Virginia Stage Company Resident Theatre Artist Ryan Clemens is in the midst of an interesting acting exercise.  He stands in a circle with several retired military men and women, a smile on his face and a bright green pool noodle in his hand.  You might expect that a group of Navy veterans such as these would be well-practiced with all manner of flotation devices.  But this Flotation Device Training exercise is quite different from the standard military training.

Ryan is the team’s leader in this Theatre Improv and Theatre Workshop Series.  Presented through Community Healing Arts Initiative (CHAI) and Tidewater Arts Outreach (TAO) Ryan’s six week program uses his experience as a Virginia Stage teacher and performer.  At every class, he leads a team of Navy veterans through a collection of entertaining, interactive, and thoughtful “theatre games.”

The fun and familiar camaraderie of the workshop is easy to see.  In fact, many of the veterans gathered here have returned from a similar program Ryan offered in the summer.  This is a laid-back and laugh-ready group and each team member, whatever their age or physical condition, is willing and able to “play” in Ryan’s theatre exercises.  Each game offers a chance for these former sailors to express themselves with humor and imagination.  Also, the games present opportunity for individual reflection and group discussion on subjects like intentional expression, creativity, teamwork, self-confidence, and a host of other topics.

Right now, however, the attention is given to “creative collaboration.”  To this end, Ryan starts the “game” and gives a quizzical look at the pool noodle.  He twists and turns it, exploring possibilities for a way the prop can “transform” in a creative pantomime.  He explains that the team’s objective is to see how many different “things” can be created from the noodle.  As an example, he holds the pool noodle to his eye and pretends to spy a ship in the distance.

“Ahoy!”  he shouts, waving his arms.

Others pick up on the game and shout out “guesses” to answer Ryan’s charade.

“You’re a Look-out!”



“Yes!”  Ryan says, initiating applause, then passing the noodle to the middle-aged, African American woman at his left.  Her name is Jewel.  

“Now, Jewel may not know what she’s going to do when the pool noodle is passed to her,  once she’s in the hot spot, in the spotlight,” Ryan says, “But if she doesn’t have an idea, that’s okay.  Because she’ll breathe and know that in a moment an idea will suggest itself.  And if an idea doesn’t come, a teammate will come and assist her.  And, if you feel at all anxious, know that you can always pass the prop to the next person.   And, also know this:  There are no wrong choices.  So let’s see how many different, creative things we can get out of this big, green noodle."

The noodle passes from teammate to teammate.  At the beginning of the game, there are a few moments of hesitation and sometimes the prop would get handed away rather quickly.  Yet, soon, a flow develops, the team members seem to be inspired by one another.  The ideas come faster, the improvisations become mini-performances, and the cheers and encouragement of the team incites still greater creativity.  The noodle becomes a rifle, a canoe paddle, a tennis racket, a smile, a hairdo, a horse, a pole vaulter’s pole!  The focus and the noodle passes around the circle numerous times.  Just when it seems that all ideas are exhausted, a surprising, new energy fills the group and the game continues.  When the game is finally finished, everyone admits astonishment at just how many transformations were found in this one silly prop.

“Well, I know I don’t have anything to tell Veterans about the value of teamwork.”  Ryan says, “But what about the value of teamwork in a positive environment?  What does it mean to work together in a positive, even playful way?”

The class offers a few responses, telling stories about Navy life, personal life, even equations of a spiritual content.

One thing seems apparent:  With the right kind of energy, this team can support and inspire each other all day long.

Soon the group is on to the laughs and fun of the next game, but not before recognizing the particular point of this odd and theatrical flotation device training:  A pool noodle is fun, but a supportive team that keeps your spirits afloat…  and keeps life vibrant and creative too!

Interested in having your own Improv Workshop with your community group? Contact our Education and Community Engagement team for details.