A bunch of humorous boys and girls, members of the Comedy Club at a Silver Spring, Maryland middle school, are racing time to get ready for this year's school-wide talent show. This Comedy Club is a serious learning experience.
Three dozen seventh and eighth graders at Colonel E. Brooke Lee Middle school, seem so excited and happy. Not because the school day is over, but because it is time for the weekly Comedy Club after-school program.
"As a professional writer and director, this is really a wonderful treat for me," says local playwright and director Harry Bagdasian co-founded the club eight years ago, when he had a daughter at the school. He always believes that humor is a source not only for laughter, but also insight and self-confidence. He says the club gives the students a creative outlet. They write original sketches to express things that bother them, such as parental conflicts, bullying, dating, teaching and exams. "These students, most of them, have never written, have never done anything like this before. They have never done theatre work, technical work, never have designed scenery," he says. "The only reason that they do it is because they do not know they cannot. No one in the Comedy Club tells them you cannot. We always say 'try it.'"
Ben Fisler, a University of Maryland graduate student with experience in directing and acting, is working with the Comedy Club. After six months watching the interaction between the club director Harry Bagdasian and the young writers and actors, Mr. Fisler says he's impressed with the program. "What I am impressed with is when the students bring in an idea that they have flushed out, or written and Harry says 'what if we try this', or 'this is may make it funnier.' And the students go and they either write more or Harry polishes it. This is the kind of back and forth creative collaboration that I find very exiting," he says.
Mr. Fisler also observes the evolution of the club so he can write a report at the end of the school year with recommendations on how to implement the Comedy-Club concept elsewhere. "I think what makes it work really well, and the reason why I think it is a valuable asset for the student body is that it is a means whereby [the students] do not just come and do a play, they got to create something.
When bringing a script, bringing a director and putting the kids on stage and having them act it out, in this structure where students are not given the opportunity to really create the play themselves, the result can often be a kind of imposed creation on them. They do not really learn how to develop a craft, or to speak with their own voice. They learn how to do what the director tells them to do." Ryan Price is a 13-year-old seventh grader at Colonel E. Brooke Lee Middle school. He joined the Comedy Club this year for the first time. "I like writing and I like it when people act what I write. So, it is really cool," he says.
Assistant director Ben Fisler says young people really understand most events that take place in their immediate environment as well as in a more complex international political scene. But because they are young and because they do not have as much facility with language, they are not necessarily able to express themselves. "What I've definitely seen happening this semester is that when you create a system where these talents are brought together with a firm and well executed structure, they really do learn to take the great ideas and find a way of channeling them into a more precise way," he says.
Rachel Solomon has been a Comedy Club member at the school for two years. This year, she wrote a skit based on her personal experience. "It is 'a sleep over' one. It is about four girls who are at a sleepover and there is this boy who sneaked to see what actually goes on in the girls slumber parties. It is based on a sleepover I've had with my friends," she says.
The parents support the idea of the Comedy Club and often volunteer to help during rehearsals, or backstage during the show. Nancy Solomon is Rachel's mother. "I try to keep the kids on task, to keep them organized and making sure they are doing what they are supposed to do while they are not on stage, trying to keep them quiet basically," she says. "They are a great group of people."
This year's show is called Comedy Sketch Investigations and consists of about twenty original sketches, five of which were written by students. Harry Badgasian says with few rehearsals left before the show, the students learn to overcome another emotion: fear. "They learn how to get out of their fear when performing. After they have done the Comedy Club show, the next time they do a book report or a report in front of the class, they are a little less nervous. It helps build a cooperation, a sense of teamwork, it helps them to become more confident," he says. "So, in that way it helps them socially as well as academically here in the school environment."
This after-school Comedy Club at the Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland has become a model for other schools across the United States. Club writer and director Harry Bagdasian says although nine of the club's plays have been published in the United States and Canada, when the audiences laugh, that's when the young writers and actors discover the sweet taste of success.