Laughter for a Change led an after school program at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools’ High School for the Arts. At the beginning of each session, we gave the kids time to just hang out, chill from a long school day, get to know each other better, discuss informally what was on their minds.

One afternoon, about half way through our twelve-week program, during the hang out time, a student named Veronica asked: “Can I tell a ghost story?” “Yes!” fellow L4C Comedy Mentor Kat Primeau and I told her. When Veronica came to the stage area, we side-coached her to share her voice, make eye contact, really connect to every member of the group. Veronica began her tale:

“Late at night, when my parents are at work, me and my little brother hear strange, scary noises in our apartment…” In ominous tones, Veronica told us she was convinced her building is haunted by a murderous ghost right out of an El Salvadorian legend she’d been raised on. Then, a boy jumped up with another ghost story. The kids were delightedly creeped out. In the next ten minutes, five or six kids spontaneously shared ghost stories from their lives, populated with bruja grandmothers, statues of saints who spoke and cried real tears, and one kid’s eerie tale of riding “haunted” bicycles through the streets of his dangerous east LA neighborhood.

For us, the Comedy Mentors, the path was clear: Throw out the “lesson plan”! The games we had in mind to play that day were put aside and we spent the rest of the afternoon with the students improvising scenes based on their ghost stories – many inspired by their cultural heritage. With the help of theater games training, these kids were discovering their voices as storytellers. They were more playful, and as creatively free as we’d yet seen them.

In addition to stories about their daily lives and stories passed down from parents and grandparents, there was, in this safe environment, the sharing of formerly hidden feelings: concerns about how to stay safe in their neighborhood; fears of not being able to make their way in the world as children of mostly poor immigrants; and a big theme – their struggle to figure out who they were as individuals beyond just being their parents’ children.

One memorable (and funny) scene involved a student playing her mother – ranting loudly in Spanish at her children to stop watching so much TV! With one last threat of punishment, Mom stormed off stage. With “the coast clear” the kids turned the TV back on and suddenly… a vicious, yet goofy, vampire burst through the TV screen. The kids fought him for their lives – and won! The audience laughed and cheered.

When the session of improvised ghost stories ended, there was a feeling of lightness, of celebration. And, (always a good sign) nobody wanted to leave! Together, we were playing in a land of ghosts and games. By tapping into their shared cultural psyche, the sum effect felt like a funny (ha ha) kind of communal exorcism. (And why can’t there be such a thing in our “yes, and” corner of the universe?) The students clearly felt the creative spirit, as well as a sense of their ancestral ties. And, honored to be a facilitator for that, I couldn’t help but feel the presence of my improvisational ancestors’ spirits – Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, Del Close. Had they possibly dropped by that day to work their improvisational mojo? Wouldn’t be the first time… or the last!