OLYMPIC HIGH SCHOOL — “We’ve got a criminal in here!”
Colin Sweeney, a professional improv comedian, pulls 17-year-old Darshana Ruffman into the room. Her arms are held behind her back as she’s sat down in a chair in front of the white board.
Ruffman has committed a crime, but she has no idea what it is. Over the next five minutes, two of Ruffman’s classmates attempt to make her confess, offering clues as to her location, her murder weapon and the victim of her crime.
Whenever it looks like she’s stumped, Sweeney, along with teacher Kristin Hensley, make guest appearances to try to hint that Ruffman did in fact murder Ashton Kutcher with a banana at the zoo.
The game is called “Interrogation,” and Ruffman and seven of her classmates are members of the new drama course at Olympic High School, Santa Monica’s continuation school that caters to kids at risk of not graduating. Created by Hensley as a way to bring the arts to her students while still fulfilling their English requirements, the course has helped its participants to discover themselves.
“Olympic is a really special place,” Hensley said of her students. “Some of the kids were probably in the darkest place in their lives and then they [came] here and [had] to make friends.”
Hensley’s students, like most of the kids at Olympic, come from a variety of at-risk backgrounds that made it difficult for them to excel in a more traditional high school environment. Dealing with challenges ranging from disability to truancy, Hensley knew that her course would need to engage as well as inspire.
“I wanted to somehow create a program that would work with a community theater in conjunction with our school,” Hensley said. “Kind of create an open policy where they could intern and work at the theater and have this whole interactive experience.”
That’s where Sweeney came in.
Hensley, a working actress herself, contacted the Westside Comedy Theater’s educational director earlier this year to see if he would be interested in helping out with the class and setting up an internship program. Sweeney, who has toured across the country with the group Mission Improvable, saw it as a great opportunity, and has felt a particular connection with the students.
“They’re the kids that have always been kind of like how I was in high school, so maybe that’s why I like working here,” Sweeney said. “I never had anything like this.”
Sweeney and Hensley tested out their teamwork skills this summer by hosting a week-long comedy camp for students. Now during the school year, the partnership between Olympic and the comedy theater helps to make sure that kids are coming to class.
“The school lends itself to kids who … even have a hard time showing up, so a lot of times Colin and I work as a team,” Hensley said, citing instances that students haven’t been in class, but have showed up to work at the theater or attend a show.
“I say ‘Listen, I’ll yank this from you. You will not come back,’” Hensley continued, explaining the course’s importance to the kids. “This has had the best attendance of any class I’ve ever taught.”
Senior Connor Davidson has used the class as a chance to continue a love for improv that began during his time at Santa Monica High School. Still president of Samohi’s improv club, Connor now also interns at Westside Comedy Theater.
“I was a great gift,” Davidson said of the course. “Improv — for me — is a hyper-condensed way to live your life, always saying yes, making things believable and making relationships. All of this can be practically applied to life in some way.”
This is the message that Hensley and Sweeney try to communicate too.
As the students move on to a game called “60, 30, 10” — they have to act out the same scene in 60, 30 and 10 second intervals — Sweeney urges the actors to build their relationships with each other and really get into what they’re saying.
“You gave all these really great ideas, but you didn’t support them,” Sweeney coaches one of the kids. “Anytime you say something, make it the most important thing in the world.”
Building this confidence and getting the kids to open up has all been a part of the process in the 10-week course.
“High school kids are too busy trying to look cool, so you have to break down those barriers,” Sweeney said.
“In this room, the bigger and weirder you are, the cooler you are,” Hensley agreed.
Even for students like Ruffman, who were naturally loud and outgoing, it took some getting used to be able to act in front of her peers.
“At first it was awkward and embarrassing, but then you realize that everyone’s making a fool of themselves, so it doesn’t matter,” Ruffman said.
Ruffman wasn’t even interested in drama prior to taking the class. Though she’s not sure if she’ll continue acting at Santa Monica College after graduation, she does feel like she has learned a lot.
“They’re both amazing teachers,” Ruffman said of Sweeney and Hensley. “They’re getting us to be real actors.”
Davidson, who hopes to continue pursuing improv at the University of Massachusetts Amherst next fall, also agreed.
“They really care about us. They want us to grow as performers and students,” he said.
Sweeney works with the kids through the acting classes and internships at the theater and comes to Olympic on Tuesdays and Thursdays to do improv exercises. The rest of the week, Hensley leads the kids in breaking down scripts, analyzing scenes and learning about the history of drama.
“I wanted to construct it so they were still doing written work and hitting their English requirements, but it’s under the umbrella of something really fun,” Hensley said.
At the end of this term, all of the students’ hard work will culminate in an improv show at Westside Comedy Theater on Nov. 19. Though Hensley has no doubt that they will do great, she can’t help feeling parental about her students.
“I’ve done shows with the spotlight in front of 3,000 people, but I have never felt more nervous than watching my kids perform,” Hensley said, recalling the stand up shows she has put on at Olympic in the past.
Hensley and Sweeney will start a new session after the November show and expect many of the current kids to continue in the class. Ultimately, the pair would like to see Olympic form an improv team or spread the program to other schools.
“You don’t need to be doing this to become an actor or a performer,” Sweeney said of the program’s universality. “It’s so you can discover yourself and open up.”
For students like Ruffman and Davidson, the course has definitely allowed for just that.
“For me, this just rings so true,” Davidson said as three of his classmates acted out a game show on a volcano behind him. “This is just the greatest.”