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Professor uses theater skills to improve veterans’ lives

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Charlie Mitchell
Assistant Professor
School of Theater & Dance
College of Fine Arts

Charlie Mitchell is using improvisational theater to heal, one “Zip Zap Zop” at a time.

Mitchell, a theater professor, leads weekly improv sessions at the HONOR Center in Gainesville, a Veterans Affairs facility that serves as a transitional residence for once-homeless veterans.

He and retired classics professor Karelisa Hartigan created the program last year to help veterans to improve their social skills.

Every Thursday, about eight to 12 veterans meet to work on exercises, such as “Zip Zap Zop,” a focusing game. One player says, “zip,” and points to another, who must say “zap.” The next person who is pointed to must say “zap,” and then on to the person who says “zop.” The pattern continues, teaching players to listen and be less isolated.

Then they move on to games that are more complex, such as role play exercises, where Mitchell plays a job interviewer and veterans practice professional interviewing.

“In a lot of these cases, these guys have forgotten how to communicate and connect with people,” he said. “In our sessions we try to help them relate to other people, even if it’s through silly games.”

Mitchell earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Ithaca College and a master’s degree in playwriting from Boston University. He worked as a director, playwright and actor in Chicago and earned a doctorate in theater from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Today, he teaches theater appreciation and improvisation for political and social change in addition to his work with veterans.

One of the most important exercises the veterans do is called “Difficult Conversations.” Here, a veteran identifies a conversation he needs to have but is worried about – perhaps reconnecting with a family member, or explaining an addiction to a friend.

Mitchell often plays the other person so the veteran can act out what he or she might say. The scene is practiced several times, with other veterans suggesting how to improve the conversation after each take.

At the end of each session, the group wraps up by discussing what they learned. Mitchell said that the reaction to improvisation is always “overwhelmingly positive.” Sometimes the veterans talk about life skills: how to listen, how to be patient, how to act in social situations. Other times, he said, the veterans are thankful they had a good time.

“Most of these guys are not in a joyful time,” he said, “so to bring them a little bit of fun, even if it’s just for that hour, is huge.”

Writer: Meg Wagner

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