The sledgehammer swings up to the dripping stone ceiling and comes crashing down. Rock splinters under the force of the falling hammer. The cave’s dank, dampness permeates his every movement. Sweat dripping from his sore muscles, he fights despondency to swing deeply down into the darkness once more; his exhausted eyes searching for something in the rubble that is never found.

Adjusting her well-worn apron, the owner dives into setting up for the auto mechanic’s fiftieth birthday party. The intoxicating aroma of fresh buttermilk biscuits and pot roast simmering in gravy with caramelized onions and carrots fills the tiny restaurant. Weighted down with a dozen heavy white dishes, she moves quickly around the table smiling as she thinks of her customers celebrating, drinking and enjoying the home cooking. She looks up at the clock and tugs at the corner of the green tablecloth, the last touch before guests arrive.

Hold. Scene.

Where are we anyway? In a cave? In a restaurant? No, we’re in Sunflower’s theatre classroom. I’m with members of my teen improv group, watching as the young people create these amazingly detailed scenes using only their imaginations—without a single prop or backdrop to set the stage.

Within their imaginations the scenes become vividly real to them, so real that as they see and feel each object so clearly, we in the audience see almost exactly what they’ve created. The players don’t just pretend that some of the plates have cracks or that the cave is dripping. They really see and believe it as they improvise, so we too see that the tablecloth is green and smell the biscuits waiting in the kitchen.

This is a really powerful, fulfilling exercise for the actors, and one that we often use in our improv classes. On this particular day, I was about to move on to the next improvisation before the class ended but one 13-year-old girl, the restaurant owner in the vignette above, cut me off excitedly.

“I just have to say something!” she said breathlessly. The whole class turned to her and listened.

“When we were little kids everything we saw in our imagination was real,” she said. “It was easy to make it real. It was our life, it was who we were! And then little by little society, parents, school, growing up, and our culture take that away from us. What we just did by making those scenes so very real brought it back to me. And it’s so important to have our imagination. It’s the most important! And it should never be taken away!”

I nodded. We all nodded. So true.

Sunflower teen improv players performing at our 2012 Ice Castle Festival and Play Day

In fact, it’s true for everyone.

Nurturing a healthy imagination is not just for little kids. It was their ability to play and draw on the strong possibilities in their imaginations that saved the Apollo 13 astronauts. The technological wonders we hold in our hands, medical breakthroughs and the music and art that moves us every day were all created through play and imagination. Getting back in touch with that spark of imagination that is only ours gives energy, spurs our own unique creativity, empowers each of us–and who knows what wonders might occur once all that renewed imagination is unleashed.

The Rough Edges, Sunflower’s teen improv troupe, will perform Saturday, Oct. 27, at 12:30 pm, at Meet Me at the Promenade, a free community street festival in Boca Raton. They will be performing on Stage 3, near the corner of Palmetto Park Rd. and Mizner Blvd.

© Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photo © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012