Annual Needs Improvment battle proves long-term impacts of drama department



Each year, the drama department invites alumni back to compete against current drama students in the annual Needs Improvment battle. This year, more alumni than could possibly compete returned over Zoom to support the drama department.

Competitive improv may strike some as bizarre, yet the activity is a tradition at the high school that even a global pandemic can’t stop.

Filled with many different competitive improv activities, accents portraying unique character identities and a wide variety of props, the Needs Improvment battle is an annual event where the alumni of the Needs Improvment group returns to Brookline and participates in a competitive improv battle with the current students in the Needs Improvment class.

This year, there was a twist. Due to social distancing rules, the battle was held over Zoom and live-streamed on YouTube on May 29. The platform allowed more alumni of Needs Improvment to attend the battle, as they didn’t need to physically be in Brookline to participate.

Referred to as the “Old School,” returning alumni battled against current high school students in Needs Improvement under the name of the “New School.”

All of the New School students wore black shirts, with the white logo of the college, The New School on it, bringing a pun to the situation and simultaneously making it easier to identify the current high school students from the alumni.

In total, there were eight activities: two warm-up rounds and six scored activities. When members weren’t a part of a particular activity or scene, they would stop their videos to allow the audience to focus on the active participants.

After the warm-up activities, the competitive aspect of the improv battle began, where after each activity, each school that participated in the activity was given a score on a scale of one to five.

The judges were the Drama department teachers, Mary Mastandrea, Summer Williams and Elena Maimonis. The judges determined the scores for each group by storytelling, their overall reaction to the story and the X-Factor, which could be based on anything they want.

The first scored activity was one where the people participating could only speak a certain number of words at a time. There was one round for the Old School and one round for the New School.

In the New School round, the theme was “Stuck on a Ferris Wheel.” The New School members who participated in this activity were juniors Yuen Ler Chow, Emelia Gauch and Eric Traub.

In their scene, Traub’s character was preoccupied with the stock market instead of being stuck on a ferris wheel, and Gauch and Chow’s characters eventually pushed Traub’s character off the wheel in a fit of frustration the audience could connect with. One point was awarded by Judge Williams.

The third activity was called Scripts, where one person could only use words from a book that was beside them. Two rounds were held, one for Old School and one for New School.

In the New School round, the situation was “Someone has called 911 but all you needed was someone to buy you ice cream.” Senior Renata Shen took a particularly large risk by choosing to pick her lines out of a Pokémon encyclopedia. To the audience’s surprise, Shen was able to succeed in telling a compelling story while using this niche encyclopedia.

The penultimate activity was called “CD Compilations,” where the members participating had to make up songs of different musical genres about the same theme.

In the Old School round of “CD Compilations,” the participating actors invented a story where grandmothers created a series of songs teaching their grandchildren how to cook meatballs over a Zoom call.

Old School members Devasha Solomon ‘19, Hannah ‘10, Sarah Groustra ‘18 and Taya ‘10, created songs called “Bitsie and Jane say put your meatball on the plate” and “Put some love into your dish for us.”

The actors took risks by using accents to develop their characters, and Groustra placed her face particularly close to the camera to portray the general misunderstanding of technology by older generations. This was a well improvised scene that stood out among the most comedic of the night. The group received six points from Judge Williams.

The concluding activity of the Needs Improvment battle was a collaborative activity that included three members from each team. The first scene started with a monologue by Charles Warren ‘06, and every time a new member was added in, it became a new scene. Warren’s scenes used a vast variety of props, ranging from an umbrella hat in his monologue to pelting small red balls at the camera during the dodgeball scene to mimic throwing dodgeballs in real life.

These props were effective in adding a new form of interaction between the characters, instead of solely relying on dialogue and emotion.

After tallying all the points, Mark Vanderzee, the head of the Needs Improvment group, announced that The New School won the improv battle 17 points to 16 points.

After the announcement of the final scores, the graduating seniors presented a digital scrapbook for Vanderzee in the form of a Google Slides presentation.

In the digital scrapbook, each student wrote a personalized letter to Vanderzee to thank him for the opportunities that the drama department has given them throughout their high school careers, and to show how much the drama department has made an impact on their lives. These sentiments were perhaps most evident in the number of alumni members from as many as 17 years past who had returned to participate in this improv battle.

Watch the Needs Improvment show here.