Robin Duke

Robin Duke frowns in concentration, her hands outstretched as if the emotion she’s trying to summon from the 12-year-old in front of her was a string she could pull. “Look at me,” she coaxes, her own emotional energy coiled tightly in a tiny frame. A controlled sob issues from the child’s lips. Duke raises her arms. “OK, a little more. Let’s hear it. ” The trademark elastic grin spreads across her face, and her high, light voice is encouraging. “It’s in you.”

Since last fall, the Toronto actress has been a fixture in the senior drama class at Runnymede Public School. The drama teacher spotted her helping out in the kindergarten classroom and asked if she’d share her improv skills with the 12- and 13-year-olds. “These kids don’t know who I am,” says the veteran of The Second City, SCTV and Saturday Night Live. “I did all that stuff before they were born. I had to win them over.”

Today, they’re playing “emotional symphony.” Each member of a small group becomes an emotion in the orchestra — no words allowed. Duke conducts, raising or lowering her hand to adjust the intensity. “Be that emotion,” she coaches. “Don’t just pretend it, or act it.” A small number of them really ham it up, screaming at an inhuman pitch as “fear,” or growling menacingly as “anger.”

Duke says improv is an entertaining way to learn to listen and communicate, life skills she’d like to share with teens. “They’re the perfect age for improv — so free, so bright, so on top of it. I see these kids with that wild look, and I think, those are the kids that are going to be perfect for this. There’s so much potential there.”

Inspired by all that potential, Duke is hearing the siren song of teaching again. She’d been bound for teacher’s college when she discovered The Second City just after university. Now, 25 years later, teacher’s college is on her mind again: she’s just applied and expects to hear in April. She arrives at school each day with her eight-year-old son Auggie, and it feels right, comfortable. She thinks, “This is where I was supposed to be.”