I hate to say it, but I can sort of imagine Natasha Vaynblat, when she was Ms. Vaynblat, coming off at first as the teacher who could be walked all over. She’s nice, cute, and says things like “oh my gosh” with complete sincerity, but her unassuming nature belies her comic demeanor. During her four years as a teacher (she left the job in 2013, for comedy), Natasha loved to prank her students. In “United Federation of Teachers,” her first one-woman show at UCB Chelsea, the audience gets to see both her victories over troublemakers and her hilarious miscalculations, all of which remind me of the myriad reasons why I’ll never willingly put myself in charge of children. B+B spoke with her over the phone about her experiences and her new show.
How did you get into education, was this a Teach for America kind of thing?
It was exactly a Teach For America thing. Out of college I knew that I wanted to continue pursuing comedy, so I was like okay, either I live in New York, Chicago, or LA. I applied for Teach for America and I just happened to be place in New York, so I thought– oh great! I’ll go to New York, I’ll teach during the day and do comedy at night, which I immediately realized was impossible because teaching requires everything.
Were kids something you were used to dealing with or was this a new thing?
Yes and no. I had done improv in high school and college, which was actually the best thing to prepare me for the classroom because kids are so unpredictable, depending on their mood and whatever else.
Particularly in improv, when I’m on the back line I make sure I am engaged and excited and look like I’m enjoying the show, and I did the same while teaching. So even when I felt like something was out of control or I was like, “Oh my gosh, this student is going crazy I don’t know how to handle this,” I would make sure that was not what they saw.
And just knowing how to read an audience. Like if a joke isn’t hitting, I know how to adjust in terms of what the audience is laughing at, especially with improv. And so I could kind of do the same in the classroom– I feel like this activity isn’t working today, they want to do more group activity as opposed to independent work, that sort of thing.
What are some of the harrowing experiences you had as a teacher that appear in the show?
The sketches are characters who would work at a show– so, teachers, guidance counselors, cafeteria ladies, that sort of thing– but in between I tell true stories of things that happened to me while teaching. They’re mostly pretty silly and crazy.
There’s one really fun one. In one of my classes a kid would fall asleep a lot. And I’d just gotten pretty tired of waking them up and so one day– I used to teach with Powerpoint connected to a projector, so I’d talk and the notes would be on the slide– there’s this repeat offender.
I woke him up and gave him his warning and he fell back asleep, so what I did is, I went to the projector and I wrote, without saying, this is a pop quiz take out a sheet of paper and number it one to three. And on your paper write “no sleeping in class” as the answer for each question and then I wrote on the projector, “from this moment on I will only be speaking in Russian.” I was born in Russia, I’m a fluent Russian speaker. So the kids pulled out their sheet of paper and started writing.
The kid woke up and he was immediately so confused because it looked as if everyone knew what I was saying, but I was speaking in Russian. And everyone was writing down notes. He thought it was funny and liked the prank too, but he fell asleep the next day. So, I didn’t get much mileage with that one.
So this was kind of your m.o. as a teacher? Pranking the kids?
Yeah, totally. I mean kids are so aware of how you feel and they just immediately read that vibe. If you come off as stressed, they will immediately know that this is a situation where I can behave how I want because she seems overwhelmed. So yeah, as much as possible I tried to create an environment where I was a serious teacher, but I also took things lightly and I wanted to create an environment that was fun.
What was the school like where you worked?
I worked at two different schools. One is closed at this point, I think. When I entered it was on its way out and it was one of the few big schools left.
What was pretty crazy was that we all taught different grades. So in my first year of teaching I was teaching 9th, 11th, and 12th grades, having never taught before.
How was the experience different from when you were in school?
So much. I went to school in the suburbs of Virginia so the population was super homogenous, everybody drove or took the bus to school, we’d all known each other since elementary school. For these students, the population was incredibly diverse– we had a ton of Haitian students, Dominican students, a lot of Polish immigrants– so that was really new.
Also everybody came from all over New York because you can commute to school. Everybody’s reading level was different and I think that was probably the most challenging. In one classroom I would have somebody who was at a 5th grade reading level in 10th grade and someone who was on grade reading level. Trying to find material that was accessible to everybody was so difficult, especially in an English classroom– that’s what I taught, English.
Have you stayed in touch with any of your students?
I have stayed in touch and I actually was surprised by a group of them who came to the show. It’s mature in content, there’s one part where I hold a dildo up on stage. It’s kind of raunchy so that’s why I never invited them to it, but a few who had graduated I think they were telling me they saw me in a commercial on TV and they flipped out. They were like, “Oh my gosh, what is she doing now? We have to find her.” And so they searched on the internet and found the show and came. And they loved it.
“United Federation of Teachers” is showing at Upright Citizens Brigade, Chelsea on Wednesday, May 6 at 8 pm and Wednesday, May 20 at 9:30 pm.