Improv for Academics
Improv theater training for academic researchers has been in the news recently, thanks in part to actor Alan Alda, who provides training through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island. Improv is a theatrical practice that is performed live and constructed in the moment. While we generally think about improv only in zany comedy skits, it has surprising value in other contexts of everyday life as well.
Improv helps to stimulate creativity and spontaneity, because it is fundamentally about fostering human interpersonal connections by generating and communicating ideas. Improv exercises emphasize cooperation, generosity, comfort with spontaneity, and responsiveness to unexpected situations. For academics, it can help you to get into a more creative mindset that can help you network in professional settings, as well as convey your work to non-academic audiences.
This blog post discusses some foundational skills of improv, why they can benefit academics and the professoriate, and how it teaches transferable skills that can help you promote your research and network effectively for jobs. It is based on the recent event sponsored at the Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center, called “Improv for Academics”, taught by GC doctoral student Mei-Ling Chua.
At the beginning of the workshop, Mei-Ling discussed some of the ideas that motivated her to create the event: “When we write papers, develop lectures, or write for conferences, we spend so much time thinking about the content, about the information and how it makes sense. But I’ve also had the experience of going to conferences and seeing people do nothing but the robot-read. The truth is that the way you speak, and the way you carry yourself, affect both how you feel and the confidence that gets projected to other people. On one hand, improv allows you to just focus and calm your own nerves. On the other hand, it’s about learning these other sides of communication that are not taught, and that we don’t get much feedback on. For instance, being able to be spontaneous and think on your feet—how to handle surprising class situations, weird questions that students may ask, or the question that you may not expect at a conference. So these are skills that help you both in the classroom, and skills that can apply everywhere else.”
Improv exercises work on developing your expressiveness by honing in on different aspects of embodied communication. Many of the spontaneous skills that improv teaches transfer into other contexts in work and personal life. For example, picture being a politician, being in front of a large crowd and being able to speak and improvise to an audience. Picture being in an interview or on a date, and being able to listen, be attentive, and build rapport with your interlocutor. As a professor, there’s an inherently theatrical aspect of being in the classroom, fielding questions, and being dynamic and adaptable to different situations (like that dreaded A/V failure that sabotages your planned film for the day!). For the many GC students who teach at CUNY undergraduate campuses, these exercises can also help your students feel comfortable in classroom environments, helping you deal with potential issues of shyness that may be thwarting student participation in the classroom.
Improv Tips to Calm Your Nerves
In the workshop, members of the group took turns in the first exercise, called “two truths and a lie.” Here, each participant would share with the group two things that were true about themselves and one that was false, and other members of the group would take turns guessing which statement was false. After the exercise, participants related how the exercise made them feel. They expressed a mixture of nervousness and uncomfortableness tinged with excitement.
As Mei-Ling explained, nervousness and excitement are based in the same physiological bodily reaction. Both are rooted in an activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is related to our biologically evolved instincts for fight-or-flight that trained our ancestors to associate fear with danger. As this instinct is no longer so useful in our everyday lives, one useful improv strategy is to “reframe” your nervousness as excitement, instead of lamenting why it’s a terrible thing. Over time, practicing this reframing can shift your mindset to become more proactive and less self-conscious in group situations.
Another technique to calm your nerves is to pay attention to your breath. Take a moment to turn your attention inwards, and notice where you’re breathing from: are you breathing from higher up in your chest? Are you breathing lower down in your belly? Deep, regular breaths help shift your nervous system from a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) to a parasympathetic (calm and relaxed) state of activation.
Another technique is to slow down and notice your environment. As you observe your surrounding environment, think about noticing and paying attention to the subtle details. Think about using the framework “I see, I hear, I feel”. Repeat the phrase and fill in new words to describe your sensory stimulation. There are no wrong choices, whether you use nouns (“I see a brown chair”) or experiential adjectives (“I feel weight in my chest”). This exercise works to bring you into the present. Repeat the cycle as many times as feels comfortable to you.
A fourth way to get more into the present moment is to do a body scan: relax, and notice what sensations you feel in different parts of your body. Are you feeling tension in your jaw? Are you feeling tightness in your thighs?
Applying Improv with Groups
When trying improv in any group setting—whether it’s a classroom or a work team—it’s important to create a safe space by setting expectations and ground-rules—either collaboratively together, or just by stating a few principles beforehand to orient people. You can even have group members brainstorm together about what would be some characteristics of a good discussion, and what would mean good norms of communication. Doing this builds solidarity by allowing shared norms to emerge collaboratively from the bottom-up, building a shared space of trust.
A classic principle of improv is role-playing. This allows you to get out of your analytical brain, engage your creativity in leadership roles, and increase your empathy with others through your player-character. One exercise is called “talk like an expert,” also known as “press conference.” In press conference, you name a topic which you know nothing about, but you have to be an expert—you’re now the world expert on the topic. So you have to create a story of why you’re a world expert on a topic (be it fashion, music, alpine skiing, making ice-cream, and so on), and you have to make a short monologue about it. Be sure to act like you fully believe everything you say! Focus on giving specific details. The idea is not to block yourself, or worry about being judged by others.
Other good examples of improv exercises include making lists of “five things.” In a group setting, get into a circle. One person starts the prompt—for example, “five things you find in a bodega.” The next person will list five things that come to mind. After they’re done, the next person in the group takes their turn to list five things they might find in a bodega. Once you’ve gone around the circle, the next person gets to provide the prompt for five things: such as, “five things you must have with you when you go on a mountain climbing expedition.” Focus on speaking what comes to mind, rather than worrying about accuracy or correctness. This game encourages creativity, brainstorming, and generative insights.
Another staple of improv are collaborative story-building exercises. The most famous example of this is the game called “Yes, and…” Pick a partner. One person begins by making a statement about something that they did, or that happened to them (true or false). Whatever the other person says, you have to take turns replying “yes, and…”, and then adding your own spontaneous idea to their statement. You cannot say no. As an improv coach says, “think of it like tennis, you need to hit the ball back at the other person. Don’t worry about how you’re gonna finish the match. You want to start pushing [the] absurdity, it’s a fantasy situation.” This game encourages active listening and collaboration.
Another story-building game is called “one word story.” In a group setting, have everyone stand in a circle and take turns. Everyone adds one word to the story and passes the baton to the next person. When it’s your turn, add one word to the story, and pass it on. As with all improv, it’s not important that you say the most interesting word, it’s more important that you say the first word that comes to mind. If you’re listening actively, and not really thinking too hard, it will be a lot more natural. This exercise will help you to become more open-minded and spontaneous. Don’t hold back from saying prepositions like ‘to’ or ‘the’, either!
A different adaptation to this game involves a group of people standing in a circle. One person steps into the center of the circle and begins to tell a story on any topic whatsoever. At any point during their story, if someone in the circle hears a word that makes them think of a different story, they step into the circle, tap the speaker on the shoulder, and begin to tell a story based off of the word that prompted them. For example, someone will say “fish”, and another person will step into the circle and say “fish makes me think of the time I went fishing and ate fish,” or “my friend who made fish,” or “going to a Phish concert…”, and so on. This exercise teaches observation-based communication, so that you train your ability to feel engaged in the moment and confident to come up with conversational topics on the fly.
Last but not least, there are improv exercises that focus on nonverbal communication. One such game hones your ability to intuit nonverbal emotions from someone else. With a partner, take turns thinking of an emotional experience you’ve had at some point in your life—happy, sad, it doesn’t matter. The other person waits and puts their attention fully on the other person, observing their body language and expressiveness, and then reflects their intuition verbally to the other person: “You look happy/sad/etc.” After taking a few moments to make your observation and share it with your partner, they describe briefly the emotion they were channeling, and you switch.
The techniques discussed above are used not only in acting contexts, but also in creative writing courses. They’re also increasingly used in business contexts to foster team-building, innovative thinking, consumer insight, and productivity. In the classroom, they can help increase student engagement and foster group cooperation. Overall, improv encourages soft skills in networking, communications, leadership, and empathy with other people that can be useful in many contexts of career planning and professional development, from teaching to conference presentations and job interviews. Last but not least, they are super fun to do!