12 December 2018 Blogs

Educators: Consider the Benefits of Improv!

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A critical role of an educator’s job is to create a supportive learning environment. The classroom should be a safe place for students to take risks, work together and become more creative. One such way to create a supportive learning environment is through the use of improvisation, or improv.  Students are not the only ones who can benefit from improv. Educators should consider using improv as part of team-building activities to boost faculty culture. We reached out to Anthony Francis, director and founder of ImprovU in South Florida, to share valuable tips on how to improvise and why it can be a beneficial tool. At the bottom of the guest post, we have also included educators' resources on improv. --Kim Carpenter and Amy Shaw Imagine you’re in a dark room. The lights come up and you see you’re on a stage. The red curtain in front of you rises and 200 people are staring at you. You have no idea what is going on. This isn’t your worst nightmare. Far from it! This is an improv scene. Suddenly another person walks on stage, looks at you and says, “Kim, have you decided what you’ll bring to the party?” Yikes! What do you do? What do you SAY? Easy, you say, “Yes.” When you hear the word improv, you might think stand up comedy. This is because a comedy club called “The Improv” has become nationally famous. Improvisation is much different from stand up comedy, and if you have spent any time in an acting class or walking the streets of Chicago, chances are you know a little about this other type of improv.

In this article I’ll be discussing what improv is, how it works, what some of the benefits are, and how you can do it too.

My name is Anthony Francis and I am the Founder and Director of ImprovU, an improv training center and performance space in the cozy, little beach town of Delray Beach, Florida. I teach actors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, CEOs, retirees, and college kids how to improvise and I love this art form. Improvisational theater, improv comedy, or Chicago-style improv, is the art of creating sketch comedy in the moment with no pre-planning. The lights come up, and the actors are already performing. None of the actors know anything about the scene they are in. They have to figure out who they are, where they are, what this scene is about, and also do it while creating a character. It might sound scary or even impossible, but I’ve been teaching improv over 5 years, and I can tell you with certainty that not only is it possible, but you’re already good at it. If you ever had a conversation with another human, then you have improvised. Even if you have had a conversation with your dog, you’ve improvised. Improv is simply speaking without a script. You don’t carry a script around to speak to people, do you? Of course not. There are two types of improv: Longform improv and Shortform improv. Longform is made up sketches where a suggestion is taken at the top and no more suggestions are taken for the remainder of the performance. Shortform is where the audience is often asked for suggestions throughout the show, creating a more fast-paced performance where elements are constantly changing. With exciting names like longform and shortform, it’s surprising more people don’t know what improvisation is all about! Right?! The names are boring, but the art form is truly fantastic.

So how do you improvise?

Improv has only one rule: agree You can become a mighty fine improviser if the first word out of your mouth in every scene is “Yes.” It’s the only way to move forward in this art form. Agree and accept what is first presented to you. Love every idea presented and support it. This is the hardest concept for many people because trusting others' ideas and supporting them is dangerous in the real world, but it’s where the magic lives, both on and off the stage. I always tell my students you don’t have to think fast, you just have to agree fast. Say yes right away and the rest will fall into place. The next step is more of a mindset. Improvisation works best when the group is supportive. Don’t think of yourself as the star of the show but rather as a supporting character who’s there to make your partner look good. This is the spirit of improvisation. Supporting and helping your scene partner is how improv gets made. Stepping on stage to be the funny star will anger the improv goddess and she WILL smite thee.

Okay let’s improvise!

Below are the beginning steps I use with students to help them learn improv. In addition, I have included exercises to help you get better at each step! Exercises teach the lesson. Improv is all about doing.

Step 1 (Action): Reach your hand out and grab an invisible object. Hold it in your hand and just move it around until you can see it. Once you can see it, start to use it. After a bit, you should know what the object is.

Exercise 1: With a partner and without talking, start doing a chore around the house. Person B will help you do that chore. Even if they don’t know what you’re doing, they will help as best they can. Do this for a time, then switch.

Step 2 (Emotion/Attitude): Ask yourself how you feel. Do you love what you’re doing or do you hate it? Start there. Once you know how you feel you’re ready for step 3.

Exercise 2: Walk around the room and switch your emotion from happy to mad, mad to sad, sad to afraid. Notice how your posture changes and how your walk changes as you lightly wear these emotions. How we feel affects how we do things.

Step 3 (Make Eye Contact): Look at your scene partner. Just look at them. This is where the magic lives. This is what it’s all about. This is your connection to your scene partner.

Exercise 3: Stare at your partner for 5 minutes. Direct eye contact for 5 minutes. No talking.

Step 4 (Names): Tell your scene partner how you feel and give them a name.

“This toothbrush is losing its bristles, Maggie.” “Levi, I could brush my hair with this comb forever.” “Tony, you make the best sandwich!”

Exercise 4: Line scene. Person A says a line using that person's name, Person B responds using a name, Person A replies to that response.

That’s it! Now just feel the feelings, keep doing the action, and occasionally make eye contact with your scene partner. If you have something to say, say it. If not, that’s fine too. You don’t have to be funny. The funny will come. Laughter and comedy are a byproduct of the process of improv. Did you notice how I said, do the action until you know what it is? I didn’t say “think of what it is.” This is because improv when done right will create discoveries, and you will just know the who, the what, and the where. Why is improvisation being taught in schools, offices, and community centers around the world? Let’s talk benefits of improv. There are plenty!

Making decisions with conviction

In improv you need to make decisions and stick to them. Whatever you say becomes real, so you need to be convincing when you say things. This carries over into the real world where we can feel pressure to hide our opinions, but with improv we get to practice sharing our opinions and saying, “It's this! It’s that!” Not, “It could be this. I dunno. Maybe. I guess.” Stronger camaraderie Everyone working together to support one another's ideas just makes everyone in the group stronger. Shifting perspectives Improv helps you see things a different way. This is great for idea generation, because you can enter that playful mode and turn ideas on their ear to make them different. Confidence More than moving around, improv teaches you to be still. Confidence in short is the ability to remain unshaken in the chaos. Loosening up and shaking it out After a long day of work or school we can develop a bit of a pudding skin, if you will. Improv shakes you up and mixes you around, so you feel fresh. Reading social and nonverbal cues Almost all of what we do in improv is nonverbal. Much like life, we speak with our bodies and faces more than with our words. Improv helps to see more clearly how people are feeling and what they are really saying. Increased cross-silo communication The sales team might not speak to the IT department...like...ever. Improv is a great way to laugh and have fun with people from different departments. Boosted morale Over 51% of employees are disengaged. This means they hardly interact with the company, and if a better deal came along, they would probably take it. Good times and good memories create stronger bonds and boost morale, which could translate into employee retention.

Benefits of improv in the classroom:

Students and teachers can benefit from improv too. Students learn self confidence and and self control but in a playful way. Teachers also learn to be better directors. For example, in improv, a good coach or director won’t tell someone to stop doing something they don't like, but rather give a positive “workable note.” For example, if a student is constantly running around, a director might give the student a challenge for the next scene where they don’t move for the entire scene. They choose to not move. Now the student is practicing the skill the teacher wants and not working to remember what NOT to do. Too often in all aspects of our lives we are given a list of things not to do. But a more successful and positive approach is to give a workable note or a “Do challenge” that gets them acting in the right way, and it’s fun! I hope this article has helped you understand a bit more about what improv is and how you can do it too!  

Anthony Francis is the director at ImprovU and enjoys acting, singing, and dancing like some people are watching.


Educators' Resources

Would you like to add some improv to your teaching repertoire? Here are links for the classroom selected by ProQuest editors Kim Carpenter and Amy Shaw: How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond (KQED Inc.) Improv Games for Collaboration (Theatrefolk) Improv to Write  (Scholastic Inc.) Top Ten Tips for Teaching Improv  (Theaterfolk)