Improv: It’s Not Just for Comedy Anymore

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(News flash: it never was.)

What happens when you give scientists improv lessons?

That’s what New York’s Stony Brook University is trying to figure out through Improvisation for Scientists, a class spearheaded by a team of folks including actor Alan Alda.

They aren’t trying to find the next Amy Poehler. Instead the goal is to teach a mindset and a series of communication skills to budding STEM and medical students. Alda tells about a science student whose perspective shifted as a result of the class. Rather than looking at a set of data and feeling it was his job to make sense of it–to control it by explaining it–he “lets the data talk to him.” Just as a partner on stage speaks to you, and it’s your job to pay attention so you can respond.

Improv is a process of discovery, much like the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself. But most of life is an improvisation, I’m convinced.

In fact, I’m very grateful to have received a grant from the Louisville Institute to explore this topic. I’ll be taking improv classes, here in DC and in Chicago at Second City, and I’ll be interviewing people for a podcast that will roll out next year. Stay tuned for more on that work!

I’ve already studied and written a bit about improv, and have led events on improv and the spiritual life. Sometimes people balk at the topic because they think my goal is to get people up on stage, or to be funny on command. That’s not it at all. 

As an example, a medical student in the Stony Brook program used his improv training from a game called ‘Mirror Exercise’ to better communicate with a patient:

He had to tell her that her cancer had metastasized and she had only two weeks left to live. He was terrified going into the conversation.

At first the woman had no reaction at all to the news. He had the feeling she didn’t understand what was happening, so he decided to use some of his improv training.

“He said, ‘I sat down with her and we held hands. … I told her in the simplest possible way what was happening. I didn’t use any three-syllable words. I didn’t use the word ‘metastasis,’ I didn’t use the word ‘prognosis.’ I just tried to be simple and slow because I knew that there was a pacing to the way that you could hear this information.’ And he said ‘For the first time, the woman started to cry.’ And when she cried, it made him cry, and then when he cried she had a question,” [the student] says. “He said, ‘What I felt happened was that I was able to help her understand how to understand the end of her life. And she was able to help me understand how to be a better doctor.’”

Recently I was talking to a woman in charge of programming for a congregation–we’re trying to figure out whether I might come and lead some events there. I was explaining this improv stuff and launched into my standard speech about how improv isn’t about performance for me–it’s about learning to listen to your intuition, to take risks, to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Suddenly the woman said, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” She told me about a young woman in her life who struggles with OCD. Her doctor “prescribed” improv lessons as one aspect of her treatment and it’s had a tremendous positive impact.

This is powerful stuff, folks.

And for the record: it scares me. It scares me because it’s powerful, and because it’s fundamentally out of my control. I joke sometimes that when I write the book on this it’ll be called Improv for Control Freaks, because that’s where I live and where a lot of us live.

For me, improv is wrapped up in the spiritual practice of letting go.

I can’t wait.

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Image: 24h Contact Improvisation Jam by David Olivari through Flickr, Creative Commons License.

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