Improv in the Classroom: Creating a Safe Place for Exploration

What do you think of when you hear someone talking about improv? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the hilarious scenes from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the TV show with Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady.  After watching the show for a number of seasons, I thought I knew what improv was—making up songs like Wayne Brady and being funny without much preparation. So how did I come to see improv as a way to create a positive climate in my classroom? It all started with a class at Everyman Theater where I encountered three life-changing rules.

Rule #1: Say “Yes, and…”

A couple of years ago I took an improv class with a talented Baltimore actor named Bruce Nelson.  Bruce began the class by going over the rules of improv — the first and most important rule is to say “Yes, and…” Simple enough. Whatever your partner says or does, you must say yes, and then build on it. Why is this rule number one? Because in improv, you are relying on your colleagues to help you create a story where there is none. If you throw out a line or a question and your partner says no, the scene flounders.  In the professional writing classroom, a student may be brainstorming around a problem and come to me with a solution that I think is problematic. If I say “Yes, but…,” and proceed to list my concerns, even though I avoided an outright no, the student may feel the hurdles are too high to jump and decide to forego the project or shut down some interesting research avenues.

On the other hand, if I say “Yes, and…” to the idea, the student feels validated and sees an open window of possibility to consider. Using “and” in a comment is expansive; it serves as a both a validation and an invitation. Using “and” also helps the instructor to keep an open mind when dealing with topics which may seem strange at first.

Ruel #2: Make everyone else look good

In improv, you are working as a team, and in order to be successful, you have to help your colleagues. If a colleague flounders, you can assist with a prop or a line to get them started. This rule helps to foster solid teams and build positive group interactions. In the classroom, this rule works a similar kind of magic. If everyone in the class feels they have something to contribute, they are more likely to volunteer and to take risks. They know your classroom is a safe place, a place where people will pick them up if they fall. This rule can also serve as an effective team-building  tool to share with students. Every team has members with a variety of strengths. If you can encourage students to assign tasks based on strength rather than in an arbitrary fashion, you can help them to build a strong team that knows how to capitalize on gifts and minimize flaws or weaknesses. Who doesn’t bless the day some colleague did this for them?

Rule #3: Keep the energy going

You are in a scene and it’s moving along really well. Then you get a fabulous idea and begin moving in an unexpected direction, thinking everyone else will follow. But, no one is prepared or even has a clue as to your direction, so the scene loses focus and stalls. Why? You couldn’t maintain the flow of energy. In class, perhaps someone comes in with a new approach to class discussions or a suggestion for a different format for the next paper. A few other people are excited as well. As the teacher, you recognize this may be a bigger project than they are ready for. And despite your hesitation, you decide to capitalize on the positive energy in the room, the delight on the students’ faces, and the promises of great results. In the end, you are glad you jumped in despite being afraid of the waves. Your students learned a valuable lesson as well: enthusiasm plus initiative and teamwork can accomplish surprising things.

Rule #4: Celebrate mistakes

One of the oddest and most enjoyable improv games I ever played was called “Trying to Fail.” We all stood in a circle and had to answer whatever questions the leader called out. If we got a wrong answer, everyone clapped for us. The goal was to be outside the circle before anyone else. First challenge: each person had to name three car models from the 1940s. Needless, to say, it was a short round with lots of failure. But the lesson? We all celebrated each other’s mistakes. More importantly, we had fun. The latest brain research tells us that in order to create, we have to make new connections with what we already know. This happens best when the person is relaxed and feels safe. By looking at mistakes as tools for opportunity, we can help our students grow in their willingness to explore new territory. By helping them to ask what they learned rather than to correct their mistakes, we help them gain confidence and empower them to venture into the unfamiliar with confidence.

There are no Wayne Brady moments of catchy tunes in my classroom, and no one falls over chairs and pretends they are acrobats, but I hope my students feel freer to explore and take risks because I know a little bit about how to say “yes, and” to the many possibilities each class offers.

What’s improv got to do with it?

Anything is possible

A couple of years ago I took an improv class with a talented Baltimore actor named Bruce Nelson. I have seen Bruce in several local plays, and always enjoyed his acting. The characters he has brought to life include an elf based on David Sedaris’ memoir of working as a Macy’s elf at the flagship New York store on 34th St. Because I wanted to feel a little looser in front of an audience — I am studying drama in education — I decided I needed some actual training in the art of acting. Improv seemed like the logical place to start. It’s improv, right? How hard could it be?

I walked into the darkened theater, hoping to slip in quietly because I was a few minutes late. Bruce was going over the attendance list and checking everyone off. “You must be Ann,” Bruce nodded in my direction. I slid down in my seat and grinned as I slipped off my coat.

Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I think of the 20-35 people who made up my classmates. Most of them were a good bit younger, and there was a mix of men and women, though we outnumbered the men by about 3:1. Bruce began the class by going over the rules of improv — the first and most important rule is to say “Yes, and…” Simple enough. Whatever your partner says or does, you must say yes, and then build on it. Hmmmm, that could make for some interesting scenarios. I squirmed a little in my seat and hoped I wouldn’t have to say yes to anything too outrageous. As it turned out, Bruce’s ground rules worked so well that everyone enjoyed the surprises that came along with our agreement to “Yes, and.” Surprises like creating 10 lines of dialog with only a beginning and an ending line….you had to make “I love peanut butter,” and “The pope would never approve,” work in your scene. Or create a relationship with a passenger named Zeb knowing only that you were in a car going to work and your name was Mathilda.

Thinking back over other theater-related experiences, I had encountered some improv before Bruce’s class when I went through the Creative Emergence Process with Michelle James. In this program, no matter what we did, Michelle smiled and said “Yes, and…” whenever we said “No” or hesitated with “But.” She even challenged us to eliminate the word but from our vocabulary and replace it with and….Try this exercise and see how changing your words can actually change the way you are perceiving the world. Saying “And” opens doors, affirms another person, creates a feeling of flow. Saying “But” on the other hand, shuts a door, marginalizes others’ opinions, and negates possibility. Just give it a shot for a day, and you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities come your way for changing your response.

“Yes, anding,” as we call it in improv, has had a powerful impact on my life. I say yes to all kinds of opportunities in the course of a business day. I think of this practice as being similar to following new roads on a map – You just might find your dream-house as you wander in unknown territory. I said yes to a friend when he asked me if I was interested in writing a paper on journaling in business education. The topic was somewhat new to me, and I knew I’d learn something. The real impetus was the possibility that the paper, if accepted, could land me a trip to Madrid and the opportunity to present at an international business conference. My inner cynic snickered a little every time I worked on the project, and my shining optimist won out and finished the paper on time, sending it off with grand hopes.

The deadline for acceptance notification passed. One day late, then three…finally, I got an acceptance email and celebrated with my co-authors, Alexei Mateev and Rick Milter. I thought I’d be presenting with Alex. However, about a month before the conference, he accepted a free trip to China – once he determined that I would be all right to present alone. “Yes, and…” I thought, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” Excitement mixed with some jitters as I realized what exactly I’d said yes to. Presenting a paper at an international business conference in a foreign country…..My shining optimist is sitting tight, patting my hand, and whispering, “Yes, and you’ll be fine. You can do this. How exciting!” I’m glad there is room for her in my carry-on.