How improv can save the world

Okay, that’s a big claim. But I think that if every person on this earth got more in touch with themselves and others, more positive, more creative, more able to deal with ambiguity, we’d have come a long way.

There would still be the objective challenges of economic inequality, climate change, and so on, but if we could freely brainstorm wild solutions to our problems, genuinely listen to each others’ perspectives and learn to express our own, and find ways to love others’ contributions, we’d have a much better shot at finding the answers to our problems, if those answers do exist.

Wait improv? Like, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Yes and no. Whose Line is definitely the most popular improv show I’ve seen so far, but improv extends far beyond that. It comes from theater warm-up techniques that have been generalized both into its own genre of theater as well as into a set of teaching techniques to teach people its lessons and let them generalize to the rest of their lives.

Research has shown that improv can increase creativity and psychological well-being[1], divergent thinking and uncertainty tolerance[2], as well as writing fluency[3], and more. It is also used in a range of totally non-theater settings from schools to business situations. It also totally changed who I am as a person.

Who am I?

I come from a family that placed a lot of emphasis on improvement. That can be great, but it can also narrow one’s focus. I used to believe that to engage with someone intellectually, one had to find something to disagree about, and then formulate a clear and articulate argument for them to spar with. Some people do enjoy this, but many do not.

As soon as I started learning improv, I immediately fell in love with the way it changed my brain. The only thing that was wrong was to judge your own or others’ contributions as wrong. This little paradox broke open my optimization-machine of a brain, and finally allowed me to practice all of the skills that were pushed to the sidelines while I was perfecting everything else. But what I found was that these skills did not deserve to be on the sidelines; they were crucial abilities for everyone in the modern world.

My academic work has to do with re-thinking what K-12 curriculum could look like for the 21st century. I have also been performing, coaching, and directing improv in Boston for several years. I enjoy thinking about what students should learn — on the one hand, from mathematics, but on the other, from improv comedy.

How do we do this?

Since my career thus far has been focused on synthesizing research into frameworks, I couldn’t help but apply the same methodology to improv. By looking across many research articles, blog posts, and books, as well as triangulating with my personal experience, I came up with the following framework, which attempts to capture all of the elements that go into an improv mindset, and how they relate to each other.

There are two main pieces in the framework: Connection to Self and Connection to the Group. Each of these has important lessons that can each be learned from many different types of exercises and from many different angles in many different contexts.

Running through them all are the four core actions: Listening, Accepting, Contributing, and Playing. Finally, emerging from this mindset are improv principles: being present, trusting your intuition, creating a psychologically safe environment, and self-organization/co-creation.

The actions and principles are too big to be directly practiced, but by practicing the elements of connecting to self and connecting to the group, they get developed as well.

In a future post I will dive into each one of these, but for now I will leave you with a question.

If everyone in the world had an improv mindset, how much more could we achieve?

[1] Schwenke, D., Dshemuchadse, M., Rasehorn, L., Klarhölter, D., & Scherbaum, S. (2020). Improv to improve: the impact of improvisational theater on creativity, acceptance, and psychological well-being. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 1–18.

[2] Felsman, P., Gunawardena, S., & Seifert, C. M. (2020). Improv experience promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 35, 100632.

[3] DeMichele, M. (2015). Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(10).

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Maya Bialik

Teacher, author, and speaker making learning meaningful through curriculum strategy & creative experience design.