For Christmas 2021, my wife got me the gift of improv comedy classes. We happen to have an improv comedy theater right here in our little Chicago suburb, and she signed me up for a Level 1 class. She says I brought up the idea at some point—I certainly don’t remember doing that—but I was hooked from the very first session.
Friends and colleagues who learn I’m studying and performing improv often remark that it seems very on-brand for me, an outgoing extrovert who regularly speaks in public. They imagine that having a “quick wit,” and a particular penchant for the performative is a great help in coming up with fun scenes on the fly, inventing characters, and generally putting yourself out there. That’s partly true, but I have also found these qualities to be a significant hindrance. Being “quick” can often work against good improv. Being “performative” can derail a good scene. What good improv needs most is good listening, presence, attention to others, and generosity of spirit. The famous “Yes, and . . .” of improv is not the expression of a specific personality, but a skill to be developed in a constructive and trusting community.
This truth is why it’s been easy for me to make the connections between the practice of improv and my work as a professor. I don’t mean that I’ve learned to be funnier or zanier (I was already pretty zany), but it’s helped me to find practices whereby I can cultivate in my students the same postures of listening, presence, and generosity I find in improv. As a result, I have given over precious class time to some improv exercises at the start of each class session, carefully explaining the pedagogical power of these moments for our learning. Students love this time together, but more than simply the bonding fun, I have found improv to be a powerful technique for producing the sort of learning community we desire.
The popularization of improv comedy is often credited to the pioneering theater work of Viola Spolin, a professor and practitioner of theater who, along with her son, founded what would become Chicago’s Second City Theater. She developed the art form as part theater training and part therapy, working out many of her techniques at Jane Addams’s Hull House in the 1940s. Helping actors to understand themselves, bringing together strangers, and healing wounded and frightened souls was the beginning of what we know as improv today.1
Part of the power of improv is that it, like other forms of acting/theater, demands an embodied presence and connection to others. In my improv studio, one of the first things we encourage in one another is to “get out of your head.” Being “in your head” refers to trying to think your way through a scene, plan your moves several beats ahead, or generally set specific goals for where it’s going to go. What “being in your head” feels like is really where most of us spend much of our day. Throughout the day I am often processing my own plans for what to say next as someone else is speaking. I am often quite conscious of how I am being perceived and making adjustments in my presentation to change what I perceive the perception to be. (You can see how our minds can spiral.) But even in my best moments, I may simply be “up in my head” because that is where the work of academia often takes place. But regardless the reason, the farther I go into my head, the less of me is available to listen, be present, and respond in the moment. I suspect I am not alone in this.
But good improv demands that you get out of your head and into the room where others may subtly or dramatically change everything in a moment. For example, I may walk onto the stage, miming the actions of an ape, swinging my arms, hunched over in my best silverback impression. In my head, I’m inviting my partner to join me in the mist, or perhaps become my Dian Fossey, and interact with my ape-self. But instead, she may look at this hunched-over-arm-swinging action and declare, “I’m so glad we came to this dance party!” If I persist in my ape character, holding on to the vision of the scene I have in my mind, I will reject her interpretation of what I’m doing and who I am. “No! Can’t you see I’m an ape? I’m not at a dance party,” I might respond. But at that point, the scene is over, and we’ve failed. We’re just two people disagreeing about the structure of the universe, rather than people in the same moment, the same place, connected in a shared reality with places we could go. If I want to get to those places together, I say yes. “Yes, dancing. Yes. I mean it’s weird that we’re in this small cave and have to dance hunched over like this, but it’s great!” Maybe we’re dancing in the back of the Bat Cave where the ceiling gets low. Perhaps it’s our reunion at the Academy of Science, Arts, and Spelunking, class of 1984. I don’t know where it might go next, but whatever it is I have to listen, affirm my partner, and enter into the moment.
At the beginning of an improv class session, there are many exercises we do to develop this sort of awareness, instincts of affirmation, and responsiveness. Some are as simple as word association games or mirroring activities in which people must respond to the physical actions of others. Some involve creating characters from another’s suggestions and delivering a few lines. Different exercises require different levels of “risk” for a person who is not accustomed to being silly in front of their peers. But they are all meant to push us to pay attention, listen, affirm, and respond. They get us out of our heads and into the room.
This environment is what I hope for my classroom and for our Christian lives. As a professor, I am fortunate to teach in a context where small group discussion is normal and welcomed, class sizes are manageable, and even the infrastructure generally accommodates this work. But that is not enough if my students are self-conscious and guarded. If they enter into discussions with one another primarily seeking to appear “smart” and impress their peers (or me) with their remarks, if they are “in their heads,” so to speak, they will often fail to listen to one another, fail to ask real questions, fail to engage deeply with each other or the material.
So, at the start of each class session, I get my students out of their seats to stand in a circle. We then warm up in the tradition of improv. Exercises from the classic zip, zap, zop in which students point and clap at a peer in the circle while saying “zip,” “zap,” or “zop” in order, to the more advanced storytelling and character portrayals that I introduced in the end of the semester (when trust and comfort were established); all these serve to cultivate the virtues of attention, affirmation, response, and generosity. I always offer a short explanation of why we’re giving time over to these activities—the formative purposes—and I hope they understand my goals, but what is immediately evident is that they relish the joy of connecting with their peers and me. On the few occasions in which I felt rushed or jealous of the time given to these activities, and I tried to skip past them, my students roundly complained and once even mutinied: ignoring my presence and setting up their own favorite exercise in the opening ritual of our class. (I was invited to join once it became clear that my puny resistance was no match for their collective will.)
What they could understand, after having engaged in these exercises throughout the semester, was that by getting themselves up and moving, getting out of their heads, learning to see one another even if just for a moment, they were engaging in a deeply Christian practice, to come out of their heads and put their classmates’ interests above their own (Phil 4:2). For my students, these actions served to help them love their neighbors as (and while) they loved themselves. Our Christian lives, like our academic lives, are never limited to the ideologies or mental commitments we make. Rather, our Christian selves are formed through the physical, enacted lives we live. Getting my students, and me, to improv our way out of our heads and into the room has been one of the most effective, and enjoyable, means of leading us all into the renewal of our minds.2
- Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. 3rd ed. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1999).
- Resources for professors interested in learning more about improv and exercises they might use: Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser, Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual (New York: Comedy Council of Nicea, 2013). Dana, MaryAnn McKibben. God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018). In addition, there are many websites and apps listing dozens of improv exercises for every size group, level, and situation.