3 Principles of Improv that Improve Every Classroom, School, District & Universe

When I’m not busy doing everything else in my life, I perform, coach, and teach improv.  It’s been a passion of mine since taking classes at ImprovBoston in Cambridge oh . . . going on . . . wow . . .  ten years now.  I had been directing sketch comedy at the high school for several years leading up to that, but working with Will Luera and Elyse Schulerman there at IB?  Changed my whole perspective on teamwork, performance, and comedy.

Big misconception about improv: It’s all about being funny.

Actually, that’s like the LEAST important thing about improv, or should be, anyway.  (Audiences still tend to prefer laughter to not laughter, as evident by a performance for a church post-worship luncheon where I was decidedly not very funny.)  Thing is, if you are a funny person and you perform improv well, the funny will come out.  It’s much more important to play well.

When teaching, coaching and directing improv, I hammer home three key principles:

Dan’s three key principles of improv, to be applied not only to the stage, but to the classroom and life in general

Acceptance

Communication

Trust

Improv relies upon each performer’s capacity for the above and the ability to turn that potential into action alongside his or her fellow performers.  Sure, there are prime concepts like “Yes/And” and “Commit!” and “Make an Offer” and those are all important as well.  But in my work, I’ve found everything boils down to A-C-T.

Acceptance

You have to play the hand you are dealt.  Cliche?  Yes. And just disgustingly accurate.  Acceptance is all about saying, “this is my reality, this is what I have to wrestle with, these are the conditions, and now I have to make it work.”  Improvisations fall apart when actors refuse to accept the ideas, offers, their fellow performers have made.  When they say, “No, I don’t like that premise so I’m just going to make up my own instead,” the entire scene crumbles into so much refuse.

It is no different in the classroom.  To carry out a successful learning experience, one must accept the class roster as assigned, one must accept the presence of fire drills and boyfriend drama, one must accept the reading level and irritability of one’s students, one must accept a very short lunch break. Of course, one may work to change, adjust, evolve the status quo.  However, it must be done in a collaborative, non-dictatorial manner if one wants the most premium of results.

Stephen Colbert agrees.  (Well, in principle anyway.)

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.”

— Stephen Colbert

Knox College Commencement Address 2006

Communication

Best way to undermine acceptance?  Fail to communicate.  Improvisation relies upon actors communicating both verbally and non-verbally with their partners.  And those ideas must then be conveyed effectively to the audience.  A tremendous amount of information moves from actors to viewers in the space of an improvised scene — and since costumes, sets, and props are rare in improv, communication because the central means by which the audience has any idea what is going on.

Most central to powerful communication?  Listening.  Delivering clear ideas, receiving pure intentions is 90% listening, 9% producing, 1% moxie.

And in the classroom, communication proves likewise vital.  It might be giving directions, it might be conversing with home, and it might be the body language the teacher presents the students at the onset of class and upon the final farewell.  Regardless the context and content, communicating clearly has premium value for educators.

The funny thing is that we know this about communication. We’ve known it for decades and decades.  So why do schools at classroom,  building and district levels have such a difficult time addressing the problem?  Perhaps the answer lies below.

Trust

If one cannot trust one’s fellow actors, one is doomed.  It becomes a game of chicken wrapped inside a game of cat and mouse and heightened by a healthy hand of cribbage.  Too many moving parts and pieces and yourself, functioning as an island.  If you cannot trust, you cannot accept ideas.  If you cannot trust, you cannot be relied upon to convey information. If you cannot trust, you cannot collaborate.

In the classroom, all of those truths remain.  And perhaps those truths are heightened even more so — adolescents refusing to commit the full capacity of their thinking just to avoid a class label, teachers remaining seated at staff meetings rather than advocating for a point of view and potentially rocking a boat, administrators holding staff and students to the letter of the policy manual rather than trusting in the power of context and situation, equity and reason.

Without trust, we have little.

In the future, I will explore each of these principles — acceptance, communication, trust — more fully, sharing ways in which we can all benefit from practicing and developing our quotients in each, and sharing strategies for doing so.

For now, take a little time.  Ask yourself how clear you communicate, how much you trust, how well you accept and see if you can try to improve each by one fraction of a percentage toward greater capacity.

I can’t guarantee any of the above will make you funnier.

But I can guarantee getting better in A-C-T will make you a much more fun person — perhaps educator —  to be around.  And that’s a F-A-C-T.

I kill me with that line.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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