Feeling stuck? Does ‘impro’ help get unstuck and solve problems?

The ‘Stuck’ project is well underway, with four schools in the west of England taking part, funded by a US charitable foundation, and part of a collaboration with the British theatre company Peepolykus. The research team consists of Paula Zwozdiak-Myers, Kenny Frederick and myself (based at Brunel in London) and we are working with John Nicholson, Mark Bishop and Toby Hulse (from Peepolykus, based in Bristol), steered by the venerable Kim Lawrence, the Peepolykus administrator and sage.

The overarching aim of the research is to discover whether training in improvisation techniques derived from theatre and comedy helps children get ‘unstuck’ when they freeze and can’t work out what to do next – or how to do it. As the research goes on, we are increasingly interested in whether the teachers themselves benefit from the training also. It is a small project – a pilot – and we are working out what kinds of evidence might help us answer our questions.

Devising workshop at the Brewery Theatre, Bristol

Devising workshop at the Brewery Theatre, Bristol (February)

We began in February, in a rehearsal room in Bristol, with a diverse group of teachers, actors and interested others, trying out games and activities we thought might promote the sort of improvisational agency that would be of benefit to students of various ages. Lots of laughter, crisps and fizzy drink. We drew a little on the published work of The Second City, the legendary impro theatre in Chicago and a book (written for teachers) about the power of improvisation, as well as the professional expertise of John, Mark and Toby.

Jeff Gandy, Head of Youth and Education, The Second City, Chicago

Jeff Gandy, Head of Education and Youth, The Second City, Chicago

I followed up on the Second City connection in Chicago in April (during the American Educational Research Association conference) and visited the theatre and the ‘training center’ and met with Jeff Gandy, Head of Education and Youth. Jeff showed me the extensive and highly impressive programme of activities they offer – everything from workshops for teachers, business people, after-school activities for children and young people, credit-bearing courses in comedy, improvisation, writing and acting. I also saw a show by the teen and youth groups and marveled at the photos of alumni lining the walls of the building. As well as being a pipeline of talent for Saturday Night Live, Second City has also trained many of the leading film and TV actors of the last few decades.

Tina Fey, Second City alum, and the amazing claims for impro

Tina Fey, Second City alum, and the amazing claims for impro

Two things stood out for me during my visit: first, the consistent emphasis in every workshop space and theatre on ‘Yes, and’ as both mantra and tool for improvisational work, stressing the non-judgmental and combinative approach to creativity they seek to foster among young people and performers alike. You take what the previous person has said, accept it and build on it. Second, the importance of ensemble as a concept: the collective is what’s important in this form of improvisation. Jeff and others distinguished between improvisation and stand-up along these lines: improvisation can’t work in the individualistic way that stand-up comedy does. In both senses, the approach to improvisation they take chimes with a broader approach to what is sometimes called ‘democratic classroom cultures’ in the US – an approach that values equal participation rights in classrooms, with all participants accorded respect and dignity. In a book co-authored with Second City, McKnight and Scruggs (2008) make this connection in a powerful way.

Viola Spolin quotation

One of the key figures behind the early development of The Second City was Viola Spolin (1906 – 1994), author of the ‘bible’ Improvisation for Theater and leading exponent of the ‘theater games’ ideas – tools it was claimed could unleash anyone’s creativity. Spolin’s background was in social group work and as a settlement worker during the Great Depression. Spolin also taught at Jane Addams’ Hull House on the near west side of Chicago and, as with so much that has come out of that setting, was influenced by the pragmatism (and feminism) of the Chicago School. In this sense, ‘theater games’ were never only for the theatre. They were ways of channeling the human creativity that was a force for good in society and a means of resisting the oppression of instrumentalism. In her own words:

Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, and transformation can take place.

McKnight, K. & Scruggs, M. (2008) The Second City Guide to Improvisation in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass