My Amazing Experience Teaching Improv: “Saying Yes” To A New Perspective!

By Mairead Carr

A New Tool in Improv

Teaching improv for communication skills was a new experience for me. As someone with a background in theater, I have a deep-rooted passion for acting and dramatic storytelling. However, until recently, it had never occurred to me how effective basic acting exercises can be to the world outside of the dramatic sphere. By participating in improvisational acting, I witnessed people step outside of their comfort-zones and embrace new communication skills.

I was a recent participant in a course with Work Ready NH at Great Bay Community College that was aimed at honing job seeking and career building skills. During the course I was given the opportunity to teach my classmates an improv exercise. Knowing that a public speaking assignment was scheduled for the end of the course and having observed some of my classmates nervousness, I wanted to teach an exercise that would help them overcome mental stalling and verbal hesitancy. I reached out to Beth Boynton for ideas and she suggested that I try the “5 Things” activity. I am glad I followed her advice and was very pleased with the results.

Basic summary of how to play “5 Things”

  • Person A asks Person B to “Give me 5 things…”
  • Person A completes this phrase with some sort of category (i.e. “Give me 5 things that are green.”)
  • Person B responds with 5 things that can be found in that category i.e. 5 Green Things: 1. Traffic lights, 2. Money, 3. String Beans, 4. Sally’s eyes, 5. A green car

The Experience

When I lead this activity in my class, I started by telling my classmates what I hoped to teach them through the activity: more confidence while communicating. After explaining the exercise I divided everyone into pairs and asked them to take turns giving each other just 3 Things (i.e. “Give me 3 types of shoes.”). I observed them and offered pointers to anyone who seemed to be struggling.

After everyone had gotten a chance to play out both roles I asked them to try and get more creative with the categories they were asking for (i.e. “Give me 3 mythical creatures.”). When everyone had tried that out, I had my classmates and myself form a circle and we went around, taking it in turns to ask for 5 Things (i.e. “Give me 5 aliens.”). I then had everyone in the circle try the activity one more time, but for them to really try and push the envelope (i.e. “Give me 5 joke book titles.”)

The Positive Results of Improv

The entire exercise was a delight to observe. I watched self-identified introverts become class comedians and was overjoyed by the level of understanding and support everyone offered each other throughout the activity. Having a safe-space in which to explore is a vital nurturing element of any acting exercise and my class definitely provided that after only having known each other a couple of weeks.

Observations and Developments

While desks and tables had been pushed back, the amount of space in the classroom was limited, so I was not able to walk in between the paired groups as much as I would have liked. Having a larger area to spread out in would definitely be a benefit. I tried to promote a fast-paced back and forth that could help my classmates overcome verbal pausing and nerves. It was interesting to note how some people instead placed the exercise in the setting of a personal conversation with drawn out explanations for why they chose to give each thing. They still displayed creativity and confidence, but they took the activity to a setting I was not expecting, since I was familiar with “5 Things” and similar improv games in a more traditional theater setting.

A New Lease on Improv

What I found especially fascinating about teaching the exercise, were the changes in my own style of playing the game. Having had previous training and experience with improv exercises, I was familiar with how I usually participate in them. When I had played improv games round-robin in a circle, I would watch everyone else, but at the same time, I would always be thinking ahead to what I would do and what my own “performance” would be like when it got to be my turn. Adversely, when I was teaching the exercise, my main focus was on everyone else’s performance and providing them with support, so that when it got to be my turn, I just thought up something random on the spot without even thinking it over. In essence by encouraging everyone else to get past hesitancy and doubts, I was accidentally giving myself more ability and confidence at the same time.

Teaching improv was an amazing experience as a observant who watched it transform the communication skills of other’s and as a participant experiencing new elements of an old game. It is definitely something I look forward to doing more of in the future.