Is the purpose of improvisational comedy to make people laugh? “Yes, and”… improv can also be a useful tool in developing qualitative skills applicable to numerous other arenas and contexts. After interviewing members of Harvard’s only short-form improvisation group, I was able to identify which transferable core skills performing improv helps to cultivate, and where improvisational comedy might have uses beyond the college-lecture-hall-turned-stage. Based on these findings, I can offer recommendations for OTI going forward for more socially-conscious, impactful, exciting improvisation.
I interviewed six members of the group.
What skills does improv teach?66% of people interviewed said Confidence
50% of people interviewed said Social Cue Awareness
50% of people interviewed said Teamwork
50% of people interviewed said Ability to Think on Your Feet
Has there ever been a time when improv has helped you in an academic or work environment?
- In writing, and for prioritizing feelings and emotions. Academics don’t prize innate thoughts, or non-intellectual thoughts. There exists a respect for spontaneity. Also in class discussions.
- In riffing and doing bits in a group effort, writing and pitching jokes.
- In job interviews, going into it, being able to think on your feet because you can prepare all you want for an interview but they can throw something at you that you’ve never heard before.
- In presentations, academically, you’re comfortable in front of groups of people.
- In public speaking in front of groups of people.
- In campaigning phone calls, which can feel similar to an improv game at times.
- In working with kids because it’s very hard to plan things at the beginning of a day, so you know how to adapt based on other people.
- In internships that are comedy-based, because they are all about how you can talk to people, be able to riff and make jokes off the cuff.
How could improvisation work be directed to be more public service oriented?
- Helpful for fundraising efforts because there’s so much energy around it, it gets people excited.
- Helpful for children in daycare, to instill early on the importance of trusting your own thoughts and impulses.
- Helpful in public speaking spaces, in garnering abilities to read the crowd, and play off of the crowd.
- Helpful in anything with creative solving: the ability to think on your feet, and think about the whole while managing the details.
- Helpful for people with anxiety and social anxiety.
- Helpful for corporations and businesses, through bonding and trust that occurs within improv games.
- Helpful to make everyone in group settings feel like they’re on the same page, because the basis of improv is community-based teamwork.
- Helpful getting out of your head, because improv is all about presence.
- Helpful as a source of fun.
- Helpful in comedy for palliative care.
- Helpful as a way to improve communication.
- Helpful for self-esteem building and confidence building.
- Helpful in the transition from childhood to adulthood, in mediating fear of failure and embarrassment.
Quotable Moments:“You learn to respect your stream of consciousness as something that has value and worth.”
“We’re on a sinking ship together.”
“It’s hard to say that improv is a pathway to social change at Harvard specifically when it’s not an unbiased, all-inclusive space to get into in the first place.”
“For marginalized groups in the education system, there are so few avenues of self-expression, and where there are avenues of self-expression they’re very restricted and regulated. Improv is different from that.”
“Sometimes you can ‘fail up’ and a failure can be fun.”
“It’s not the only tool we have, but a really great and underused one.”
“Teaching kids that failure is okay and they don’t need to be afraid of trying hard at things.”
Recommendations:Within OTI, we could internally create more pathways to leadership. This could be done in two ways:
- The first is by creating a comprehensive Presidents’ Document which explores and explains all of the steps, requirements, and tasks associated with being president. I envision sections covering auditions protocols, student organization registration and The Hub, shows and publicity policies, and practice expectations.
- The second way is by encouraging interest in and cultivating closer relationships between current Co-Presidents and future Co-Presidents by establishing an official Vice President and Treasurer or Secretary position. In order to ease students into leadership roles and provide them with time to learn the ropes before a transition of power, we could create more of a board system within the hierarchy of the organization. This would help incoming students start thinking about whether they want a leadership role in this organization, and help them prepare if they have never held another leadership role prior to this.
Within Harvard, we could engage more with the Harvard/college community:
- Improvisation on Harvard's campus is pretty exclusive— with three selective groups of only 12 members maximum, who host auditions only once a year, only about 6-8 total new members are initiated into all three teams any given year. We could mitigate the inaccessibility created by these processes and dismantle the comedy gatekeeping that so frequently happens by offering open practices once weekly or biweekly, or hosting monthly workshops for other student organizations who might want to use some improv games for bonding exercises.
- We could also investigate the possibility of joint practices with other improv groups on other college campuses, like BU’s Liquid Fun, with whom we have performed in the past. It could be fruitful to worm with another group just to expand us in our improv tropes or break any group habits that we have developed.
- We could look into traveling to and competing in improvisation competitions across the country. College improv competitions are not too rare that it would be impossible for us to attend, with funding from Harvard, and it could be a really great experience to learn from other groups.
Within Cambridge, we could engage more with the Cambridge community:
- We could reach out to local schools and offer to host after-school workshops with students, in order to encourage some of those qualitative traits mentioned above.
- We could also reach out to local senior centers to offer either workshops or performances, because it would likely brighten the day of the residents with our buoyant, sometimes chaotic, but always very fun energy. Also, one of the studies I read for this project cited the benefits of improvisational comedy in older adults, so by offering workshops for these elderly residents, perhaps we could make a difference in their quality of life.
With these recommendations on the table, I think it is clear that improvisation is not just about laughter. Laughter is important (it’s the best medicine, in fact) but improv can also offer development of confidence, creativity, and collaborative skills, as the title of this page so aptly suggests. Doing all of this research was a phenomenally exciting way for me to gain more insight into and support of a theory I have been harboring for years—improvisation is a bit more useful than we societally give it credit for. The next step is taking this knowledge and using it to try to make a difference, whether that’s only in one person’s life or in as many residents of the Cambridge area we can lure into a room with the promises and alluring possibilities of “Yes, and…”