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How Improv Can Boost Democracy (Even When Learning on Zoom)

By BETH HARPAZ

When Professor Don Waisanen (Baruch College) saw his first professional improv show, he was stunned by the performers’ “seemingly superhuman communication skills”–how well they worked together, trusted one another, and built on each other’s lines and actions, all while exhibiting joy and playfulness. He decided to take an improv class himself, and since then has taught thousands of improv classes to improve learning, community relations, leadership, teamwork, and other realms where communication matters. 

Now Waisanen has written a book, Improv for Democracy, offering “a novel, unconventional way of teaching and training the hard skills of bridging differences, building connections, and improving communities from the ground up. It’s primarily for anyone who’s work involves civic education or community engagement, including educators of all kinds, advocates for civil discourse, those involved in conflict management and resolution, diplomacy, and negotiation or mediation.”

The book lays out improv exercises step by step, including guidance for “debriefing” participants beyond the fun they’re having so that they understand the takeaways and how to apply them. In Waisanen’s version of rock, paper, scissors, the loser must cheer the winner on in subsequent rounds. “By encouraging us to look for ways to affirm others first before moving to areas of difference, applied improv follows decades of social scientific studies on how to best approach difficult or antagonistic people,” Weisanen writes. 

Many exercises teach participants to pay close attention to others, like a game where you start your sentence with the last word said by another person, or where you build a story, line by line, picking up from the previous player’s sentence. Sharpening one’s ability to be attentive and respectful “is at the core of what improv affords our social world and civic life.” Other exercises “empower individuals to practice confident delivery and feel more comfortable expressing themselves.” In one exercise, a participant must explain what an iPhone is to someone from the 16th century.   

OK, but with the pandemic-related switch to remote classes and meetings, can improv be done on Zoom? Absolutely, says Weisanen, who went through his exercises one by one and found that  “exactly 92% of what I’d normally teach in the course” was adaptable online. 

“The online experience is democratizing improv as never before,” he wrote in a recent article, “bringing improv to more people, in more places, with more accessible digital tools at our disposal, unshackling the offer of improv’s benefits from bounded places to unbounded spaces.”