Medical Student Teaches Improv to Business Students . . . huh?

Posted: April 27, 2015 in Medical School
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Improv! The word quickly connotes quick-witted actors leaping around a stage creating bizarre story lines. Or perhaps the word conjurs up Saturday Night Live or the classic Improv show, Whose Line is It Anyway? So, how did I find myself, in my fourth year of medical school, teaching Improv to MBA students?

Last year, I took part in a global social entrepreneurship student competition called the HULT prize. One my team members would later remember my background as a Theatre professor and actor and whispered that in the ear of the Design and Business Club at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. They happen to have started a program of events known as StoryLab to expose business students to the nature of the story as a potential tool in business. They asked me if I would consider leading a workshop. As they had already learned about elements such as story structure, body language and physical presence, I thought the next step could be learning how to create a story from scratch, that is Improv!

And so, on April 3rd, I met with a group of MBA students and we did Improv. I wanted this session to be fun, which Improv always is, but also relevant. I could have the students prance about the room like gazelles and that would be entertaining, but why would that ultimately matter to a group of business students? So the first thing I did was challenge the students to get beyond thinking of Improv as the purview of trained actors. I pointed them to the work of Theatre practitioner Keith Johnstone who notes that we are all born natural improvisers. Children create narratives effortlessly and transform everyday objects into dynamic magical things every day. As we speak, my son Cameron is making a cardboard box into full body armor and a helmet for space travel. Johnstone argues that this natural instinct is educated out many of us as we proceed through formal education. We are quickly reprogrammed to a world of stiff objectives, where conformity is the highest value. But our instinct, if we can rediscover it, is to playfully create. And this creativity is by no means trivial; it is needed to solve the most complicated problems that resist conventional thinking . . .

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And so that is what we explored . . . what happens if you accept even the craziest sounding idea and run with it? How do you improvise around emotion? We improvised around silence. What is happening when no one is talking? We connected these explorations to real business situations such as an employee joining a new company or a brainstorming session.

At its most dynamic, Improv is about learning how to become agile with the unexpected. And that skill knows no boundaries of discipline: a business meeting takes an unexpected turn, a patient develops an unusual complication. For the first time, I saw three worlds intersecting instead of just the two that I most often write or think about, Theatre and Medicine. Theatre, Medicine and Business resonated off each other, and it made perfect sense.

One participant wrote to me after the session and asked if and how Improv plays into my daily life. I answered that Improv is a way of life. Life presents us with offers everyday from a conversation with a stranger at the grocery store to a life changing event such as a job loss or perhaps another disappointment or victory. At that moment, if you were on stage telling a fictionalized account, the story could not stop. You could not rail at the universe for things not having gone your way. You would have to embrace the change in direction, and embrace it fully then launch in the new direction, not knowing all the answers but asking the questions boldly. Or you could just say no, stay safe, unembarrassed, unhurt, unexposed . . . Improv challenges us to say “Yes” . . . that is my challenge everyday. I don’t always achieve it, but when I do . . . what a story!

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