For our new column, Ask an Educator, we turn to educators, whether teachers, tutors, or principals, to answer frequently asked questions from parents. To send in your question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, our question is:
“What is improv? Why is it important for students to learn improv?”
Answering for us is Zeng Cheng, previously an engineer, now the director and founder of Horse Horse Tiger Tiger Troupe.
What is Improv?
Improv is short for the word “improvisation”. Improvisation is the act of making something up as it is performed, usually related to music, dance, and theatre. Improvisation is something we do: musicians improvise, dancers improvise, poets improvise, and even think-tankers improvise without any constraints. The act of improvisation brings freedom of imagination, ways of finding solutions toward problems, and helps students explore and discover more with stronger curiosities.
In improvisational theatre improve is a process; a way of making up things and is not a result we can see. Most students who attend my class are not trying to become professional improvisers; they just want to improve their lives. The skills I teach in improve class are the skills we use in our daily lives.
What is improv class like?
In my improv class, I firstly let students PLAY. Playing is what students like about it, as it happens in our bodies and hearts. If we regard improv as a class studying, we are more serious, and when it gets tougher, it’s more like a job, so we start worrying about it until we get sick of it. Improv playing always keeps us engaged, relaxed, and having fun together.
In improve, there are No Mistakes. Instead, we celebrate mistakes as we focus on the process of making and generating new ideas, thoughts, and inspirations. We do not pursue fixed targets or results, so we have no need to judge. We capture everything and go for quantity, which is the perfect way for spontaneity and brain storming as genius ideas can finally come out when we no longer fear making mistakes.
In improv play, we use Yes And mode to communicate, we offer to each other invitations, and we accept each other’s’ offers. Improv is group mind play where we own one mind with many bodies. By saying “Yes”, we completely accept each other’s ideas so we can build something together. By saying “And”, we welcome students to add more pieces of information and to advance what is going on right here and now. As such, we build a friendly and supportive environment for students who are willing to explore and discover.
Since improv is an art form created in the moment, improvisers have to use “active listening skills” to listen actively in order to participate in the scenario and think on their feet. Improv is a collaborative art form which means we put down our own ego, stop thinking what we are thinking, and start noticing and feeling what others want. Instead of “my ideas”, “your ideas” and “his idea”, they become the first idea, the second idea, and the third idea.
Why is improv so important?
Improv classes have been widely opened in American schools and colleges in an effort to give students the chance to develop their “lizard brains”. The “lizard brain” is in charge of “emotion, feeling, instinct, and imagination”, and by developing them, students are better able to create something out of nothing, feel what others feel, and respond to what others want.
I teach improv classes for kids and teenagers in China, and the more students I have taught, the funnier the student performances have become. Improv has helped so many students open their hearts and minds to embrace challenges, define their own desire, and change their minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets. They are able to make a bold choices on their own, go for what they want, collaborate together, and show us what they think and feel.
Photos: courtesy of Zeng Cheng