Transcript Clip 6: Improv Theatre and Your Practice

From: Power Up Your Teaching of Communication Skills with Techniques for Business and Performing Arts – Richard Snyder

Medical Improv is a curricula of the Performance Practice type. It was created by Prof. Katie Watson at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern. It’s an elective course for medical students and consists of 5 two hour classes. She’s taught for the last 10 years and the classes always fill. That’s Katie. A little about Professor Watson: She is a professor of bioethics at the medical school. She is also performer and teacher at 2nd City in Chicago. For those of you who don’t know, 2nd City is a world center of Improv Theatre and Sketch Comedy. Much of the cast of Saturday Night live come from there. Tina Fey, Steve Colbert trained and taught there. In addition, 2nd City has a robust corporate division where they use Improv principles and to train business people to be better communicators. Medical Improv uses Improv principles to train healthcare workers to be better communicators.

How does it work? It starts with Improv Theater. How many of you have ever been to an Improv Theater show? It’s theater that happens without a script. The actors on stage make it up on the spot. It’s not the same thing as comedy. In comedy, you try to be funny. In Improv, you try to be honest and spontaneous, in other words, authentic. Sometimes Improv happens to be funny. But if you try to be funny, the authenticity goes away and it falls flat.

As you can imagine, making up a show on the spot in front of a paying audience is quite an accomplishment. Improv actors train for it. They have a well established curriculum. The fundamental principle is called “yes and.” Let’s do a classic Yes And exercise called Remember Mexico. Can I have a volunteer from the audience? Awesome. So we are best friends and whenever we take a vacation good things happen and we have a great time. I’m going to start a dialogue and Sandi, your job is to just say one word to whatever I say and that one word is “no.”

Remember Mexico?
Uhhh I think we did go there.
As you can see we are not getting very far.

Now your job is to just say one word to whatever I say and that one word is “yes.”
Remember Mexico?
We ate a lot of tortillas there.
And Salsa too
And we went Salsa dancing as I recall.
And I magically remembered my old ballroom dancing lessons.
As you can see, we are getting somewhere but I’m doing all the work.

Now, your job is to each of our jobs is to say Yes to whatever the other says and then say the word “and” and add a simple statement of a fun thing that happened there. So other than the first line Remember Mexico, each line begins with the two words, “Yes And” followed by a simple statement of something that happened there that relates to what I just heard. Let’s try that you starting this time. So ask me, “remember mexico?”
Yes and we ate a lot of tortilla chips there.
Yes and we ate a lot of salsa too.
Yes and we ate so much Salsa that the resturnant ran out.
Yes and the place had to buy more Salsa on the black market.

So now your turn to do a couple of minute Yes and scene. Please find a partner. The person with the longest hair will be Person A. Person A, you get to decide where you went. Pick a place you would love to visit. You two went there and good things happened. Person B answer with Yes And followed by brief statement about what happened and then go back and forth. Go !

Congratulations ! You just did an Improv scene. You built a story brick by brick. You didn’t know where it would go until you got there. For many of you, you probably got to a surprising place that was delightful.

Yes And is the first principle. There are many more such as

“Make Your Partner look good,”
“Fail good naturedly,”
“Accept. Everything you get is a gift.”
“Listen. Let Your Partner Change you.”

Aren’t these great principles !

This “Yes And” exercise could have been used an Engaging Opening before any of the four flavor sessions. In Medical Improv, it’s not a warm up, it’s the main event. In Medical improv, we drill Yes And over and over again to get better at doing it. It’s what Katie calls Cross training for communication. You’re building a communication muscle. (flex muscle) When you strong in Yes And, you will naturally affirm people even when they are being difficult. Medical Improv cross trains multiple communication skills such as : listening, talking, reading emotions, positive attitude, team work, leadership, resiliency.

Medical Improv is different from Theatre Improv is two ways. Number 1: Selected exercises that are relevant to medical goals. Number 2: Targeted discussions to link the exercises to medical work.

Does it work? Here’s a selection of her results. (see slide) I think any of us would be very happy to have these results for our classes.

If you want to use Medical Improv in your teaching, it is easier than you might think. You can take Katie’s 4 day Train the Trainer workshop where she teaches you how to teach it. I took that class and it was outstanding. If you want to teach this when you get home from her course, Katie recommends going easy on yourself. Collaborate with an Improv Professional. You would be the expert in connecting the dots to medical work and they would be the expert in Improv Theater. You don’t need to teach the whole course, you can pick and choose parts to present shorter workshops targeted to specific communication skills.