“Yes, and…” Lessons from the Improv Stage

By Christina Ferrari
Now with graduate school behind me, I find myself with boatloads of something I always struggled to find enough of—time. I now have time to pursue the things I love outside of the student affairs world. For example, last week I took an improv workshop. This was three full days of fun at The Second City in Chicago where people like Tina Fey, John Belushi, and a bunch of Saturday Night Live comedians got their comedic training. 

For those of you who may not be familiar, improv—or improvisation—is a theatrical art form where actors spontaneously make things up. This form of live theatre may start with the suggestion from the audience and then the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment. The purpose of improv is entertainment, and it stems from the commedia dell’Arte theatrical style where actors performed satirical skits and mocked nobles. If you’ve ever seen “Whose Line is it Anyway?” you have a good idea of the kinds of games and skits that I learned and performed during my workshop. 

During this class, I unabashedly got to be my quirky, cheesy self and get back in touch with my first love: the stage. It was an absolute blast! I felt so energized and alive; the feeling of making an audience laugh is unlike any other. Knowing that I was bringing joy to my fellow actors and to the audience was empowering and affirming. I learned so much about myself and recognized some of the fundamental lessons of improv can be applied to our work in student affairs. 

Last fall, I went to the NASPA IV-East Regional Conference where there was a session on improvisation led by Brian Anderson and Colin Stewart titled, “Blurred Lines: Tenants of Improvisation”. Their program drew connections between the art of improv and our work with students. During my workshop, I was reminded of that session and drew a few connections of my own that I’d like to share:

Say “yes, and…” to others and to yourself.

The wonderful thing about improv is that anything goes. We step into Imaginationland where anything is possible and ideas are seldom shut down. One of the core lessons of improv is the concept “yes, and”. This is the unwritten rule that states when your scene partner makes a suggestion, you go with it and add on to further develop the world and circumstances of the scene. 

For example, if your scene partner says to you “hello, Grandma,” you are the grandma for that scene. Even if you walked into the scene with a grandiose plan thinking you would play Elvis and your partner would be an alien all of that immediately goes out the window. You are now the grandma. But it’s not enough to just accept what might be given to you by your fellow actors, your role as an improv actor is also to add on to that reality. So, if your scene partner establishes your relationship with them and says “hello, Grandma” you might say back to them (in your best grandma voice) “hello dear, I’m so glad you came to my birthday party!” and provide the setting or circumstance—hence further developing the scene. The concept of “yes, and” allows endless possibilities to unfold. By building a scene with a partner and reacting off of one another, the results become far greater than anything we might have developed alone.

Spontaneity sparks innovation. Imagine if student affairs worked a little bit more like improvisation. What if we said “yes, and” to our colleagues, to our students, and to ourselves? Often departments make decisions out of tradition—or worse, fear—and limit the possibilities of our workplace. Say “yes, and” to your students and colleagues, it may open doors greater than anything you could have envisioned alone.

We’re all characters.

My class at The Second City was comprised of recent college graduates, retired businessmen, an accountant, a doctor, a backpacking tourist from London, a writer from New Mexico, and a jazz musician. Some bought the class themselves, others were gifted it by family members or friends. Some of the students had extensive acting experience, others did public speaking regularly, and others still had never performed in their life. Our reasons for doing the class were each different, yet here we were learning together. The beauty of improv is that if you have an imagination, you can improvise.  Despite our differences, we were able to learn from and with each other and work together.

Student affairs focuses a lot on identities and perspectives—have you ever thought about how many different walks of life our students (and our colleagues) come from when they step on our campuses? How might that impact their approach, perspective of others, and how they interact? What can we, as student affairs professionals, do to empower all students and encourage their engagement? Improv levels the playing field because it’s all made up, higher education relies on systems and hierarchies at every level. What might college look like if these structures were deconstructed or deemphasized?

Let go and laugh!

If we can learn to let go, to stop taking ourselves so seriously and remember the work we do should be FUN it may make our day go by a little smoother. Learn to laugh at yourself, and each other. Improv is all about poking fun at the every day, as well as the flat out ridiculous. Let your hair down, let your guard down. College is a fun and wonderful time for our students, we are so incredibly lucky to work in this environment. Let’s not forget to enjoy ourselves. Laughter is the world’s best medicine and let’s face it, with all the stress and challenge our work can bring sometimes a good hearty laugh is necessary to get us through the day.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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  1. This is great, Christina! I loved that session at NASPA IV-E also and I'm glad you're getting to focus on Improv!

  2. Great post and you will definitely find that our practice areas will provide you with multitudes of opportunities to improvise!!!


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