Quick, explain a toaster to a cave person! It’s harder than you might guess, says John Windmueller, director of WIT@Work, a branch of Washington Improv Theater that teaches on-your-feet thinking to non-improv people. In this partner game, if you use any concept that wouldn’t be familiar to a Neanderthal, the response is an “Ug.” Translation: Try that sentence again.
It’s goofy. It’s entertaining. And it’s a helpful exercise for researchers who want to get better at sharing their work with the public or justifying why they should land a grant, adds Windmueller, who is leading the second-ever “Science of Improv” workshop Feb. 15 at the Koshland Science Museum at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. (Tickets to take part in the workshop are $5 to $7; more details at scienceofimprov.eventbrite.com.)
The name of the event has a double meaning. Although anyone is welcome to attend, Windmueller says, it’s geared specifically to scientists and how they can benefit from building improv skills such as collaboration, communication and creativity. The workshop is also rooted in science, he notes, because studies have found that improvisation can alter brain activity to reduce inhibition.
But don’t expect a lecture. “We’ll be playing games, and playing more games,” Windmueller says. He promises that “no one has to tell a joke” and that introverts have no reason to shy away: Improv is all about listening and support.
So, in another game, partners stand on either side of an invisible box. It’s one partner’s job to pull out as many imaginary items as quickly as possible and name them. These could be a jaguar, the whole universe, the Pythagorean theorem. Whenever the player is running out of ideas, Windmueller says, the partner’s job is to throw out hints, such as “It’s blue!”
Besides being a lesson in brainstorming, Windmueller says, the game shows the value of that input from your partner. Although knowing the color of an item limits what you can pull out of the box, coming up with an idea becomes easier. As Windmueller puts it, “Constraints help us be creative,” whether you’re playing with an invisible box or designing an experiment.
His goal for the workshop? For participants to go back to their labs and ask, “Are we having fun?”