Five Ways Improv Prepares You for Grad School

by Jeraul Mackey

I can still see the faculty member standing behind a wooden podium, older than my parents, cutting through the ease and laughter of new student orientation, to remind us that grad school is hard work. It could be fun and rewarding, she implied. Yet those qualities would be optional. What was certain is that I would be embarking on a journey unlike anything I ever experienced. My instinct is to question absolutes. So I wondered to myself, “Really? Hardest thing I will ever do?” I thought getting into Harvard would be the hardest thing.

A PhD program certainly can’t be harder than improv, performing in front of huge crowds with no script and a clear mandate to make people laugh. Well, with one year under my belt, I can share a secret. She was right! Grad school is hard, but the lessons I’ve learned from improv have made an incredibly hard experience fun and rewarding. Here’s what I learned from improv that are equally true about grad school:

  1. You must have a point of view. Think about your favorite comedy. I bet the person or scene that comes to mind involves a strong point of view. That’s the trick to great improv. You do your best work when you have a point of view, a want, or what we simply call a deal. The same goes for grad school. Before every class, paper, or lecture, ask yourself what do you want to get out of the experience. After you read a paper, take a few moments to jot down how you feel about the argument and author. Magical things happen when you enter a scene with a point of view. They lead to funny moments on stage and breakthrough moments in classrooms.
  2. You have to listen well. The beauty of improv is there is no script. You get a word from the audience and proceed to make stuff up, inspired by that word. You have to listen to what the person is saying and respond to what you hear. I can’t tell you how many times this activity saved me. Class discussions. Office hours with faculty. Small talk in the cafe. Fight the urge to assume you know what someone is about to say; resist thinking about your response while the person is still talking. Every human interaction is like improv: completely made up, never to be performed again. If you take the time to focus in and listen, I promise you you’ll learn more and form more meaningful relationships.
  3. Put yourself out there. When I first started improv, I was terrified to get out on the stage and perform. I would tell myself: I could have a brain fart, not be funny, freak out. Then I learned that everybody is in the same boat – trying to figure things out. And the more you put yourself out there, the more comfortable you are on stage, the better you get. At some point, you’ll feel an urge to second-guess yourself. You’ll wait until next year to apply for the fellowship because [insert excuse]. You’ll hold off on reaching out to that professor whose work you really like because [insert excuse]. Know everyone has been where you are and are still figuring it out. That goes for PhD candidates and faculty. You can’t get better if you don’t step out there.
  4. You must own your title. I’ve been doing improv for three years. My troupes have performed at local festivals and international events. We’ve had a yearlong residency at the top theaters in Boston and people have paid us to show up at their party and be funny. We’re pretty good. Still, whenever someone said, “You’re an improv comedian” I would downplay that identity. One day, my good friend said, “If you are going to do something for years, put in the time, practice, and effort to get better, why are you treating it like somebody who has a gym membership that they use once a year?” As a doctoral student, you will find yourself in a similar spot. Don’t wait to be hooded to call yourself a scholar or researcher. Don’t discuss what you want or plan to study. From day one, you are studying something. Name it and own it. It’s part of your identity.
  5. If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole. This is one of the best lessons I learned from improv. It’s easy to get into a scene, bomb, and try to blame everyone else. The audience was weak. My scene partner was crap. Nobody got my jokes. The golden rule of improv: when things don’t go well, take responsibility. You’re going to be in a PhD program for several years and probably on campus for at least two to three years. Make sure you are having fun. Make sure you are creating experiences for yourself that you find rewarding, filling, and enriching. If that’s not happening, well you’re the asshole.

Grad school is hard work. The fun and rewarding part doesn’t have to be optional. The entire campus is your stage, so get out there and create!!

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