Improv in the Classroom

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by Sarah Plemmons

Stefanie Benjamin, assistant professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management,  first encountered improv while studying for her PhD of Educational Foundations and Inquiry at the University of South Carolina.

Benjamin had found her circle of friends in comedians, so during her third year she started doing standup comedy. After finding the solo performances to be intimidating, she gave improv a shot.

A Google search led her to the Trustus Theater which was holding night classes on improv called Night Owl Improv Educational Program. She quickly found the team approach and the ability to let loose and be silly helped both her standup and her career.

“It was this fantastic group of individuals from all over the community, ranging from firefighters to nurses to another teacher to a homemaker, and we all came together and just laughed.” Benjamin said.

Benjamin had found a good fit in the comedy community. She and a group of comedian friends came together to form their own troupe called Tomorrowquest Theatre, a comedy sketch group based in Columbia.

When a position to teach at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville came up, she had to say goodbye to Columbia and Tomorrowquest. However, she quickly found a new home at Einstein Simplified where she could continue improv and standup.

“I was walking around Market Square the night before my interview, and I saw the sign outside Scruffy City Hall that said, ‘Free comedy improv’,” Benjamin said. “I went in and it was Einstein Simplified and said, ‘Okay, this is where I need to be.”

Since coming to UT, Benjamin has taken improv outside the comedy club, leading several workshops centered around improv in the classroom and workplace.

Benjamin’s workshops include a survey at the end to gauge whether the improv helped students and faculties become better communicators and critical thinkers.

“Spoiler alert,” Benjamin said. “It does help.”

During her second semester at UT, Benjamin got an internal grant for Teaching and Learning Innovation to do improv workshops in her Strategic Management and Hospitality class. The group-based, student-run class can intimidate and frustrate students, so improv helps them to fall into a team mindset and learn how to think creatively.

Since then, she has implemented improv into other classes, all of which have received the theater games and workshops well.

“Most of these students want to be event planners, and you have to be on your toes and be in the moment,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin believes improv teaches people how to fail and come back from failure. She believes it helps people learn to take risks and to better empathize and understand audiences. To Benjamin, improv is applicable to success in every career path.

“Improv has allowed me to become a better professor and a better person,” Benjamin said. “It helps you to let go of your ego and learn how to have fun.”

Benjamin facilitates improv workshops around campus, some of which focus on dealing with difficult dialogue and instability in the classroom.

“For me, comprehensive exams, dissertations, all that is really stressful,” Benjamin said. “Using humor in a way to diffuse it and to make light of really dark, twisted, uncomfortable, disappointing, depressing situations, has always helped me.”

Improv is all about taking what you are given and building upon it instead of shooting down a partner’s ideas. Benjamin’s model helps students, teachers and co-workers listen, set aside their ego and say yes to improve interactions and encourage creative thought processes.

“I look up to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Maya Rudolph, Sam Bee. These are incredible women who have found a way to use humor to help us get through all the awful parts and stickiness of life.”

Often, Benjamin finds participants are hesitant to try improv, but after weeks or months of stepping out of their comfort zone, they have found it helped them deal with real-life situation. According to Benjamin, about 90 percent really enjoyed the workshops and learned to become better leaders, listen better and thus overcome difficult and uncomfortable situations.

“It’s small things like learning how to listen, go with the flow, have fun and learn to take risks,” Benjamin said.

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