How Improvisation and Acting can Boost Your Science (Really!)

by Sarah Nason


Dr. Katie Pagnucco (left) and Dr. Monica Granados (right) improvising onstage together. The two women have developed an improv workshop for scientists to help academics better engage audiences with their work. Credit: Max Mcguire

After making it through the tumultuous balancing act that is the 12-minute conference presentation, you receive your first question. You’ve gotten this question before, and start nodding in anticipation, preparing your response. Because it’s a stressful experience to be in front of an audience, your brain takes this moment of relief to pause and re-focus, and you lose track of what the person is asking. But that’s okay, you know how to respond, and once they finish you offer your explanation. This is a familiar situation for many an academic, sometimes even leading us to interrupt our question-askers. In fact, when I’ve relayed this anecdote to colleagues, they often start nodding with a knowing smile and look like they might interject before I finish!

What if we could just stay in the moment during these situations? We might actually be missing something important in what our conversation partners are saying, and we probably would be able to answer questions better.

These are the kinds of skills Dr. Katie Pagnucco and Dr. Monica Granados noticed they started improving after taking up improv comedy classes as a hobby during their PhD studies. Improv theatre might seem like a bit of a random hobby for scientists to take up, but both women found it to be a great fit. “We were looking to meet people outside of grad school and find an outlet for our goofy, creative sides,” they explained in an email.

Improvisation leans heavily on listening to your acting partners and responding accurately to what they’ve just said, making for surprisingly transferable skills when it comes to science communication and presentations. “We were surprised how many rules and lessons we learned from improv that were seeping into our scientific work,” Dr. Pagnucco commented. For example, another basic principle of improv is “yes, and”: when one actor introduces an idea to a scene, their partner should accept the idea (“yes”) and add something to it (“and”). This cooperation is what allows performers to build scenes together, but can also be applied to working on any kind of collaborative project. Dr. Pagnucco and Dr. Granados saw this as a great strategy for working in teams on scientific projects: rather than looking for reasons why their collaborators’ ideas might be faulty (more of a “yes, but”, as we are often trained to do in science), they started looking for ways to build on the foundations of these ideas.

The two women were keen to share all the benefits improv was bringing to their scientific lives with other academics, so they put heads together and developed one of the most surprising and delightful things I saw on offer when I went to register for the latest Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution meeting a few months ago: a science improv workshop.

“Improv helped us realize that virtually every profession can benefit from being viewed as a type of performance. And as with any performance, your ability to reach and hold the audience’s attention rests on your performance skills,” Dr. Pagnucco explained. There are 5 key skills they focused on in developing their workshop: listening, speaking, collaborating, embracing spontaneity and failure, and being aware of your physical presence. “If we had to distill it all down to one message, it would be this: Scientists are people. Being yourself, and presenting your work as a human who makes mistakes and has a personality is paramount for reaching audiences, connecting with them, and having ourselves and our work remembered.”

Dr. Pagnucco and Dr. Granados are not the only people to start realizing the benefits of performance and acting skills when it comes to a scientific career. Putting out some feelers on Twitter, I learned that a surprising number of scientists are involved in performance arts, either as a method to help their science communication skills or because they already did performance as a hobby and found these skills transferred over into their academic lives.

While many people credited improv for their ability to adapt on the fly and be dynamic while giving presentations, there were a few people who spoke about skills derived from other forms of performance:

It was overwhelmingly clear that those who have been involved in improv, acting, and performance have found a lot of benefits in their academic and scientific lives. For Dr. Catherine Beckett, a background in theatre and improv has been a huge boon to her teaching life.

“It really frees up presenters’ energy to pay more attention to quality of presentation. If you don’t have that 95% of your brain occupied by how nervous and awkward and uncomfortable you feel, you have so much more brain freed up to think about how you might organize [your presentation] in a way that makes sense,” she said in an interview. Dr. Beckett also credited practicing improv ‘status games’ with helping her to better consider the needs of her students. In these games, improv participants are encouraged to adopt a hierarchical status (for example, pretending you are a queen versus a peasant) and to interact with others in the room based on these statuses.

“These concepts really give you an awareness of how you treat others and how you are being treated,” she added, “especially because people might act a certain way depending on their cultural background.” For Dr. Beckett, this helped her to adopt her classroom practices to accommodate for some students from Asian cultural backgrounds who hesitated to ask questions in class: realizing that this behaviour came from cultural norms of status and hierarchy, she was able to acquire feedback by encouraging students to talk to their peers about what was challenging them in class.

Dr. Daniel Gillis at the University of Guelph has gone one step further in incorporating improv into his teaching: improv is a key component of the curriculum he developed for a third year computer science course, as well as in a transdisciplinary classroom called Ideas Congress (ICON) that he co-developed with fellow University of Guelph professor Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs. In the computer science course, students learn improv basics from a local theatre company The Making Box and are encouraged to use these skills in completing a software development project. “They learn basics about the ‘Yes! And…’ philosophy, and engage in various activities that help the students to build trust and learn team skills,” Dr. Gillis explained in an email. “This includes demonstrating the challenges of listening, and giving the students tools to be more effective when they are listening.”


Students across academic disciplines participating in improv training provided by The Making Box for the trans-disciplinary Ideas Congress classroom, an initiative co-developed by Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs and Dr. Daniel Gillis and held at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Image credit: Dr. Daniel Gillis.

Improv plays an even more central role in the ICON project, where students all the way from 1st to 5th year in any discipline come together. Here, students build collaborative skills and ultimately work with community partners to brainstorm and develop solutions to broad scale social challenges such as food insecurity and environmental sustainability. “In this case, improv is huge in having the students open up to each other. We have about 26 different majors in the classroom – so having the students learn how to communicate is paramount if they are to work with a community partner to address their broad social challenge,” Dr. Gillis commented. “I find it a bit strange and perhaps egotistical that any one discipline might think that they are going to solve any of the big broad social issues we have. Big social issues are multifaceted, multilayered, multisectoral and are going to require the concerted effort of many disciplines to solve them. I think improv can help us achieve this.”

But what about getting science outside of the classroom? Can improv help science escape the ivory tower? It’s all well and good for academics to get better at talking amongst ourselves, but ultimately, we need our research to reach the public for it to have an impact. Many scientists make their living outside of universities, and cite improv, theatre and performance skills as helping them to bridge the gap between worlds.

Dr. Skylar Bayer, a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. echoed Dr. Pagnucco and Dr. Granados’ earlier comments about performance. “Every presentation, class you teach and interaction with an audience is a performance. You are projecting some character — some version of yourself to an audience, whether you intend to or not. I think an improv class can show you how to have better control over the character you’re communicating to your audiences,” she explained in an email. In particular, she credited the “yes, and” principle as being an excellent way to improve communication: “It can help build bridges in communication and it can elevate you above negative conversations. It can be a really important tool for pivoting conversations towards topics you want to discuss and focus on.”

In fact, many scientists involved in policy and politics agree that improv and performance have helped them to get their messages across in government. PhD student Linh Anh Cát is a microbiologist who recently took acting classes to improve her science communication skills, transferring the skills to her fellowship placement working on public policy in Washington, D.C. “I had heard great things about the acting class (Activate to Captivate) from a few of my colleagues. What sealed the deal was that there were fun exercises that I thought would be a nice change from spending time in front of the computer or the bench,” she explained in an email. Dr. Nikki Meadows holds a PhD in genetics and also makes her living on Capitol Hill, working on science and health care policy, but initially completed a Bachelor of Science in biotechnology with a minor in theatre arts. “I rely on those skills every, single, day,” she stated in a Tweet. “Art teaches you how to think a little bit differently, how to problem solve…it makes STEM better,” she expanded when we spoke over email.

Dr. Alex Bond works neither at a university nor in a parliament building: he is a curator at the Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire, UK. In addition to his work as a scientist, he taught and performed improv for 15 years. “Basic theatre skills shouldn’t be underestimated,” he expanded in an email. “When you spend time on the stage, you quickly learn how and why audiences react the way they do. And when we think of the most memorable seminars or conference talks, very often they are the ones that combine high-quality science with high-quality presentation.”

So, maybe you’re starting to feel convinced that some improv or performance skills could be useful to you as a scientist! If you’re feeling hesitant to launch yourself into a class or a workshop, take these grains of advice from some of the improv and science gurus who contributed to this article:

  • Skylar Bayer: “Improv classes are just a lot of fun and let you play in a way you might have as a kid but not as an adult. We learn A LOT as kids through play and we can continue to do so as adults.”
  • Linh Anh Cát: “If you are feeling hesitant, I would say that there are many others in the class who feel the same. Once you realize everyone is in the same boat, it’s freeing to realize you can make a bunch of mistakes and get supportive feedback.”
  • Daniel Gillis: “Honestly – just try it out. What’s the worst that could happen? If it’s not for you, no harm, no foul. But it opens up so much in terms of connection with students. And based on what I’ve seen, the students themselves seem so much more engaged, and more open to other ways of understanding the world.”
  • Nikki Meadows: “Sharing a thought or idea with another person so they completely understand what you want to then take away, is an absolute art. Think about the childhood game “telephone”… how much can an idea change depending upon how someone else interprets what they hear. Communication in science can be the same way, interpretation is all about framing. Performance classes will teach you how frame ideas, how to emphasize the important parts and most importantly how to do it confidently. I can’t stress enough how much confidence it takes to stand up in front of your peers and share!”

So go ahead – Google your local improv theatre and give a class a shot! You might find that it boosts your science to the next level.

Author biography: Sarah is a Master’s student studying the evolutionary biology of wētā (giant insects from New Zealand!). As a trainee of the new funding program ReNewZoo, her work is focused on integrating academic research into zoos and aquariums to achieve conservation outcomes together. She tweets @nasonicus, posts science-y photos @wild.nason, and manages blog content for Le Beagle. She also spends a lot of time thinking about corgis (the empirically best dog) and how to obtain one. Sarah can be reached via e-mail here: sarah.e.nason@gmail.com


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