Improvisational theatre (aka improv) has been part of Dean of Teaching & Learning Gwyneth Connell’s life since she was a teenager. Introduced to the unscripted performance genre in theatre classes at Peddie School, she loved its positive vibe and emphasis on supporting fellow performers. She joined an improv troupe as an undergrad at Amherst College, performed in New York City with an improv team called Chemistry Grad School, and even wrote her master’s thesis at Teachers College, Columbia University on improv and teaching practices.
Having coached an improv team at Millbrook School and developed an improv and teaching workshop for faculty colleagues at Packer Collegiate Institute earlier in her career, Ms. Connell shared her passion for improv with Blair students this semester in a new elective dedicated to the art form. “My goals were to teach students how to do improv and help them feel more confident and courageous onstage, of course,” she said. “But beyond that, I also wanted them to learn about listening to and trusting others and looking outside yourself to solve problems, all of which is part of the improv performance experience.”
Eight freshmen through juniors—none of whom had ever seen improv performed before the semester began—enrolled in the course. Class meetings typically started with an energy-building warm up to help students transition into “performance head space,” and continued with all kinds of exercises in listening, spontaneity, agreement and character development. These exercises challenged students to come up with ideas quickly and react authentically as scenes played out among classmates.
Improv appealed to Dylan Bentley ’22 as a performing arts elective because she knew she wouldn’t be required to memorize lines; she enjoyed her experience as part of the class. “I learned how to ‘yes and…’ things to support my scene partners and build on their ideas. I also learned how to be more creative in my thinking and less embarrassed by my mistakes,” she reflected. “I’ve really enjoyed being with the people in my class! We love to joke around with one another, and we are all very different, so it is always a fun time.”
In November, the class traveled to the Peoples Improv Theatre (The PIT) in New York City, where they experienced live musical improv that had actors turning scenes into musical numbers. Students showcased their own burgeoning skills in four on-campus performances held throughout the semester. The final show, their signature assessment, featured their first public attempt at long-form improv—a 30-minute play that the eight classmates made up as they went along. “That’s a much more complex type of improv than the ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway-style’ games students performed in earlier shows,” Ms. Connell said. “Long-form demanded much more of them as artists.”
As the semester drew to a close, Ms. Connell hoped her students would remember the skills they learned in improv throughout their years at Blair and beyond. “Improv feels like it’s high stakes, but it’s actually pretty low stakes. Nobody dies because they make a mistake onstage; everybody gets up the next day,” she said with a laugh. “By doing improv, though, you learn how to navigate the authentically high stakes situations you face at school, at work and in family life. We’re all improvising every day, but we’re not all equipped to do it well or to enjoy the ride. I’d love for my students to experience the life-altering paradigm shift that improv was to me.”