I’m always looking for ways to improve, whether it’s as an ombuds, mediator, instructor, or writer. So when someone suggested that taking an improv class could help sharpen my presentation and facilitation skills, I signed up. Now, about six weeks into an eight-week course, I have come to the realization that they were right, it has helped—just in ways that I never suspected it would.
I have been spending my Monday evenings after work taking a level one improv course with the local branch of ComedySportz, a national improv collective. To say that I’ve gotten a lot out of the class would be an understatement—I’ve already incorporated some elements into my workshops and seen great results. But the biggest impact has actually been below the surface.
First of all, I strongly recommend enrolling in a course to anyone who interacts with the public, whether it is behind a podium or cash register. There is something to be said for training yourself to listen more closely and react more spontaneously that, I think, transcends any narrow vocational category. And it’s fun.
On a personal level, though (and I say this not to discourage anyone), one of the biggest things that I have taken away from my dozen or so hours as an improv student is how hard improv can be. Hunter, our instructor, often reminds us that our only limits are our experience and our imagination. This is, I believe, true, which makes the total blank my mind draws when I’m in an exercise all the more confounding.
I’ll throw out a hypothetical scenario. You’re doing an exercise with a partner, who starts miming the act of picking flowers. Coming in, you’re supposed to say something that a) establishes a relationship between you both and b) advances the scene.
Queue you taking three confident steps, making eye contact with the flower-picker, and suddenly opening yourself up to an infinity of…nothing.
Seriously. Suddenly, your mind makes John Locke’s tabula rasa look like a kindergartener’s unshaken Etch-a-Sketch at the end of the school day. Total emptiness, as you soar over the stark desert blankness of the American Southwest, searching for something, anything to say. Nothing comes to mind. A tumbleweed whizzes between your ears, then another, with nothing for it to catch on.
Or, if you run more towards science fiction, it feels something like this:
And, after what feels like nine hours, you look back at your partner still patiently picking flowers, and finally say something to propel the scene forward that justifies the long wait:
“You’re picking flowers!”
Tangentially, I’ve always envied those who meditate, finding inner calm and still thoughts. When I’ve tried, my mind races at a mile of minute, usually rolling downward into slapstick, and I randomly associate myself into thinking about the funniest thing I’ve recently seen before start to giggle uncontrollably. I can appreciate a restful savasana pose as much as anyone, particularly after an intense yoga session, but I find myself unable to clear my mind. Until the moment that I’m asked, in public, to not have a perfectly empty mind. That’s got to mean something, right?
I’m not sharing this to discourage you from taking a class, because even if you perform at that level, it’s incredibly fun and rewarding. And I’m not going to humble braggingly contrast my improv struggles with the few areas in which I have demonstrated competence. Instead, I’m going to suggest that stepping into a safe space, trying something new, and not acing the exam is ultimately preferably to familiar, comfortable, and risk-free virtuosity.
Working for an educational institution, prioritizing growth over comfort isn’t a bad thing to be reminded of.
Also, being a student in something should probably be mandatory for anyone who teaches, just to remind us that earnest people trying their best still can do things that, from our learned perspective, seem almost willfully dense. Particularly if we teach the same course semester after semester, we can become blind to how difficult the material may be for someone encountering it for the first time, who may not have had the same preparation as us. It’s easy to understand that intellectually, but to emotionally grasp it, it helps to struggle ourselves. I imagine how frustrating it is to see a student (me) unable to put basic concepts into practice, and it makes me remember to be as understanding as possible with my own students.
But, you might wonder, does all of this have anything to do with my main calling, serving as UNLV’s Ombuds? I believe it does. Because visitors to the Ombuds Office might be discussing serious issues with someone at work for the first time. It may be difficult for them to find the words to describe how they feel, and uncomfortable for them to examine the roots of the situation they find themselves in. Having someone there who is willing to be patient, listen, and occasionally reflect is, I think, essential. Taking this improv class is helping me to be more thoughtful about how I approach.
Because at the core, being an ombuds can be a lot like performing in improv. There are no sets or props. Someone comes in and tells a story, which you listen to, asking questions and reflecting back answers to help move the scene forward. And, at the end, the person has a better idea of where they are now, where they would like to be, and how to get there. Sure, there’s not usually a punchline (although sometimes we can share a laugh or two), but the idea that two people, with only their experience and imagination to share, can spend some time together and end up better off for it seems to connect.
I’d like to add that the experience of desperately trying to think of something to say with only blank space in my head has driven two things home. First, things almost always look easier when you’re not doing them. Sitting on the sidelines, the right thing to say seems offensively obvious. When you’re the one in the limelight, though, it might not be. Similarly, for someone engaged in the back-and-forth of a conflict, or bedeviled by opaque processes, the best options might not be visible. In those times, it’s helpful to have someone who can talk you through it, helping you see new possibilities.
All of this is why, whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict or communication issue you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.
If you would like to talk off-the-record and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.
David G. Schwartz