Among Mona Thompson’s teaching materials is a set of invisible tools. A self-described “improv educator,” she brings those tools — techniques honed from years of improv acting — to the theater classes and professional development workshops she leads in San Francisco and Boston. Now, as a master’s student in the Arts in Education Program, she’s introduced them to the HGSE community, too, via a recent J-Term workshop — an interactive opportunity to hone the listening and quick-reaction skills that are as necessary in the classroom as on stage.
Listening is an important part of being an educator in any context, says Thompson, who teaches in schools, theaters, and offices. It is a way of “looking for the truth and the interesting things in what students are saying and not just trying to set them up to say the things you want them to say.”
As a partner in Collective Capital, a group that runs customized workshops as professional development for nonprofits and businesses in San Francisco area, Thompson has led hundreds of improvisation acting exercises that build teamwork, listening skills, and curious thinking — all skills that she sees as important to educators as well.
“I think what is really cool about improv is it’s a way to physically and emotionally experience concepts in a safe space,” says Thompson — a space that removes expectations of judgment and builds a foundation for people to support one another in achieving a goal. “You have this visceral, physical reaction to it — in a room, playing a game, rather than just hearing somebody say ‘you should make more mistakes’ or ‘this is why failure is good.’ I think there is something experiential but safe about improv that allows you to play around with and internalize these larger concepts.”
As a student at HGSE, Thompson hoped to answer the question, “What can improv be useful for and how can it open up important conversations?” Leading the J-Term workshop offered her a perfect opportunity to explore.
In the class, participants introduce themselves verbally, gesture physically, move often in an open space, ask for consent before touching others, speak in pairs or small groups, and orient themselves in circles or front-facing arrangements. Thompson asks participants to turn to their partner(s) and say “thank you” after each activity ends and before forming new groups. “I think ‘thank you’ is important because it gets us out of our head and reminds us of the value of people around us,” Thompson explains.
At one point, she asks participants to celebrate mistakes by raising their hands and exclaiming, “woo-hoo!” As time passes, students in the workshop grow more comfortable with the activities and with one another, and eventually start passing an invisible ball while making different made-up sounds. Thompson describes how “I think these improv skills are especially relevant to educators: how to be present and fully listen, how to be spontaneous and celebrate failure, and how to share control.”
At the end of the workshop, participants gather in a circle and reflect on their experiences as a group, with mentions of expanding their comfort zones, learning the value of being a little goofy, and some wondering — can HGSE create a new extracurricular improv club?
Sights and sounds from Improv for Educators, led by master's candidate Mona Thompson: