In times of confusion and crisis, one thing may unite the worker and the employer as well as the student and the teacher: Laughter.
Finding something that brings out the humor in any situation – especially one that feels out of control like a pandemic that’s rapidly changing our collective world – can be revelatory in significant ways.
That is the mindset behind The Improv Project, a school-based arts project developed by The Detroit Creativity Project. And if you think improv is only something comics do on stage, you couldn’t be more wrong, said Marc Evan Jackson, an actor and comedian who is founder and president of the Detroit Creativity Project.
To help kids, parents, teachers and pretty much anyone else who is interested, The Improv Project recently went virtual to make its Improv games and exercises more accessible to the people who need them immediately, Jackson said.
“Improv is the common denominator that gave (many successful Detroit comedy artists in his generation) the mindset to success,” Jackson said. “It also gave us the mindset to fail, and that failing isn’t fatal. That trial and error? It breeds a fearlessness and empathy that the world could use right now.”
The Improv Project is led by artists, students and special celebrity guests, including Jackson, who is best known for his roles on “The Good Place” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Every Monday, new games and exercises are being added on The Improv Project YouTube and Instagram accounts. To reach students without internet access, the organization will be launching a postcard series featuring improv lessons and games. Students and parents across metro Detroit are invited to participate.
In fact, everyone from business leaders to educators to kids of all ages benefit from learning how to do improv, Jackson said. It teaches you how to live in the moment, how to adapt to change, how to remain optimistic and how to see things from another person’s perspective. In other words, it is everything we need right now to laugh, have fun and learn how to be together in a new and improved way, especially in quarantine situation like this unusual one.
Jackson – who worked in Detroit as part of the Second City improv troupe that included Keegan-Michael Key – said improv is important because it offers “humor in the face of adversity,” a muscle we all need to flex in times of trouble. Being vanilla or staying safe may be good for social distancing, but it isn’t what people generally need in being an entrepreneur, excelling in school or trying something new in life.
“If you make bold choices, you may stumble onto some gold,” Jackson said. “And good things happen when you make bold choices.”
In these moments, being vulnerable makes you stronger, especially as a leader, Jackson said. When he talks to workplaces as a guest speaker, he highlights this notion.
“Your co-workers are your collaborators,” Jackson said. “You’re all working toward the common goal” so you want to pool your resources, work together and speak a common language to get the job done and done well, and improv plays a role in all of that.
For example, The Improv Project’s teaching artists are selecting improv games that students can play at home either solo, in pairs, or with a group of kids and adults. One of the first games to be posted is “Two Words at a Time.” In this game, a group of two to six people create a story two words at a time. One person begins by providing two words in the story. Each player then adds to the story, two words at a time.
“This is a great exercise to work on listening and building on other people’s ideas,” Jackson says. “It also helps students work on storytelling for other writing assignments.”
These online games and exercises will continue The Detroit Creativity Project’s goal to give students improv skills that help them develop social and emotional skills related to teamwork, communication, and problem solving. The training will also help students build literacy through storytelling.
A storied history
The Detroit Creativity Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that develops and supports improv programs for young people in Detroit and neighboring cities. Its flagship program, The improv Project, is a free, 10-week, school-based program and workshop series for middle and high school students and is administered in partnership with the Y Arts, the arts division of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit.
The program, which serves more than 1,000 students annually, focused on improvisation training, which teaches students important life skills, including how to solve problems and persevere, how to respect the ideas of others and how to collaborate and communicate effectively.
As The Detroit Creativity Project’s free flagship program, The Improv Project usually brings students together in the classroom for 10 weeks each semester. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic closing Michigan schools for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, the program is now using an online approach to serve students.
“Offering improv online during this challenging time is a huge opportunity to provide access to creativity,” says Margaret Edwartowski, executive director of Y Arts, which partners with The Detroit Creativity Project for the improv initiative. “We hope to reach not only the youth we’ve been serving, but also reach many other young people who need some joy, levity, and connection right now.”
Join The Improv Project on YouTube. Follow The Detroit Creativity Project online on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Participate in the conversation using #ImprovProjectOnline. For more information, visit www.DetroitCreativityProject.org. To donate, click here.