INNOVATION. It’s becoming a bit like “greenwashing.” Everyone is discovering it’s easy to say you support it — “Yeah, we’re all about innovation here.” Nobody is going to test whether it’s true. And you’re not likely to find any organizations who are willing to say they are against it — “No, we do our best to squelch innovation here.”

But if you truly believe in innovation, then you should be a huge fan of improv acting. I know I am. As soon as I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, a friend took me to an improv comedy show at the Groundlings Theater on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and I was smitten. I began attending their shows regularly, and seven years later introduced myself to Jeremy Rowley as well as other members of their main stage cast. Jeremy is one of the all-time greats, having been a performer for many years as well as a veteran instructor. The repertoire of characters he created as a Groundling is among the best — right up there with Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Phil Hartman, Kristen Wiig, and all the other legendary comic actors who have passed through the Groundlings in the past few decades. He’s a popular comic actor on television, appearing frequently in everything from Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” to the wildly popular kids show, “iCarly.” On top of all that, he’s very smart and through years of conducting improv workshops with corporate leaders has learned exactly how powerful this training can be, even to non-actors. Even to scientists.

Comic actor Jeremy Rowley as Canadian Border Patrol agent Mr. Jack

Science and improv acting might seem like an odd mix, but if that’s what you’re thinking, you probably don’t understand what improv is about. It has the potential to be as powerful and important as any part of science. In my book I told about the workshops we’ve held with Scripps graduate students, run by Jeremy and other members of the Groundlings. I can’t say enough good things about the value of the training. In this short interview Jeremy will try to scratch the surface a bit. If anyone would like more details on the possibility of staging an improv training workshop at your institution or program, please feel free to email me at:



RO – Scientists, as a group, have a tendency to be a little reserved when it comes to social dynamics. Taking an acting class, much less an improv class, is about the last thing on the minds of most. So why would you ever suggest improv training to a scientist?

JR – There are many ways a scientist could find improv training to be valuable, but let’s just begin by talking about creativity and innovation — improv breeds it. If you think about it, the people who have come up with some of the most amazing advances in history — they’ve asked themselves, “What doesn’t exist now?” “What could exist in the future?” “How can we do something we thought we couldn’t do?” And then they go about accomplishing it by seeking out the needed science and facts and figures. But if they don’t have the imagination to begin with, no one’s going to try to do that thing in the first place. If no one’s going to look up at a bird and say, “Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to fly through the air like a bird?” then no one is going to invent an airplane. We’re not saying the day you sit down to create an airplane that you should do insane, risky, crazy things, but when ideas are coming out, there should be a safe way to help those ideas flourish. That’s what improv is — a safe way to be creative. With improv you designate a time period, say for the next hour, where you’re going to throw out ideas, and during that time period nobody is going to be told they are wrong. No matter what it is, just for that hour. A lot of ideas will come out that are not helpful, that are not usable, that are not plausible. But if you create that safe environment for some period of time you’re almost guaranteed to get an idea, two, or ten that you wouldn’t have gotten had you not created that safe environment. And that idea might be the key idea of a lifetime.

RO – Can you be more specific about what exactly improv training is?

JR – The training consists mostly of a series of exercises and games that are all intended to help open people up — to help them let go of their fears, to trust themselves, and to explore various directions that they might not be able to in a more critical and judgmental setting. It usually begins by getting everyone up on their feet and just doing something active in an exercise that feels risky, (this is often something very simple) rather than over-thinking from the outset. Some other basic principles include: the need to be affirming (not negating), to listen, and as a general rule, you’re not allowed to ask questions.

RO – No questions? To a scientist that sounds like a strange rule. Questions lie at the very heart of doing science. Why would you not allow students to ask questions?

JR – In an improv it is usually more valuable to provide an answer than it is to ask a question. It moves us farther ahead in the scene, faster. For instance, if you don’t know who someone is, rather than ask “who are you?”, we would challenge you to take a risk and add information along the lines of : “Thank you for coming so quickly officer, this is the scene of the crime,” or “Dad, you look really handsome in that new suit.” Again, we’re not saying that scientists should stop asking questions while they are doing their work. But, in a brainstorming session, rather than question people’s ideas and tear them apart, just keep adding on to ideas (the standard phrase used in improv in response to a suggestion is, “Yes, and …”), or keep adding new ideas. It’s funny how sometimes something someone else says can make you think of something valuable.

RO – Tell me more about the interaction between improv training and fear.

JR – One of the biggest enemies of creativity and communication is fear. Taking risks is a key component in being interesting and simply being heard and remembered. One bad habit most of us have is assuming that when we are communicating with other people, that everyone else has the “right answer”. That if we make a mistake, we’re somehow less than others. The truth is, everybody makes mistakes. People that embrace that and aren’t afraid to fail or look stupid tend to put us at ease. When we are at ease (whether it’s a presentation or a one on one conversation) we can listen to what people are saying and let their ideas resonate. When someone is nervous and focused on “getting everything right” we can sense it and we feel nervous for them. At that point we are definitely not focused on wha they are saying, but how uncomfortable they seem. There are hundreds of improv excercises that help us learn to take risks and get our focus off of the fear of failure.

RO – So, given that some of these aspects of improv such as affirmation and no questions seem to be opposite to the way science is done, how could an improv training session be of value to a group of scientists at an institution?

JR – We’ve got so many hundreds of examples of bringing improv training into the workplace, but let me just tell you one specific example that I think is relevant. Dreamworks Studios had me come in to lead an all day improv workshop with their animators. These are people who work 18 hour days in rooms with very little human interaction, yet their job is to re-create human behavior on the screen with their animation, and the more human and real they make the behavior, the more successful they are. One of the most stressful parts of their job is that they have a pitch process in which the animator has to take a scene and, before they draw it, they have to pitch it to Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen in person. They have to stand in front of them and say, “Here’s a scene, here’s the characters, here’s what’s going to happen,” because S, K and G are really hands on. Can you imagine the level of anxiety for the animator who is typically not a social person — who in their daily life probably has anxiety just talking with co-workers. So we lead a one day workshop. And what’s important to know is that I didn’t help them draw any better by running a workshop, but by helping them be able to communicate better, by helping them develop confidence and the willingness to take risks in their presentation, by the end of that one day they all felt they had moved their ability to make this pitch presentation in person up a whole level. And some of these animators tell us that they have suffered in the past from their inability to communicate a great idea in person. The improv training is a huge help to them. I’m sure there must be some of this same dynamic in the science world at some level where you simply need to get other people to understand and support the work you do. Improv techniques are directly helpful. They not only help people communicate better, quite often, what’s even more important is it helps them to stop fearing to fail, because that fear alone can be crippling to your ability to succeed.

RO – What do you say to someone who tells you they don’t think they can be funny or even interesting?

JR – The goal of improv is not to make someone into the most brilliant comedian ever. We’re not going to make you into Seinfeld or Richard Pryor. Not everyone can be funny, but everyone can learn to be interesting. The goal is just to get a glimpse of a different version of you. People live inside a sort of shell that is the person that you are. Imagine if there’s a guy in your office who never shows any emotion or spontaneity — he has a comfort zone — but then we do an exercise where suddenly this guy who everybody has known for ten years as the quiet guy, is standing on a chair shouting. Well, that’s at least interesting, and probably even funny. That’s the start of using improv to tap into new energy and directions. Simply just getting out of your perceived comfort zone can feel amazing and lead to amazing things.

RO – Last question — what’s the funniest science or environmental related skit or exercise you’ve seen lately?

JR – One that comes to mind was on Saturday Night Live last fall, Al Gore came on Weekend Update to rant about getting people to listen to him, and the theme was that he decided to resort to doing all kinds of crazy things to get people to pay attention, and he gave really outlandish, irreverent examples of crazy things he was going to have to do, and it was really funny. I’m not sure how many really important, valuable ideas were expressed in that rant that actually got across to people. But it goes back to what I was saying about this normal “comfort zone.” Al Gore is not known as someone who is normally outlandish. Having him do this is definitely interesting, and in the case of SNL it was even funny. So, here’s the lesson: the person who is boring and stays inside that comfort zone can say 17 things that are important and it’s possible that people won’t remember any of it, that it won’t do any good. But it’s also possible that a person who’s able to grab attention by being interesting or entertaining can give the same length speech, say 3 important things, and those things will be heard, and then something will happen, you will have gotten something across. So which is more valuable? To say more and not have anyone hear it? Or to say less and to get all of it across?