Its the classic sci-fi movie premise. An overwhelming, life-destroying force beyond the understanding of the people in charge threatens humanity. Take The Day The Earth Stood Still, Independence Day or any other action film, the response always starts with an aggressive military flailing away using tanks, guns and bombs. Meanwhile a lone scientist insists there is another way to deal with the problem. A scientist no one understands, who is dismissed by the authorities and derided by the public. Emotions intensify— especially fear, which shuts down the ability to reason and think things through — and the danger grows. In most of these films, good science wins — In Independence Day, for example, it is the data-driven person in the story who figures out how to use a computer virus to render the alien spaceship defenseless. But its not only the scientific solution — which is rarely presented as a sure thing and often has risks associated with it — that creates the win. The scientist must persuade the people in charge, she must convince non-science-minded people to respond in a radically different way. This ability to communicate sophisticated, difficult-to-grasp scientific ideas to the people with the power and resources to act on them is what Alan Alda and Tina Fey described as a marriage between improvisation — the realm of spontaneity born of human interaction — and scientific research — decidedly evidence-based and research-driven— onstage at The World Science Festival last night.
Improvisation works when players deeply listen to and are impacted upon by one another, also the cornerstones of any other effective human encounter. “Improvisation exercises encourage people to pay attention to a listener’s reaction and adjust,” explained Alda, who created the Alda-Kavli Learning Center at Stonybrook University to improve communication among scientists through improvisation training. He described an on-camera interview with a scientist who would be lively and engaging when conversing with him, “and I was captivated by her explanations of the work she does. Then gradually her head would turn toward the camera and immediately, the tone of her voice changed, she went into lecture mode. Her vocabulary changed. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.” Improvisation games and exercises are a remarkably effective method for learning to shift focus to the human connection when talking about serious, complex information. The social-emotional emphasis actually empowers the flow of information, and communicating in this way is a skill that can be learned.
Improvisation is like weight training for the “muscles” of human connection, and, as Tina Fey pointed out, “a way to experience breaking out of the conventional, programmed ways we behave in most situations.” Improv is always an experiment. We say yes to a premise, act as if it is true and see what happens. At best, it is funny and fascinating which makes it an ideal platform for learning. At its worst, Tina Fey confirmed, “it can be a painful failure that just goes up in flames, after which you realize something important. That its okay. You will go on to fight another day.”
Right now, in real life, the life-destroying force is climate change. If the current administration passes its proposed budget, there will be significant layoffs at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Hazardous Substance Superfund account that exists to clean up toxic waste is drained of resources. The Paris Accords are, apparently, an undone deal. Despite our reliance on science for everything — including this blog being available on a smartphone, information moving at the speed of light, and life-saving medical innovations, just to name a few — it is still often met with suspicion. Like in the classic sci-fi movie, scientists today are having trouble getting us to admit the problem exists, maybe because everything in our arsenal is useless in solving it. Perhaps the accelerating pace of change driven by technology is one of the overwhelming forces that trigger a rising sense of threat and shuts down our ability to think clearly or absorb information. And if we have trouble keeping up with the psychological impact of change to which we must adapt or be left behind in business and social life, we are even more challenged to understand the complex scientific realities that are driving it.
Improvisation steps into this psychological space — uncertainty, vulnerability and possibility — and provides a pathway for navigating through it. Using games to provide structure, Alda trains brilliant thinkers to communicate creatively, using story, metaphor, and specific examples, and to be more empathic and aware of their listeners’ ability to absorb the information. There is something to this approach that applies to all of us. While most of us are not scientists, we are actors who play a role in the story humanity is telling right now. And because improvisation can enhance our capacity to deal with uncertainty, listen closely even when we are pressured and stressed, and break out of set ideas that limit our sense of possibility, we can all benefit from improvisation training. Playing improv games produces tension similar to what a great story does. When we are fully engaged in the act of playing — just as when we are fully engaged in the unfolding of a story — we are okay with the fact that we do not know how things are going to turn out. When involved with an activity that stretches us beyond our comfort zone and enjoying the experience, we are learning to tolerate the unfamiliar, to move through discomfort for a higher purpose or long-term goal. Creative thinking grows out of the improvised encounter where we have to let go of preconceptions and explore an improbable reality.
The one interest that unites Democrats, Republicans, and human beings from every country — scientific knowledge — is on the chopping block while problems mount up and gather momentum. The people in charge are either uninformed or unwilling to believe the scientific consensus that human behavior is causing climate change that the US military considers a major threat to human life. Defense Secretary James Mattis identified “The impact of climate change, specifically global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomena such as rising sea levels,” as a national security issue of grave concern.
“Expert consensus is a powerful thing. People know we don’t have the time or capacity to learn about everything, and so we frequently defer to the conclusions of experts. It’s why we visit doctors when we’re ill. The same is true of climate change: most people defer to the expert consensus of climate scientists” The 97% Consensus on Global Warming
While scientists do their part to become better communicators about complicated ideas, we can do ours to become more accepting of change, more aware of our strengths and agile in our responses. Can improvisation save the planet? Let’s say yes and see what happens.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show that features true stories — with a twist.