Researchers with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University are conducting an experiment at Steel City Improv Theater (SCIT) throughout the month of August. According to Benjamin Ostrowski (Ben), who has been leading The Experiment at SCIT, he and his colleagues are studying “how teams of people are able to effectively improvise their processes and interactions.” The researchers are studying the talented improvisers that can only be found right here at SCIT to gain knowledge that can be applied by teams of people working in many different sectors, including hospitals, the military, and various business applications.
Participants all volunteered for The Experiment. They agreed to be placed onto random teams and sent out on stage with no further instruction. Don’t worry— we were guaranteed that no improvisers would be harmed, given superpowers, or placed into cryogenic stasis while on stage. Unfortunately, that guarantee does not extend to the green room, so volunteers be vigilant, or you may end up the next Spiderman! After all teams have performed, participating improvisers take surveys in which they answer questions regarding their improvisational experience, technique, and personality characteristics.
It is a mystery what, specifically, the focus of The Experiment is. We talked to Ben, as well as a couple of the volunteer subjects (Sarah Allen and David McCabe), to gather some ideas as to what The Experiment might be about, and what the experience has been like so far. As to the reason for the mystery, Sarah Allen put it best when she said, “We haven’t been given this information because it might influence our behavior and affect the validity of the data.”
David McCabe (Dave) thinks the purpose of The Experiment might be “to study the impact of preconceived expectations and the amount of pre-thinking/planning that occurs in an improviser’s mind. There were also questions [in Ben’s surveys] to identify how we felt being in the teams that we were assigned.”
Sarah notes, “I watched both of my partners perform before we all went on together. This allowed me to think a little bit about the [improvisational] attributes I wanted to focus on, even when this required stretching my comfort zone.” As to the purpose of The Experiment, Sarah says, “Based on the questions we’ve been given, I might speculate that we are being evaluated on our ability to dynamically determine the strengths of each person in the group and adapt so that we complement each other. We also took surveys about our personalities prior to being assigned to groups, so perhaps Ben has created groups that are designed to either complement each other or clash according to traditional personality studies and will compare their relative performance.”
Why us? We asked Ben what made him decide SCIT was the spot to conduct The Experiment. This is what he had to say: “As a huge fan of improv comedy in undergrad, SCIT was one of the first places I visited when I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school. I loved the energy of the improvisers and was incredibly impressed by their talent and coordination, and I became a regular attendee. About a year into my program, I became interested in how teams of people react to dynamic and time sensitive environments on the fly. My research interests collided with my personal ones, and SCIT popped into my head as the perfect place to study team improvisation.”
SCIT offers corporate workshops to help professionals learn how to react to situations on the fly and build a sense of community with their colleagues. Our motto is “Listen. Commit. Play.” Ben says, “… I agree with SCIT’s view that improvisational skills are not only useful but necessary in many organizational contexts, from healthcare to business to sports. Situations where the problem at hand is clearly defined and where lengthy planning is possible are much rarer than people might think. Often, decisions and actions are required to be made and taken with little time to plan. Indeed, such decisions are often of the greatest importance in organizations. For example, this is the case in the healthcare context, where patient health concerns can arise without warning, or in any organization where time-sensitive crises can occur. Improvisational skills benefit people in such scenarios.
“The motto is spot on. Being able to view situations from others’ points of view and understand teammate’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial for taking action in a way that addresses the environmental problem. With my research, I’m hoping to shed light on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of improvisational effectiveness.”
The Experiment has been a blast so far! Ben says, “The teams have been composed prior to the shows, so individuals don’t know which teammates they will have. My favorite thing to see is when they come to the stage to perform, and they see who their teammates are. They often hug or cheer or do a funny dance, and that is a great thing to witness.” He also says, “I’m very thankful to SCIT for letting me conduct this research at their location and involve their improvisers. I look forward to analyzing the data and seeing what we can learn about team improvisation.”
Sarah has “…enjoyed watching the different groups perform. Many of them paired people with completely different styles and it was interesting to see how they reacted to one another. I was also excited to see how many different people from SCIT came to participate and it reinforced the sense of community.”
For Dave, he “… loved seeing the mash-up of improvisers in the teams of three. There were many improvisers from all levels placed on teams. There was some magic on stage. The edit at 8 minutes led to some very fun and energetic sets. Bill Halloran truly shined in the Experiment. Bill has a way of acclimating to his scene-partners in every scene.”
You can come out and see the science happen this Thursday, August 29, starting at 8pm, right here at the Steel City Improv Theater in Shadyside. Think of it as the perfect way to end the summer and get your brain ready for knowledge, whether you’re going back to school or back to the theater for another improv class or workshop.
Did we mention this is all free? Come on over to watch the The Experiment unfold and make your own guesses as to what it is Ben is studying. Sarah’s best guess as to what Ben will learn: “Perhaps he will learn that improv is fun.”
Written and Edited by Natalie De Paz and Colleen Madore