History as (Improv) Theater: Tips for Discussion Sessions

Catherine Kudlick, October 1999

The best training I ever had for leading discussions was unrelated to history or to teaching. I participated for several years in improvisational theater workshops while I was in graduate school. Here I learned the key techniques for keeping discussions alive. Improv theater dates from the Renaissance when groups of actors toured Italy performing theater pieces based on a fixed story line and predetermined characters but without an established script. Today it has grown into an exciting form of comedy and performance art that is done both on-stage and off. I highly recommend this theater-entertainment to hone your teaching skills; it is fun, funny, and—for those of us who lack the natural ability or who tend toward being control freaks—it trains us to be impressively flexible and responsive in a variety of classroom situations. I have culled the following basic rules from improvisational theater handbooks and modified them to meet the needs of the university classroom.

Basic Rules

1. Don't showboat. Good teaching, like good improv theater, depends on a sound working relationship between all participants. Think of your students as fellow actors in your section who need some help being drawn out, and who will blossom with experience. If you direct everything too much and manage each and every detail, they will probably lose interest, figuring that only you can shine. You are usually smarter (or at least have more experience) than your students, so why show off? It is much more admirable and intellectually challenging to think of ways to bring them into the act. Moreover, by giving the students a sense that you are all participating together, you show that you respect them, an important ingredient to a successful discussion.

2. Listen to other people "on stage." This is probably one of the most important rules of good teaching and good improv, and no doubt the one that gets most overlooked. For a good discussion to take place in your classroom, you must interact with what the students have said, even if it seems off-the-wall or just plain wrong. If you listen carefully, you will probably be able to work with something a brighter student has used to build upon comments from someone who might be less connected. A good technique is to integrate comments by fabricating something like "If we take what Pat and BJ are saying together, could we argue x?" Obviously, you have to pay attention to the whole discussion to do this. If your mind wanders now and then (which is only human), you can either admit it (not too often, and preferably after you have built up a reasonable store of good will) or ask students to give a brief summary of what they think is going on. Even if I haven't lost track, I'll sometimes stop and assess the situation by asking, "so where are we?" to make sure we are all still on the same wavelength.

3. Don't come in with a predetermined script. Otherwise, you will stop listening to your students while waiting for an opportunity to give your speech. They will sense this, and sit back waiting for you to do the work. Better to come in with some main points sketched out, and let the discussion develop on its own. After 20 minutes or so, discreetly check your list of things to discuss, and you will probably be surprised to realize that many will already have been covered. Be particularly careful to avoid playing what I call "20 Questions" or "See-if-you-can-read-teacher's-mind." It is incredibly and unproductively frustrating to go through the exercise of trying to come up with the "right" answer that teachers have in their heads while they sit there calmly watching you struggle ("you're getting warmer, no colder, yes, yes, almost, there you go, maybe, perhaps, ah too bad, maybe next time"), and as a professor who inadvertently stumbles into being the Grand Inquisitor, I haven't found it to be much fun or pedagogically rewarding. I'll sometimes even cut myself off by saying, "Yuck, I hate it when people do this to me! I'm trying to get you to think about what role the crouton played in the Ottoman Empire. What did you make of it?"

4. Don't let a "scene" run on too long. Sometimes you'll suddenly realize that the discussion has been running in place. Don't be afraid to end it, either with a brief leg-stretching break, or by unsubtly moving on to the next topic. Be sensitive when you are changing the topic of discussion, however, since fragile student egos might perceive it as a criticism. Sometimes I'll move on with a transition such as "OK, I think we're onto something here. Let's see if we can approach it from a different angle to illuminate what we've been talking about."

5. Don't deny. One of the most important rules for keeping an improv scene and classroom discussion alive is always to greet student comments with "Yes, and...." rather than a flat out "No." Sometimes students do say dumb things (not unlike their teachers), but it's best to use the material discreetly to your advantage. I can count on one hand the number of times I have told a student venturing forth a point in discussion that she or he is wrong. I'll usually respond first by asking if everyone agrees with the (incorrect) assertion. There invariably will be someone who does not agree, and we can then create two opposing interpretations. Of course if someone argues that Louis XIV came to power because of his appeal among French women voters, there would need to be some serious damage control. But in most cases, the errors are more subtle, and can be gently corrected through drawing in information from other members of the class. If, for example, a student claims that Nazi Germany was a democracy because Hitler was elected, it would kill the discussion to say, "Well, not really." More useful would be to discuss parliamentary procedures that did bring Hitler to power, while asking the class what other sorts of methods the Nazis used to gain power. This keeps the discussion open and doesn't humiliate anyone. (Humiliation, along with sarcasm, is a quick way to kill any discussion; even if a student is being a jerk, others will resent your tactics, fearing that they may meet the same fate in the future.)

6. Laugh at yourself from time to time. Your humility and interest in the material will win you valuable points in the classroom.

7. Relax. While you obviously play an important role in the course and in your students' education, you can't always accomplish everything that you might like. If every single student doesn't end up knowing every last detail about constitution making in postcolonial Borneo or even about different interpretations of the Civil War, it isn't necessarily your fault. If it's truly an important piece of knowledge, it will get pounded in either through lectures, the textbook, or maybe in a future class. We can't possibly cover everything there is to cover in a few weeks, especially in a survey course. Remember too that we are not simply trying to reproduce clones of ourselves and our academic training. Perish the thought if every one of our students (or even our majors) woke up one day wanting to be historians! Students might not get all the things you think they should out of your classes, but they might just come away with something you hadn't planned on. A few years ago I received a phone call from a student who thanked me for changing her life because my discussion section had made her realize the value of insects in the environment. Hmm, must have been Prof. Kudlick in the entomology department. "No," she insisted, "when that guy who always wore the red shirt brought up the example of the moth that changed color during the industrial revolution, and you asked him all those questions about it, I changed my major to environmental biology and now work in that field." Go figure. But, why not?


Below are a series of exercises that demonstrate the basic rules of improv theater that might be useful for thinking about the dynamics of a discussion section. I suggest these not as things to try in your classes, but rather as a way to develop skills of concentration, intellectual dexterity, flexibility, and playfulness that can easily be translated into your work as an engaging teacher.

1. Warm Up: "Three- or Four-Person Story"

This exercise teaches you how to enter a discussion without preconceptions. For it to work, you must abandon any illusions of steering the participants in a particular way and listen carefully to what each person has to say.

Person 1 Person 2 Person 3 Person 4
Once upon a time
there was a lovely
rocket the rocket flew
badly astronauts don't like
rockets astronauts hate to

In this exercise, three or four people alternate adding single words to a sentence with the goal of creating a simple story. You can't plan ahead, because the person in front of you isn't necessarily thinking just like you, and may change the sentence you hope to work with (particularly under the pressure of having to say something quickly). You also need to pay close attention to where the story is going in order to make your contribution. It's best to keep sentences short. (For an example, see box.)

2. "Shopping List"

This exercise reproduces the dynamics of situations you will face in a discussion section when students come in with ideas that may not have fit into your lesson plan.

Before you begin, select two performers who leave the room. The remaining people come up with a list of random objects, ranging from the ordinary to the bizarre. The two performers then return and begin a dialogue about any topic of their choosing. As the dialogue gets going a third person (the MC) calls out the name of some object at unpredictable times, which the two performers must then integrate into their dialogue as fluently as possible. Alternatively, the third person can get the dialogue going by introducing the first object.


MC: computer disk

Person 1: You know, I've had the worst trouble trying to find the computer disk with all my notes on it.

Person 2: Golly, that's too bad. Did you...

MC: chocolate bar

Person 2: Did you maybe accidentally throw it out with your chocolate bar?

MC: ink spot

Person 1: Now that I think of it, I might have thrown it in the laundry when I was trying to get the chocolate and ink spots out of my shirt.

3. History

Given my profession, this exercise was always a little hard for me, but it does two things. First, it forces us to take a little of the gravitas out of history and our relationship to it, always a good thing now and then. Obviously, this is not really about history; best to think of it as a story to which you might bring some hilarious details and pompous authority that will amuse and amaze your friends. Second, by telling the story of a single object over time, you are chipping away at fixed ideas of what it should be and allowing your imagination to consider other possibilities. We tend to get stuck into thinking of certain ideas in certain contexts, and an exercise such as this invites us to step outside ourselves and our preconceptions.

There are three or four panelists and an MC. Performers should not try to play specific characters, but rather keep to being generalized lecturers. In other words, this scene calls for what is being said to take precedence over who is doing the speaking. The audience must name an object, and a member of the panel begins to lecture on the history of the object, starting in ancient times. The narrative of the scene should gradually follow historical chronology, so it's best not to start with a time that is too modern. Periodically, the MC claps her hands, and the next panelist must build on what the first has been saying. It is most effective if the MC requires the speakers to change in mid-sentence, so that the next speaker must pick up exactly with a grammatically correct sentence just where the previous speaker has left off, even if it ends up going off in a completely new direction. There should be no hesitation, as if the whole panel is thinking with a single mind. You can't have a preconceived idea because someone will run in a totally new direction with it. Use your imagination with the object, and don't necessarily limit it to its intended use. For example, if the object is a mousetrap, you might suggest that in Roman times it served as a prototype for a catapult to storm the walls of a city or that it was a coding device to communicate with allies, or it could actually be a Ping-Pong table for the Emperor of China's daughter's doll house. Of course, accuracy goes out the window; the point is to develop the techniques of thinking on your feet, losing your self-consciousness, and having a good laugh.

Improv theater helps you above all to make the intellectual engagement of classroom teaching more fun for you and your students. Even if you never cared much about the class you've been asked to teach, the term will go faster as you take up the challenges of improvising and responding to the drama of the moment.

There are many different improv theater handbooks on the market that will enable you to start having fun while making a significant pedagogic impact on teaching history.

—Catherine J. Kudlick is associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She still takes and leads occasional improv theater workshops.