Improv, democracy & CMM:

Don Waisanen, 2017 CMMI Fellow

CMM practitioners and scholars have long known that our lives mostly hang on the quality of our communication. At the same time, while a lot has been written about what democracies should look like, far less has covered how to actually train citizens in democratic skills. Addressing both of these concerns, my CMM project details how improv-based teaching and training methods—which originated in improvisational theater but have since been adapted, applied, and evolved in many other contexts—can promote the communication, leadership, and civic skills our world urgently needs.

A host of research now points toward the potential for improvisational training to improve the lives of participants in fields from business and medicine to science and social work. Among other outcomes, it seeks to improve peoples’ abilities to listen, accept and support others, be flexible and mindful, take risks, innovate, and create positive professional cultures. Inspired by but different than improv for comedy entertainment, what has been termed “applied improvisation” seeks to train “individuals or groups who seek personal development, better teamwork, and more thriving communities,” with a focus on “directly impacting personal or organizational change.” Even key figures in improv theater argued that improv for entertainment was always meant to be to founded first in “what is important about being human in a community,” improving the ability of people to connect with one another, understand patterns in their lives, and more.

Although evidence on improv’s benefits for outcomes such as higher productivity, reduced stress, and improved customer service in business and management are promising, my project addresses a larger societal possibility: that applied improvisational training can provide a foundational education in democratic practices. Challenging existing patterns of thought and behavior, I show how different our world could look if improvisational teaching and training methods were part of every educational system, professional development program, and community writ large.

Barnett Pearce believed “that a certain kind of playfulness is a constitutive part of the paradigm supporting the communication perspective,” just as Jesse Sostrin notes how “the communication perspective is improvisational” and “the world of improvisation can also teach us important aspects of communication.” The connections between improvisation and CMM run deep, and a major part of my fellowship experience has involved discovering the host of links between improv and concepts such as co-construction, holding spaces, strange loops, liminality, emergence, muscle memory, mindfulness, and logical force. Part of my goal is to draw out these relationships more explicitly. During my trip to London, I met many new wonderful colleagues who inspired my thinking along these lines. I’m even headed back to London in April to work with the Institute for Family Therapy and run a two-day workshop that focuses these ideas and practices further!

I am currently finishing up a book-length research project that produces a complete analytic framework of higher purposes and practices for applied improv that can, as Barnett Pearce long called for, pull societies upward. Frankly, there are so many interesting developments by groups around the world using improvisation to bridge differences between communities, get people to see the lighter side of life with one another, and peel off the layers of negativity often formed around the body and mind in educational settings, that it feels like the book is writing itself. I’m indebted to the CMM community for inviting me to be part of your learning journeys as I adventure through mine, and look forward to many more years of conversations and meetings with all of you in the future!

Don Waisanen
Associate Professor in the Baruch College, CUNY
Marxe School of Public and International Affairs


iPaul Z Jackson, Easy: Your Lifepass to Creativity and Confidence (London, UK: The Solutions Focus, 2015), 183-184.

iiCharna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim Johnson, Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation (Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether 1994), 25-26.

iiiW. Barnett Pearce, Making Social Worlds (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 65.

ivJesse Sostrin, Re-Making Communication at Work (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan), 2013, 46-47.

vPearce, Making Social Worlds.

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