Live Improv Showcase closes inaugural ‘Reflection Project’ course

Heather Longley
May 17, 2021

“The Reflection Project: Looking at Who WE ARE,” a group of themed interdomain general-education courses sponsored by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, recently concluded its inaugural semester with a live virtual Improv Showcase.

Andrea McCloskey’s spring 2021 semester course was offered as a hybrid, in which the 23 students attended class in a rotation via Zoom and in person at the Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design Teaching Lab. The Penn State College of Education course was open to all but was taken mostly by students not studying the performing arts.

“It’s called ‘Improv Theater, Curriculum and Instruction,’ so it’s supposed to get us to reflect on improvisation as a way of being in the world, communication and then ourselves as learners — what is my style of learning,” said McCloskey, an associate professor of education. “Because my background is in curriculum and instruction, I’m trying to make this a chance to reflect on how one would learn best in a university setting — what does it mean for me if I’m going to be a teacher?”

In the final class April 28, students broke into smaller groups and engaged in pairs in random scenes built upon suggested words. Some skits became examples of patience in adversity, others in absurdist humor, but there was rarely a lull in the interaction and students were quick to respond off the cuff.

In a March interview in Klio by Penn State student Loren Perry, McCloskey described how not having a plan and embracing fear inspired her to live a more fulfilled life.

“Seeing my daughter grow up, I was noticing perfectionist tendencies that I have, too — if you’re not perfect at something, you don’t even try it,” she said in the student journal. “So I wanted to model that for her — trying new things, signing up for something that seems scary but fun. And not worrying, not letting fear stop me.”

The core mission of “The Reflection Project” states that by engaging students with the arts, students can more fully discover their identities, understand other points of view, be able to confidently tell their own and others’ stories and recognize how they fit into the world.

“When applying for the funding, we needed to reflect on the phrase ‘We Are,’” McCloskey said. “So I wanted us to practice together what does it mean to be with different people and to also have a sense of community at the same time. It’s kind of an experiment in that — how can we use improv theater to just get better at living together.”

While grading was done “fairly and transparently,” she said, “the main thing I wanted to communicate was ‘Just show up.’”

For freshman Cade Miller, the course was meant for both business and pleasure.

“I love improv, and I’ve always loved watching it, but I’ve never actually performed it,” he said. “Also, I’m an orientation leader, and the class was about education and forming a group, so I thought there was nothing better I could take right now.”

Miller, a broadcast journalism major and theater minor, agreed that many of the students’ interactions seemed to be based on how to effectively communicate with strangers or how to encourage a beneficial outcome — especially applicable for a journalist or in positions that require research, listening or interview skills.

“Just saying ‘Yes, and?’ if you’re doing an interview,” he said. “You want an answer and a good answer.”

“Andrea was the perfect choice to develop the first-ever Mellon-funded course,” center Audience and Program Development Director Amy Dupain Vashaw said. “Giving an academic the chance to combine her teaching with one of her other passions — in this case, improv performance — was so gratifying, as well as fun to see how she incorporated the performing arts into the class.”

The coursework featured virtual engagements related to programs scheduled for the center’s upcoming seasons, including artists from the Small Island Big Song collective and the stage works “Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)” and “Cartography.”

“They represented artists in the world, and as an artist, you have to adapt,” Miller said. “They came to show us that the world is adapting. And kind of like improv — yes, and? — you just keep going with it no matter what you’re given.”

McCloskey said she learned a lot from how the class unfolded in spring semester and will use that information to help shape future classes. As a way to keep her improv skills sharp, the co-founder of Happy Valley Improv also recently announced the opening of The Blue Brick Theatre. With a brick-and-mortar presence in State College, she and her organization hope to bring quick decision-making via comedy improv to the masses.

Penn State faculty gathered in mid-April to discuss next steps for instructors who are developing courses for the 2021–22 fall and spring semesters. Courses funded by the Mellon Foundation to be developed this summer for fall instruction are:

  • “Climate Change and Storytelling,” a nursing course taught by College of Nursing Assistant Research Professor Erin Kitt-Lewis aimed at linking climate change and its effects on health, and being developed in conjunction with School of Theatre Professor Bill Doan;
  • “Performance 360,” taught by College of Arts and Architecture Associate Professor Jeanmarie Higgins and College of the Liberal Arts Professor Jonathan Eburne, asking students to reflect on the performing arts as a cultural and expressionistic practice and product for tourism;
  • “Perspectives on Aging / Lighter as We Go,” a College of Health and Human Development course by Assistant Research Professor Amy Lorek, will encourage intergenerational interaction as a way to link lived experience and humanity; and
  • “Creativity in the Art of Human Flourishing,” to be developed and taught by Molly Countermine, associate teaching professor of human development and family studies, will be designed to explore the roles of aesthetic experience, the arts, and creativity in personal and collective flourishing.

Find more information about “The Reflection Project.”

Learn more about the Center for the Performing Arts. Find the Center for the Performing Arts on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Heather Longley is a communications associate at the Center for the Performing Arts.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 17, 2021