Alan Alda Uses Improv to Teach Scientists How to Communicate Their Ideas

Woe to the famous actor who dares to write a nov­el or start a band or design a line of cloth­ing. The pub­lic can be awful­ly snob­by about such extracur­ric­u­lar pur­suits. We reward our chil­dren for cul­ti­vat­ing a wide range of inter­ests, but heav­en for­fend a celebri­ty who wan­ders away from the accept­ed script.

Hacks! Poseurs! Wannabes!

There are excep­tions, of course. I don’t see too many peo­ple tak­ing pot­shots at Leonard Nimoy’s pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy, Ed Beg­ley Jr.’s com­mit­ment to the envi­ron­ment, or the Won­der Years’ Dan­i­ca McKel­lar’s devo­tion to math.

(Per­son­al­ly, I will brook no unkind words toward ani­mal lov­ing TV dad Dick Van Pat­ten, not after he fathered the only cat food the small mam­mal with whom I live a lie will deign to eat.)

If there’s a for­mu­la to be gleaned from these exam­ples, it’s like­ly a syn­the­sis of icon­ic role, num­ber of years spent on the pas­time of choice, and a rabid curios­i­ty of the sort that dri­ves ordi­nary mor­tals to become edu­ca­tors. Once a pub­lic fig­ure is in pos­ses­sion of that for­mu­la, the pub­lic he or she serves will grant a pass to pur­sue a side inter­est.

I’m not sure that sci­ence could be called a side inter­est of Alan Alda’s.

Not when he ranks host­ing Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can Fron­tiers  as the pin­na­cle of his TV career.

He played physi­cist Richard Feyn­man onstage, and has writ­ten plays about Albert Ein­stein and Marie Curie. He’s one of the annu­al World Sci­ence Fes­ti­val’s MVPs. At this rate, his love of sci­ence seems des­tined to car­ry him from cra­dle to grave.

By now, he’s prob­a­bly met more sci­en­tists than M*A*S*H fans—enough to sug­gest a trou­bling gap between the sci­en­tif­ic  mes­sage and the man­ner in which it’s deliv­ered. To put it anoth­er way, if you think sci­ence is bor­ing, per­haps the trou­ble is with the sci­en­tist.

The solu­tion? Improv train­ing.

Uh oh. Is there a dan­ger this knife could cut both ways? Will some emi­nent biol­o­gist or astronomer be pil­lo­ried for play­ing freeze tag a bit too zest­ful­ly or join­ing a lev­el 1 team at the Annoy­ance or UCB East? Like, how dare Stephen Hawk­ing think he can make a machine?

It’s worth the risk (tech­ni­cal­ly, Alda espous­es Vio­la Spolin’s explorato­ry impro­vi­sa­tion form over the kind with a strict­ly comedic goal, but c’mon. I know a gate­way drug when I see one…)

His belief is that sci­en­tists who study improv are bet­ter equipped to com­mu­ni­cate the com­pli­cat­ed nature of their work to pub­lic offi­cials, the media, and for­mer the­ater majors such as myself. The lev­el of engage­ment, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and aware­ness that impro­vi­sa­tion requires of its prac­ti­tion­ers are also the stuff of good TED talks.

Watch the “before and after” pre­sen­ta­tions of par­tic­i­pants in his improv work­shop at the Alan Alda Cen­ter for Com­mu­ni­cat­ing Sci­ence at Stony Brook Uni­ver­si­ty, above. His the­sis holds water, it would seem. Improv hones the sens­es and helps one to clar­i­fy what is essen­tial in any scene. Even the solo scene where­in one explains wave par­ti­cle dual­i­ty or spe­cial­ized leaf forms to one’s fel­low adults.

I’ll bet those same improv-based skills could help a TV star to per­suade his stu­dents that he’s just as approach­able and sup­port­ive as any old teacher. (Maybe even more so, to judge by his han­dling of an invis­i­ble jar of jel­ly­fish that slips through one sci­en­tist’s fin­gers.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Is a Flame?: The First Prize-Win­ner at Alan Alda’s Sci­ence Video Com­pe­ti­tion

Adam Sav­age (Host of Myth­Busters) Explains How Sim­ple Ideas Become Great Sci­en­tif­ic Dis­cov­er­ies

Charles & Ray Eames’ A Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Primer Explains the Key to Clear Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the Mod­ern Age (1953)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author and illus­tra­tor who teach­es improv to teenage girls. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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