Political Theater? The Value of Improvisation and Game-Playing

21 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2020

See all articles by Jon Ross

Jon Ross

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2012


The father of philosophy had it right: there’s something about play that builds coherence and camaraderie in the classroom and establishes a basis for exploring complex issues in a creative way. Improvisation - which can be described, in a political context at least - as extemporaneous response to and creative variations on established themes, is not only fun, it’s a skill upon which our overly scripted, polarized political actors could improve.

Especially when considered in the context of this quote from Viola Spolin, creator of the world-renowned Second City Theater in Chicago, “Through spontaneity we are reformed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handeddown frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings,” the art of improvisation takes on a deeper meaning, one our leaders could do well to heed. By incorporating improvisational and role-play games in classroom and online settings, teachers can free up and harness students’ creativity, often opening doors to and providing new perspectives on serious issues. The forms of communication derived from game-playing and improvisational exercises can shed light for students on real-world scenarios. For example, an exercise devised by the presenter, a game called “Animals at a Cocktail Party,” asks students to assume roles of animals personified in a social setting, with “actors” typically paired with others who represent predators or prey, and/or different classes/strata; the results often simulate real-world power structures, political communication, and relationships that provide students with unique insight into political issues of the day. Another role-play, “The Interrogation Game: Gitmo,” provides a light-hearted approach to a serious issue on the minds of many students.

The presenter, an instructor in American Government, Communication/Media Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies at two Chicago-area institutions of higher learning and an Interdisciplinary Studies/Public Policy doctoral student, has extensive experience in theater and improvisation. This paper will provide a perspective on roleplaying/ improvisation and their applications to the classroom - in live and online settings. And, consistent with improvisation’s cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell,” he may facilitate an improvisation/role-play (or two)—for those attendees daring enough to enjoy the process.

Suggested Citation

Ross, Jon, Political Theater? The Value of Improvisation and Game-Playing (2012). APSA 2012 Teaching & Learning Conference Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1997593 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1997593

Jon Ross (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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