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The Debut of a New Improv Theatre Elective

POSTED ON December 11, 2017

"So I happened to be in your room last night and I discovered something that I have a question about.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Well, the thing is – it concerns me a little, and I just don’t understand. What are you doing with a Bedazzler?”

It’s certainly not the most common conversation you would overhear in a medical school classroom. But this isn’t just any classroom. Welcome to “Fundamentals of Improv Theater,” a new elective available to first- and second-year students at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine (LKSOM). 

What do improv theater and the practice of medicine have in common? You may be surprised—it’s all about connections. 

Consider how an improv actor connects with another actor to create a scene. Then think of how a doctor connects with a patient. Both situations are often unscripted, especially during an initial consultation. Both require the ability to adapt and react to what you are hearing. And both require skills like empathy and confidence. 

Through improv skits facilitated by a theater professional, the seven Temple medical students enrolled in the class played different roles and practiced interactions that can benefit them in multiple ways — broadening “soft” skills like active listening style and interpersonal engagement, which can greatly improve a doctor-patient relationship. 

“Communication and relational skills have been a part of medical school for a long time,” said Douglas Reifler, MD, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at LKSOM. “Today, they are becoming universally recognized as an essential part of medical education.” 

During a recent class held on a Friday afternoon, students found themselves in various situations, including “Confessions,” excerpted above, where the discovery of a strange object must be explained by the owner; “Triplets,” wherein three actors personify inanimate objects and their relation to one another; and “Oscar-winning Moment,” during which students take their scene to an award-worthy dramatic level. The scenarios are not always comedic, but always involve spontaneity and interaction with others. 

“This class has really helped build my confidence,” remarked second-year student Destiny Marquez. “Participating has helped me become less timid in my interactions.” 

In addition to building skills, the students are also bonding with each other and having fun. These two things have been shown to decrease isolation and potential depression that can accompany the intense years of medical school. 

According to class instructor Kristen Schier, who is also an instructor and producer at the Philly Improve Theater, improv is all about finding a place where you can agree on something. 

“You start out by creating a story and then build on the platform of trust you’ve formed with your fellow actor,” she says. “The rapport that is built helps the relationship develop. This dynamic way of learning helps students be creative and confident so they can come up with interactions on their own.” 

“Interactions that doctors have with patients are all improvisational — you often don’t know what’s going to happen in that exam room or hospital room,” reflects Dr. Reifler. “Doctors and patients need to agree on the story. Better interactions make better connections, which results in better care.”