Waisanen, Don. Improv for Democracy: How to Bridge Differences and Develop the Communication and Leadership Skills Our World Needs. Albany: SUNY Press, 2020. Pp. 271. ISBN 978-1-4384-8115-9 (cloth) $95.00; ISBN 978-1-4384-8116-6 (paper) $24.95.
Improv for Democracy presents a framework for understanding applied improvisation to teach the civic skills necessary for democratic life. The author argues the steep rise in partisan discord began after schools stopped teaching civics. This "calls for a new movement to revive and reinvent civic education for the 21st century" (p. 3). Building from experience with applied improvisation as a teacher, consultant, and participant, Waisanen offers a method that builds trust, commitment, and community. The volume comprises five chapters, scaffolded to introduce applied improvisation, guide teaching; three chapters devoted to improv for specific skills (communication excellence, leadership excellence, and civic excellence); and a conclusion.
Applied improvisation is distinct from comedic improvisation in goals but similar in basic techniques. Drawn from practitioners, the definition of applied improv is, "the use of principles, tools, practices, skills, and mindsets of improvisational theater in non-theatrical settings" (Tint & Froerer, 2014). It's a "highly refined system of observing, connecting, and responding" to others (Bernard & Short, 2015, p. 7). Waisanen states, "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" (p. 6). To illustrate, the book includes activities in each chapter to highlight concepts and showcase how improv fosters each skill.
Chapter 1 begins with what's missing in traditional educational spaces--social skills, play, creativity, and joy in learning--and provides theoretical support for including them throughout the curriculum. Starting with Dewey and other adherents of experiential education, the book introduces applied improvisation to link interpersonal interaction and social skill development with improvisational games that foster communication and creativity. This is necessary to address our default settings as "the enemy of democracy." "Default settings are typical ways of thinking and acting that prevent us from seeing the broader choices we...