Improv Class Comes To Business School

An improv class at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce. Professor Cady Garey is on the far right, seated in the blue sweater. ( Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

An improv class at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. Professor Cady Garey is on the far right, seated in the blue sweater. ( Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

Helen Elizabeth Old, a senior at the University of Virginia, prides herself on being organized, reading required texts and having assignments completed in time for class. That’s why she was taken aback one day last fall when Cady Garey, a UVA drama professor and guest lecturer in her business communications class at the McIntire School of Commerce, asked her and her classmates if they’d completed the homework she’d assigned prior to their meeting.

“My heartbeat rose. I was nervous because I like to make sure I’ve done my assignments, and I definitely hadn’t seen one,” says Old, an English and biotech major participating in the McIntire Business Institute’s certificate program. “We were pretty confused, and sat there just looking at each other wondering what we were supposed to do.”

Turns out there was no need for Old and her classmates to enter panic mode. Garey, who’d come into the classroom to teach the students improvisation skills through the lens of business ethics, had played an early April Fools joke of sorts on the students. It turned out she’d never actually given the students a homework assignment.

‘SQUIRMING AND BLUSHING AND AVOIDING EYE CONTACT’

Rather, she pulled the ruse in order to purposefully make them feel aware of their body’s reaction when faced with an uncomfortable situation. It was the first of a series of acting exercises and improvisation sketches she worked on with the students over the next few hours.

“They were squirming and blushing and avoiding eye contact with me,” Garey said, referring to the fake homework assignment. “That’s what happens in the business world when someone approaches you in a situation you are not prepared for and you don’t know what is going on.”

The art of improvisation is a realm of acting usually reserved for drama students or those seeking out careers with improvisation troupes, but it can also be a valuable tool for today’s generation of business students. Improvisation is a form of theater where actors are called upon to create the dialogue, action and story of a scene in the moment.

A NOVEL WAY TO IMPROVE PRESENTATION AND INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

Several MBA programs, including MIT Sloan, Babson and Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School have taught acting and improvisation to business graduate students to help them brush up presentation and interpersonal skills, but until now it has rarely made an appearance in the curriculum of undergraduate business classes.

Kerrie Carfagno, an assistant commerce professor at McIntire, wanted to change that. Carfagno herself had taken an acting class back when she was in college, and often used the skills she developed as a thespian to help her keep calm when she later had to confront co-workers about situations that made her feel uncomfortable. She thought students in her small seminar course, “Business Communication for the Digital Age,” which focuses on writing for social media, e-mails and websites, could also benefit from honing these soft skills. She invited Garey to come visit her class, and introduce students to improvisation, with an eye towards helping them navigate their way through thorny ethical situations.

“Improv gives you permission not to be perfect when you’re in an industry where you always want to do the perfect thing,” Carfagno said.