Improv Class Comes To Business School

The first assignment in the class? Read an essay on improv by comedian actress Tina Fey

The first assignment in the class? Read an essay on improv by comedian actress Tina Fey


To prepare for the class, Carfagno had students read an article on improvisation by comedian and actress Tina Fey. Then, she asked students to hand in real-life examples of uncomfortable situations they’d faced in the workplace during internships, some of which would later be anonymously reenacted as improv scenes by students during Garey’s visit to the class. Carfagno was surprised by how many submissions she received from her students.

“Most of the students were coming in with examples from internships they’d already had, or their sibling’s internship,” she said. “They were already being asked to do things they weren’t comfortable with and were trying to figure out how can I push back.”

When Garey came to visit the class, the first thing she focused on – after the fake “homework assignment” surprise – was a series of acting exercises that focused on learning basic breathing and relaxation techniques. One game the students played was called “Yes,” where undergrads stood around in a circle and could only move to a new space if they got a “yes” affirmation from someone else.


“It is easy for undergraduate students to be intimidated by older people, so this helped them make eye contact in a meaningful way,” Garey said.

In another acting exercise, Garey set up four chairs in two rows like the front and back seat of a car. Three students got into the car, and then were supposed to mock the actions of the fourth student “passenger” they picked up. For example, if the new passenger started clapping when she entered the car, all the students in the car would have to follow suit. The takeaway? People are more comfortable adapting to other people’s behaviors than being an outsider, Garey told them.

The exercises got progressively more challenging as students began reenacting some of the real-life scenarios students had submitted to Carfagno based on their workplace experiences.


For example, one improv scene had students act out a situation in which a manager in charge of marketing a biscuit mix product asked her team to go work on an ad campaign with a strong “Aunt Jemima” angle.  The students had to decide on the spot how to respond to their boss, who was asking them to do something that they believed was racist and a bad business move, to boot.

“Telling your boss that they’re a racist is not productive and doesn’t fix the product,” Carfagno said.  “This was a great example of paycheck ethics, where students learned how to push back ethically in a way that still gets things done.”

The class was a powerful learning experience for Helen Elizabeth Old, the student initially taken aback by the fake homework assignment. During the class, she participated in one exercise where she and a male counterpart were asked to stand next to each other, and Garey then analyzed their body language. Old naturally took on what the teacher described a “low power pose,” standing straight with her hands crossed in front of her, while the boy adapted a “high power” pose, placing his hands on his hips and throwing his broad shoulders back.


Next, Garey asked Old to tell the male student that he looked “super sexy” in an upbeat and happy voice.  That was a move that immediately took Old out of her comfort zone, she said. “I was embarrassed and turned beet red, but I walked up to him and said it,” Old said. He responded with a polite “thank you,” Old said.

Later in class, students discussed a real-life scenario that Old had anonymously submitted to her teacher. In the scenario, she described her experience working in a small public relations office last summer where the layout of the office was such that she could easily overhear her boss when she interviewed several candidates for a job. The boss then asked Old for her opinion on two of the job candidates. The boss was pushing for a candidate who had more connections in the business community, but Old, who heard both interviews, felt that the other candidate was more qualified for the job. In the end, Old deferred to her boss because she was fearful of her reaction.

After taking the improv class with Carfagno and Garey, Old believes she would now react differently, and tactfully reveal to her boss her true feelings. “Almost all of us have had experiences in workplaces where we’ve felt challenged and uncomfortable, even at the age of 22 and younger, and that’s only going to grow,” Old said. “Instead of hypothetically talking about these things, improv gave us a chance to practice it in a safe environment, which was huge. I like to think that practicing those skill has given us the confidence to do it in the real world if we had to.”


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