March 22, 2010

Who's grad student is it, anyways

A biologist, a business woman and a chemical engineer walk into a bar...

That was the scene at Theatre Aquarius last week as 17 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows took part in an innovative improvisational workshop to enhance their presentation skills, learning to tell a few jokes along the way.

"It was definitely a lot of fun, and really got us into thinking on our toes," said Kyla Sask, a PhD student in chemical engineering. "There are a lot of little bits that we'll think back to and use. Just remembering that we don't have to plan everything - it makes you a little more at ease when you're on the spot and presenting things."

The first of three "IMPROV-ing your presentation skills" workshops, jointly sponsored by McMaster's School of Graduate Studies and Theatre Aquarius, was led by the award-winning improvisational theatre troupe The National Theatre of the World. Participants took part in a 90 minute improvisation workshop, followed by an evening at "Impromptu Splendor: The Improvised Play Series," featuring their instructors, Ron Pederson, from MAD TV, and Naomi Sneickus and Matt Baram from The Second City.

"There's absolutely no limit to the applications of improvisation in your everyday life," explained Baram. "The concepts of spontaneity, active listening, and positivity can only help you advance in life."

Allison Sekuler, McMaster's associate vice-president and dean of Graduate Studies, agrees, and knows firsthand the advantages of improvisation training, which sparked the initial idea for an improvisation training session for graduate students and postdocs: Sekuler first took part in improvisational theatre in the early 1980's.

"A number of the people in our improv group went on to have successful careers in theatre, television, and film, where improv training provides an obvious advantage," she said. "But what might not be obvious, is how much improv helped me in my own academic career. Improvisation is more than just learning to be funny. It gives you confidence, and teaches you life skills that will come in handy in theatre, academia or any other career path."

The workshop saw those life skills taught with a range of interactive games and exercises, through which participants gained a better understanding of how to engage their audience, trust their instincts, actively listen and attend, and work in teams.

"One thing I learned was to be more receptive to the audience," said Christa Austin, a PhD student in the DeGroote School of Business. "Whether it's presenting to students in the classroom or colleagues at a conference, you need to gauge their reaction and respond to it."

Although McMaster University is no stranger to the art of improvisation, with such talented improvising alumni as Eugene Levy, Ivan Reitman, Martin Short and Dave Thomas, the workshop provides a unique opportunity to use improvisation training to enhance professional skills for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The workshop also provides them with an opportunity to connect with the community and to learn more about Hamilton's gem of a professional theatre.

"I am very excited about this collaboration between McMaster University and Theatre Aquarius," said Ron Ulrich, the theatre's artistic director. "Both institutions are cornerstones of Hamilton life. This collaboration will help our future leaders and citizens discover and practice the communication skills that will serve them every day in every walk of life."

The last workshop will be held March 23, along with a fourth workshop for the general public on March 24 at a cost of $40, which includes admission to "Impromptu Splendor", running until March 27.