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Why Improv In a Digital Media Program?

Oct 10, 2013 By Crissy Campbell

When Master of Digital Media students first start the program in September, one of the first classes they are introduced to is Interdisciplinary Improvisation. Students who are new to the program are often confused by the course and don’t see how it fits in with the rest of the MDM program, asking “Why improv in a digital media program?”

Yet, at the end of the MDM program, students refer to Interdisciplinary Improvisation as one of their favourite classes and the one in which they apply the skills they learned the most. Kareem Negm, a Senior Architect from Dubai and current MDM student, agrees saying, "It’s the most unexpected course."

Patrick Pennefather, a sound designer, producer, composer and retired clown and one of the founding faculty members of the MDM program, teaches Interdisciplinary Improvisation and has been responsible for the course development over the last few years.

Using tools drawn from improvised comedy, jazz and improvised music, clown, and design thinking, as well as various visual mapping disciplines (design, architecture, advertising), students learn the role of improvisation in collaborative project building. The learn how embodying some of the principles can motivate them to become more adaptive, take ownership over solving problems, make their presentations more impactful, and be more aware of how they collaborate with others.

"Every single person has a different experience," says Patrick Pennefather.

[The course] gives people the tools to deal with identifying and proposing solutions to real-world problems, and gives them practice in dealing with the unexpected. Not knowing what to expect is a reflection of the entire job market today. It gives students the tools to think like designers—to extend their collaborative skill set and be able to lead teams towards solutions.

Alana Thorburn-Watt, an MDM student who is currently doing her internship, has this to say about how she’s applying the skills she learned in improvisation today:

There were two huge things I took away from the class that are benefiting me in all aspects of my life right now, including my career. One is that I learned to simply speak up and be louder, which shows that I’m more confident and I say things now with a certainty I didn't have before. And two, is that I learned that making mistakes and dealing with them (individually or collaboratively) is a natural part of any creative process.

When asked about his initial thoughts about the class, Matt Wiggins, an MDM student who's currently doing his internship, says, "I wasn't sure quite what to make of it—I mean, an improv class in a masters degree program...? [But] the idea of relating improv techniques to how we think, and how we work with and relate to others in professional environment was really appealing to me."

Looking back on the class, Wiggins says:

I had a blast! Honestly, my only regret was that we didn't get to do more of it! I thought, on the whole, it was one of the most valuable components of the program. It really helped bring all the members of the class out of their shells, and drove home the importance of sharing, working together, creative thinking, and presenting oneself. It was a great way to start the program, and provided many skills we would need as we progressed. 

[Now, working on my internship as a producer] I have all these talented artists and engineers working with me on the project I'm managing, and they all have different perspectives and insights to provide. Improv class helped me learn ways to facilitate the exchange of these ideas, even from people who may be reticent to speak up—and that's vital to creating the best possible project outcomes. 

Here’s a look at some of the class exercises students complete as part of the Interdisciplinary Improvisation.

Success Maps

Students with their success map

Students holding up their success map

In a success map learners draw what success looks like for each of them at the end of the program. It provides a good reference point and encourages students to begin setting their own objectives. They also get to see similar and/or complementary goals in others.

Persona Maps

A student's persona map

Students creating persona maps

Yalda standing next to her persona

Persona maps have been used to identify likes, dislikes, and habits of potential users for your product. These persona maps asked learners to draw themselves at the center and identify what was important for them when they collaborate with others. 

Rapid Prototyping

Students Rapid Prototyping with Toobeez

Students completing the rapid prototyping excercise

Rapid prototyping is a competency we encourage at the MDM Program. Here, learners were challenged to build the tallest tower they could in a short period of time using giant building blocks called Toobeez.

Students rapid prototyping with comic books

Students presenting their rapid prototypes

Another rapid prototyping exercise challenged learners to cut out images from comic books, add their own text bubbles and reinvent a story. In this case they had to recount a collaborative challenge they had faced in the past and how they resolved it.

* All photos by Kareem Negm.