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What Improv Can Do for Mathematicians

(Reposted from The New York Times)

NY Times

Today we’ll solve for x and y, where x is a group of high-level mathematicians and y is an improvisational theater workshop. This one’s easy, even if you’re not very good at math.

What’s funny about quadratic equations? Is there something to laugh at in Euclidean geometry?

Those questions went unanswered in unusual coaching sessions last week, and no wonder: The instructor’s background is not in Cartesian geometry or matrix algebra but in improvisational theatre and standup comedy.

The students were mathematicians from across the country — assistant professors, postdoctoral students and a few who are months away from their Ph.D.s, along with Cindy Lawrence, the executive director and chief executive of the National Museum of Mathematics, which arranged the three-day workshop.

The sessions were “not so much about being funny,” explained the instructor, Kihresha Redmond, the artistic director of the People’s Improv Theater, a comedy theater and improv training center on West 29th Street that is also known as the PIT. The purpose was to show the mathematicians how to do engaging presentations for laypeople.

“You don’t get a Ph.D. because you’re just so-so at something,” Lawrence said, but mathematicians “may not be quick at responding to an audience and they may not be comfortable in front of a room of strangers. Improv helps you build those kinds of skills.”

Mathematicians Do Improv
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Redmond did not mention it to the group, but she knew something about math. “I thought it was something I was going to major in” when she went to college, she confided one morning last week, before the group arrived. “It was a last-minute left turn to theatre.”

One session with the mathematicians involved no scripts, no carefully rehearsed “to be or not to be” moments — and no math. It began with Redmond leading some loosening-up exercises. Later, as a drill in thinking fast and talking in front of an audience, she had the mathematicians conduct mock news conferences. They made up companies and products to promote and assigned someone in the group to be the spokeswoman fielding questions. The others in the group played reporters.

Angela Avila, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the think-on-your-feet training would be useful in her work, which involves using math to solve agricultural problems, like how many more cows could be fed in a given pasture if a dairy farmer increased the nutrient yield.

She said she could use artificial intelligence and “big fancy equations” to come up with an answer, but if she explained it that way, there would probably be a lot of head-scratching. “If I am speaking line from line on my research paper, they’d get lost,” she said, “but if I connect with them and read the energy in the room, that won’t happen.”

Lawrence, from the math museum, said she had invited women to the workshop because women are underrepresented in mathematics and in science, technology and engineering. “It’s a problem that self-perpetuates because young women who don’t see female mathematicians get the impression that math is a field that’s not for them, it’s for men,” she said.

She wants the participants to help bring about more balance by serving as role models for girls: Each workshop participant is to present a talk about her specialty in a setting like a middle school. She said the idea was “to incentivize women who maybe already have an interest in reaching the younger generation to do so” before their focus is on the publish-or-perish pressures of tenure- track academics.

“One of the women told me she was not looking forward to improv and went along with it because it was part of the program,” Lawrence said. “She said this turned her mind completely around.”


PERSONAL NOTE: Not to preach, but I've held onto this belief for countless years: the significance of theatre rivals that of any obligatory course in the path to graduation, whether at the high school or college level. This conviction has driven me to craft a tailored Communications Coaching Workshop, enriched by a spectrum of theatrical techniques including improv. The purpose is clear—to empower individuals within the corporate sector, fostering not just confidence, but the capacity to navigate swift thinking, make pivotal decisions seamlessly, and communicate with a universal clarity that transcends barriers.

What could this workshop do for YOU?

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