An improvisational theater performance is like a job interview. Success at both requires what Greg Hohn, instructor in theater studies, calls good “soft skills”—competencies like adaptability, boldness, and expressivity that promote cooperation, communication, and other forms of human interaction.
A typical class with Hohn includes three improvisational theater exercises in which students participate as actors and as audience members. Afterward, they reflect on their observations, thoughts, and feelings from the exercises, while considering how they could use their developing soft skills in future professional situations.
One such situation, a job interview, is the focus of an exercise called the “Interview From Hell.” In this activity, one student plays the interviewer; the other, the job candidate. Before the interview begins, the interviewee is asked to leave the room. After she’s gone, the audience members propose a few unpleasant tactics for the interviewer to use. Two class favorites are avoiding eye contact and constantly interrupting.
The interviewee returns to the room, and the interview begins. Hohn says the interviewees have been taught to interpret an interviewer’s body language to gauge his reaction and, drawing on their soft skills, make any changes necessary to improve their performance.
For instance, if an interviewee senses her interviewer is not making eye contact, she might perceive that her interviewer is uninterested. The interviewee becomes more assertive to salvage her interview.
The changes made by the actor are instinctual, and Hohn prefers them to be. “I don’t want them to have ideas at all,” Hohn says. “I want their creativity to be organic and in response to external stimuli.”
In addition to disengaged interviewers, Hohn’s students face external stimuli such as
being assigned random fields of expertise. In an exercise called “Expert Interview,” a panel of three student actors gives a fourth actor (the “expert”) a specialized area of knowledge— such as herpetology, barbecue, or the history of women’s rowing. Then, the alleged expert gives a presentation on his specialty, making up the information as he goes.
While the exercise stretches the “expert’s” imagination, it is designed to build participants’ strategies for being authoritative. If a student practices expressing authority on a topic she knows little about, presenting her actual area of knowledge will be easier—and more effective, Hohn says. He believes people wishing to appear authoritative must use body control to maximize their impact. For example, while presenting an honors thesis at a conference, a student will deliver a stronger message through voice projection, controlled breathing, and good posture.
On the improvisational theater stage, an actor realizes no one pays as close attention to him as the actor himself does—someone across the stage grabs the audience’s gaze, or an audience member looks down at her watch. Hohn says the application of this lesson for students is twofold: Be assertive when you want to be heard, and relax when you don’t.
Ultimately, Hohn tells his students, they should be authentic. Act “like yourself,” he says, “with oomph.”
Hohn is an instructor in the theater-studies department. He also teaches in the M.B.A. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He is the artistic director of Transactors Improv Co., the oldest active improvisational theater company in the South.
Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind; Malcolm Gladwell, Blink; up to five essays written by Hohn
Class journal, reflection papers on three theater performances, and a final paper