Slovenia pioneers improv in youth education

Slovenia is streets ahead in taking improv drama back to its starting point as a teaching device for children. It has been a commonplace extracurricular school activity for nigh-on two decades. 

“It can help children who are not good at school, those who are introverted or anxious,” says Mistral Majer, the 31-year-old who now runs Slovenia’s High School Impro League (SILA), having herself joined a team at 14. 

There are now 20 teams practising weekly with the help of a SILA-trained mentor. Their head-to-head improv clashes are scored by both judges and audience. Another dozen teams are in “incubation” poised to join the fray. Thousands of children have taken part.

The league takes improv back close to its roots in the educational work of Viola Spolin, an actor who created around 200 improvisational theatre games for underprivileged immigrant children in Chicago in the 1940s and 50s.

Ms Majer says creating impromptu dramas develops problem-solving, listening, teamwork, public speaking, storytelling and self-confidence. Around 70% of improvisers in the league are female.

“You learn how to play different roles in life,” says dramatist Tomaz Lapajne, a veteran improviser. A player might play the role of a prime minister in one scene and a homeless person in the next. Public speaking classes, by contrast, focuses on taking a high status role.

Improv may help ease depression, anxiety and shyness. Its team ethos create social groups, interaction and trust which could counter isolation. SILA has worked to include children with special needs in a programme called “Play with me”.

As with jazz, improv’s musical inspiration, there is no one improv orthodoxy. There are nine in North America and Europe, according to Chicago-based improviser Jonathan Pitts. Despite differences most share the cooperative ethos of building on other players’ contributions, an approach boiled down to the phrase, “Yes, and…”.

Participants also need to tolerate failure, a fact of life in an ad hoc artform. “Failing is not bad,” says Ms Majer. Watching a practice session or show for more than a few minutes shows everyone fails, with experience telling mostly in an ability to recover.

The goal is not to learn to enjoy failing, says Shawn Kinley, a veteral Canadian improviser teaching a workshop in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana. Instead improvisers need to “fail well”, accepting failure and seeing its usefulness in learning.

It is not too late if we have already failed to learn these lessons in our youth, as many Slovenian have. Requiring only a room and a mentor, improv has become an attractive and affordable pastime and team-building exercise for professional teamworkers.

Medics have been encouraged to try improv as a way to roll with the unpredictability of their work lives. Teachers are encouraged to use improv skills to spice up their lessons and to teach it to students. We learn lessons better when they are linked to emotions, says Mr Lapajne.

And money makers like Google, PepsiCo, and McKinsey have seen the potential upsides of improv too, including sessions in some of their training. The big data company Palantir goes a step further making an improv handbook, “Impro”, required reading for new recruits.

There is money to be made from giving workshops, but Slovenia’s school league rejects a commercial model. There are no fees, to avoid financial barriers for less-well-off. Instead the modest costs are covered by grants from government youth programmes.

The league is competitive, despite success being underpinned by cooperation, flexibility and acceptance of failure. Improv’s unexpected twists often makes it funny, but doing this reliably typically relies more on playing it straight than on an individual’s wit.

As adults we now flip between ever more roles in both our workplaces and homes. It is perhaps high time we followed Slovenia’s example and gave future generations insight into this challenge as part of their school experience. ■