Using Improv to Improve

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  • Air University Public Affairs

Between classes, the schools around Air University spend time recharging and honing new skills. Most of the time that looks like diving into similar material they've been digging through all year…refreshing familiarity with the academic buzzwords of the day.
The Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy did something different during their in-service days this winter…WAY different. Improv comedy.
“We wanted to get after more than just course material,” said Master Sgt. Conor Gray with the AFSNCOA Faculty Development Section. “We felt like we really needed something that improves faculty relationships as well as add a few ways to enhance the student experience.”
Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Hoglund, AFSNCOA commandant, knew exactly who to call.
BJ Lange is a retired Air Force medic, actor and comedian who specializes in teaching applied improv. He builds confidence and strengthens life skills such as team building, listening, problem-solving and risk-taking by using the fundamentals of improvisational theater. Additionally, Lange is the comedy coach for Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) and leads his Improv to Improve workshops with a focus on resilience. 
Lange conducted a three-day workshop with the AFSNCOA faculty members that culminated in a presentation of learning (show) for the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education leadership and family on Friday, December 17th. Throughout the week, the team explored many instructional and team-building concepts in a whole new way. 
For example, groupthink is considered the boogeyman of decision making, but in improv, you dive headfirst into it with an exercise called “The Mind Meld”. In a large group, you intentionally and eventually succeed in thinking exactly alike to move through challenges that require you to be on the same page without talking. 
This exercise also teaches participants to listen to their teammates and to be present in the moment to achieve a state of group mindfulness. Many of the participants had a lot to say about the experience after the show.
“We are often our own worst critic and tend to hold back what we’re truly thinking and feeling,” said Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Fitzgerald, Bravo Squadron superintendent. “This experience allowed me to feel more comfortable in my own skin, to open up and express myself personally and professionally. My experience allowed me to step out of my comfort zone as an instructor and as a person.”
He was not alone. Master Sgt. Patrick McCabe related his takeaways directly to the classroom environment.
“The effect of several days of improv lessons eased the discomfort of playing in front of other people,” said McCabe. “Using these principles, and applying them to the classroom will lead to a more fruitful flight discourse. Instructors that achieve this same level of team dynamic and thinking will bring to their flight experience and insight in shaping tomorrow's leaders.”
“This experience will be a highlight of my time here at the Academy,” said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Strain, faculty development superintendent. “Our team came together and stepping out of their comfort zones was inspiring. We laughed and laughed…it was a blast. More importantly, we became a stronger team. I believe all of us grew this week, and I don’t doubt we’ll be better educators as a result.”
The biggest takeaway from the whole experience was the connections and bonds formed within the instructor cadre. In a world starving for connection, many units are still searching for those relationships they had in the workplace before COVID-19. For three full days, members of the AFSNCOA who rarely worked with one another were laughing, playing and tackling awkwardness together as a team.
“In our courses around the circle, we talk about the importance of concepts like empathy and ‘being present’ as they relate to being a good leader, but the sentiment of that idea lives mostly in a student paper or a conversation…rarely do we feel it with any live consequence,” said Gray. “That, to me, was a powerful moment this week. I need to listen to my teammates and accept them without hesitation or none of this will work. The moment you try to make this about you, it fails.”
For Lange, this work is not just important for its benefits to academia. As an Air Force Wounded Warrior ambassador he works with the military community to remind them how to drop their guard and play. On the surface, it may look like two adults looking into each other’s eyes and singing a song using only “meows”, but at the heart of it, it is a strong reminder of why we serve: to protect and defend the humanity of all.