Improv is finding a home at NLU

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Chicago remains the undisputed capital of improv comedy — a place that for decades has attracted top talent, developed it on local stages, and sent it along to television and the big screen. With a priority on audience engagement and performing in the moment, improv also develops skills that have real applications off stage. It’s an idea that’s catching on at NLU.

In his free time, Dan Essig, an NLU Enrollment Specialist, is heavily involved in Chicago improv. He began classes at the Second City Training Center two years ago as he was finishing his undergraduate studies, progressing from a prerequisite program through the theater’s main training conservatory. He now performs in a training center house ensemble made up of select conservatory graduates — and recognizes that it’s special to be at the granddaddy of improv stages.

“To think that there were so many great comedians that we know today that have walked through those halls and gone through that conservatory program,” Dan said, “It really is exciting.”

Second City gives trainees a real feel for the improv process, he said, as they work on characters, genre styles and scene-building. It’s been a journey of self-discovery for Dan. And not only is it a great way to blow off steam after a busy work day, but he’s found it’s had crossover with what he does at NLU.

NLU's Dan Essig is developing his comedy skills at Second City Training Center.

NLU’s Dan Essig is developing his comedy skills at Second City Training Center.

“Listening is crucial in creating a good improv scene and in what I do in enrollment, as far as listening to our students and what their needs are and what they’re looking for out of a program,” Dan said. “You can really get a snapshot of their life and what they’re hoping to do after they complete their degree here.”

He added that in improv, a scene is kind of like putting a puzzle together, with each actor adding his or her own piece to move it forward. An actor must give up some control in service of the group effort. It’s easy to devise a great scene idea, Dan said, but if you don’t listen to your partners, the scene will not develop organically and could suffer. He’s taken this approach into the committees he serves on at NLU, embracing the idea of collaboration.

These potential links between improv training and higher ed haven’t been lost on NLU leadership, either. Interestingly, both NLU President Nivine Megahed and Provost Christine Quinn have also taken classes at Second City in the past year.

Dr. Quinn said she was drawn to it as a way to get outside her comfort zone and develop her speaking skills, all while engaging with others in a fun, creative setting.

“What I discovered is that I spend a lot of time in my head,” she said. “Improv helped me to be present and to connect in deeper ways. Improv also expanded my outlook on what is possible.”

In improv, performers build on the work of their teammates, Dr. Quinn said, increasing possible outcomes. That sense of excitement paired with the trust and connection between performers can find a place in other settings, and Dr. Quinn is discovering how it can improve learning in the classroom, stimulating creativity and innovation. She cited NCE Professor Katie McKnight’s book, “The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom,” as well as Pamela Meyer’s “From Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Change” as great sources of inspiration on this front.

Provost Christine Quinn and Dan put their improv skills on display at NLU's fall Connection conference.

Provost Christine Quinn and Dan put their improv skills on display at NLU’s fall Connection conference.

Dr. Quinn said she continues to experiment with ways she can bring improv into her work and recommends others take a class to try it out and push their limits a bit.

“I continue to be amazed at how people are energized through improv and thirst to have fun in the workplace and in their personal lives,” she said.

Dan Essig is discovering how far improv can take him, at NLU and beyond. He’s re-upped for a year of performance-based classes at the Second City Training Center, as well as performing with that house ensemble, Twisty, on Saturday nights. It’s a way for the theater to groom future performers for its professional stages — a dream of Dan’s. He couldn’t ask for a better setting to pursue it.

“The sense of support and community coming together to study the art of improvisation and sketch comedy — it really has been a rewarding experience,” he said.