Dr. Peter Felsman is based in New York, USA, and he is a man of diverse talents. He describes himself as a musician, writer, researcher, therapist and improviser. When interacting with him, he comes across as a dynamic young man with an apparent thirst for knowledge.
Himself an improviser, he focuses his research on the benefits improv has on the human brain. Just recently he, together with his fellow researchers Sanuri Gunawardena and Colleen M. Seifert, published a paper that proved the improvements in the abilities of divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being that come along with applied improvisation. I liked the above paper so much that I spontaneously decided to write to him and address my appreciation. Eventually, our shared interests in both science and improvisational theater lead to a regular writing of E-Mails and, luckily, this interveiw:
What motivated you to do a PhD?
I knew I wanted to be a therapist and I knew I wanted to continue doing psychological research. A PhD seemed to be a great way to fulfill both of those wants.
What was your experience like as an International Max-Planck Research School (IMPRS) fellow?
I got to meet researchers from Berlin and Zurich and Charlottesville, along with my colleagues in Ann Arbor. I learned two important lessons: 1) that researchers from different places and disciplines have unique perspectives and methodologies to offer overlapping questions, and 2) when they communicate effectively with one another, novel and important research collaborations can occur.
You worked on presence, which led you to study improvisational theater training. Was it easy to convince your supervisors that this is a topic worth investigating?
I was extremely lucky in grad school. I had advisors who, despite times of healthy skepticism towards my ideas, were overwhelmingly supportive. I began grad school studying claims of “mindfulness” interventions, and when I shared with my advisors the overlap between mindfulness-based interventions and improvisational theater, they agreed that the connections were pretty intuitive that it would be worth studying. At the end of the day, they trusted me to pursue questions I was compelled to answer. Particularly questions that were relevant to their work in mental health and creativity, and I think they trusted that my personal interest in the subject would pay off in me getting the work done. That now I have a Ph.D. is a good sign they were right.
What is it like to work at the Alan Alda Center as a Postdoc?
I’m a fan. Right now especially, it requires an ability to adapt. My colleagues at the Center are terrific at jumping into new challenges. We had a Zoom call today to test out new ways of doing improv-based exercises because most of our curriculum involves improv, and with the new coronavirus, most of our curriculum is going online. There are some really clever workarounds I’m hopeful about! As a postdoc, I’m also jointly appointed to a clinical psychology lab on campus that studies theater interventions mostly for youth with and without, autism spectrum disorder. There have been plenty of opportunities to learn and contribute. I’ve been very lucky.
In your most recent publication you studied the effect of improvisational theater on people after 20 min interventions. What were the differences between the two studies you published?
Well, my first improv publication was a single group design where we found an association between participating in an improv class over a 10-week period and reductions in social anxiety. The more recent study is experimental and involved only 20 minutes of improv (or a series of matched, non-improv control exercises). So there were many differences. Perhaps the biggest is that the first paper has more ecological validity, because the program resembles more typical improv class environments, and the second paper has more internal validity, because we were able to control for a lot of alternate hypotheses with our experimental design.
Did the groups that performed improvisational theater exercises laughed more often?
I didn’t run the groups, so I can’t say. Anecdotally, people in both groups had a good time, but yes, it seemed like people in the improv group might have laughed more.
There are different schools of improvisation (Spolin, Johnstone, Close), each with a different focus. Did you select the exercises in your study for feasibility at random or mostly from one school?
We tried to follow the exercise descriptions from the paper we modeled our study on (Lewis & Lovatt, 2013). Where we took liberties, we mostly drew on my experience which is mostly from the Spolin and Close traditions.
Why did you choose to have an active control group and no inactive one to possibly account for the effect of participants being in a novel environment?
We designed our study based on the Lewis and Lovatt paper, which only had two conditions – one improv, one active control. We were also more interested in the effects of specific features of improv than on the effects of the experimental environment. This line of research is young. And future research should include an inactive control.
It is astounding that you could measure an effect on divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being after only 20 min. What do you think happens to the participants’ brains during the intervention?
Charles Limb has some interesting “brain on improv” research that suggests that people are less self-censoring when improvising. I’m fairly new to the world of brain research.
What would you expect are the long-term effects of practicing improvisation?
Oh, so many things here. Long-term effects may include making lifelong friends, changing careers, being a better parent, being a better human, experiencing life more fully, being a better listener, being a better advocate, learning from peers, becoming more interested in other people. It really depends on the “practice” though. I think the art itself is the best teacher If you’re really paying attention to it. And that the best teachers help you pay better attention to the art of improv. If the “practice” targets helping someone be a funny performer and sacrifice their own truths for what they believe are the audience’s values, longterm effects may include periods of general despair or anxiety and depression. As in improv, it really depends.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got a lot of papers in the pipeline. Another one on improv and uncertainty. And one on improv and closeness, among others. There’s one experimental study I’m working on writing up on the effects of paying attention to the emotional experience of other people in day to day life. Alan mentions it in his book as a collaboration with the clinical psychology lab I’m in. There is a lot of data there.
What is a favorite memory you have as an improviser on stage?
There are so many! Here’s one. Before moving to New York from Michigan, in my last improv set with the resident cast, I played an improviser who was being bullied by his troupe-mates. I quit the group and somehow they wound up begging for me to come back. It was really bittersweet and redemptive and meta and beautiful. I miss those people!!
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Peter. I am looking forward to more meaningful research from you to empirically prove the effectiveness of practicing applied improvisation. The key takeaway of the recent paper “Improv experience promotes divergent thinking, uncertainty tolerance, and affective well-being” Peter Felsman et al. could prove that improv engages co-creativity and idea discovery by working with others. What a great finding!