The extreme sport, riding the wave

As the wave of play and improvisation is sweeping the public sphere in creativity and innovation research and practices, it’s both exhilarating and frightening to ride the wave. I watched recently a brief interview with a surfer, Garrett McNamarra who looks for killer waves to ride. For me they would be killer waves, but in a number of articles or interviews they simply call them big waves. You know, “the monster”, some 60 to 90 feet high, that can crush a cruise ship or freighter.

The big wave surfer is out in front of a force that is beyond his control. In one interview, McNamarra says: once he’s on the mountain of water, it’s a hundred percent instinct and surfing from the heart.  In the interview I saw, he also spoke about all the work that goes into finding the wave. Looking for the right conditions to build that create the big wave.

This describes my experience of the wave of play and performance in the world and particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. In 2003, I gave my first workshop in improvisation for teachers. I was invested in learning to bring the developmental benefits of performance and improvisation to educators and scientists. Although in my organizing work I continuously use the methodology of performance, specifically a social therapeutic approach created by philosopher and therapist Fred Newman, it would be 6 more years before leading my first improvisation workshop for scientists in the Systems Biology Program at Harvard University.

Now another 4 years later, improvisation is landing visibly, if not solidly within the science education and research communities. This is of course, only minimally due to me, and largely due to the many individuals in their local contexts deciding to create a class, course, workshop or business in which performance could be used to grow science and the scientific community. The most mainstream of these include Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science at SUNY Stonybrook with offerings on public presentations, Uri Alon’s TedTalk on science as improvisation,  and Northwestern’s Ready Set Go  9 week training in communication, and the new Communicating Science course in Harvard's Systems Biology program. These are only a couple of the recent activities that I’m aware of…more exist and are on their way.

As someone who has been organizing scientists to develop their abilities to create their environments and their lives, I am thrilled at the increasing number of contexts in which they can develop. As an academic, trained as experimentalist, working in computation and leading improvisation workshops, I feel I’m riding the big wave of improvisation.  

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