An Afternoon of Laughs and Lessons: Improv Workshop Captivates First-Year MBAs at Mason

Photo by Skip Rowland ’83

As the rookie MBA class continues to navigate through the third and final module of the first year, it has been all too easy to get caught up in preparing to ace that Macroeconomics exam, piecing together a business proposal and presentation for Management Communication, keeping track of a relentless docket of speakers and club events or finding time to enjoy the early arrival of summerlike temperatures. Last Friday though, a group of about 25 first-year MBA students took part in an improvisation workshop that offered a refreshing change of pace and tone from the day-to-day grind in Miller Hall.

If you’re not familiar with improvisation, better known as improv, according to the Dean Hewitt-approved website Wikipedia improv is a form of performance art in which actors/improvisers use improvisational acting techniques to perform spontaneously.

Second-year MBA Mark Walkley organized the workshop, which featured two of his longtime friends from Chicago, Dave Urlakis and Zack Whittington, of the improv group Batterymouth. The pair has been working together since 2005 and is well acclaimed in the “second city” improv circles. The ridiculously talented duo orchestrated several humorous exercises, such as “zip-zap-zop”, “machine” and “yes, and…”, that introduced the group to basic improv techniques, while simultaneously demonstrating how these lessons can improve communication in the business world.

Some of the prevailing themes included engaging in active listening, making eye contact and using body language, participatory conversation, suspending fear and judgment and creating a cooperative environment. Dave and Zack did an admirable job of creating a comfortable setting in which many of us were clearly uncomfortable. The exercises forced spontaneous thoughts, comments and uncontrollable laughter for those participating and observing, which included Professor Ed Felton, admissions dynamo Amanda Barth and MBA commissioners Patty Lalumiere and Michele Mitchell-Moffit.

The Mason School is one of several business programs to welcome improv into classrooms that at times are short on creative and artistic spirit, and there are many articles and opinions to support improv’s correlation with effective communication and negotiation. However, my most important takeaways from our workshop were the memories of laughing alongside my classmates and seeing hidden personalities break out during an afternoon when everything else outside that room didn’t seem to matter for two hours.

The workshop showed that nearly eight months into the program a lot of us, myself included, are still working on taking that final leap out of what was once a comfort zone. Watching the international students put themselves out there in front of everyone in the room was one of the most enlightening moments of the MBA experience to this point, and I also witnessed my American classmates overcome the fear and hesitation that often times keeps us silent and reserved.

That relates to my final takeaway which was a reminder to not forget about intuition. In an atmosphere where we try to first throw an equation, statistical model, regression or break-even analysis at a situation, I was reminded that certain problems don’t necessarily need an MBA solution. One of the many reasons I chose the Mason School was to develop those analytical tools, but jumping in on instinct, whether it’s to be disruptive or supportive, can be just as effective and much more efficient.

Based on my classmates’ comments and feedback at the end of the workshop, I think we all came away with a new perspective on improv and an appreciation for what it takes to truly suspend fear of judgment. Mark, David and Zack deserve much of the credit for allowing that to happen, and I believe the event showed how impactful and rewarding creative, uncommon tactics can be in an MBA program. My hope is those of us who participated continue to laugh and make the leap. I also hope that the improv workshop was the first of many similarly creative-minded events during the MBA experience.

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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins is an MBA candidate at the College of William and Mary's Mason School of Business.

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