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VIDEO: Improv Group Provides Creative Outlet for Graduate Students

During the day they toil in the lab, conducting state-of-the-art research in a years-long effort to earn their PhDs.

But their nights belong to improv.

They are the members of SPG Improv, the University’s only graduate improv group. Started by materials science graduate student Bryce Meredig in 2008, the group holds monthly performances (every third Thursday, 6 p.m. in Seabury 250) and provides a creative outlet for engineering graduate students.

“I did improv in college, starting my sophomore year (at Stanford University), and I assumed that when I came here I would have to be a real grown up and I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore,” Meredig says.  But after talking with a few peers who were interested, Meredig decided an improv group might be just the thing McCormick graduate students needed.

“This is giving me something that problems sets and lectures and recitations are not giving me in terms of creativity and using both halves of my brain,” Meredig said.” I just found that I almost needed it…The students in the group have also become better public speakers because of it.”

The group offers workshops for those interested in improv but who aren’t ready to perform — which Meredig says helps graduate students break out of their laboratory state-of-minds.

“You have people, especially engineers, who are always trying to find the right answer,” he says. “Their research involves trying to find that answer. In improv, you have to let that go. There is no answer. Anything you say works.”

The group’s faculty adviser is Elizabeth Gerber, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who performed in Meredig’s improv group at Stanford when she was a graduate student.

“He’s providing them not only with a venue to have a lot of fun — they are having a lot of fun, if you’ve seen them perform — but also to practice these skills that are necessary,” she says. “They communicate with each other. They learn how to communicate effectively with each other. They learn how to collaborate with each other. They learn how to break the rules, which in the laboratory, as a PhD student, is not typically what you’re supposed to do. I think it gives them this freedom to experiment in a different venue.”

Gerber also researches how to foster creativity and innovation. In one study, she taught improv to undergraduate students, then had them think of new ideas to see if there was a direct correlation between improv and idea generation. 

“My question is, instead of dismissing improv as too much fun – Can we leverage it more by understanding the role it has in human interaction as well as our personal attitudes toward idea generation?”

SPG Improv also recently performed at a benefit for a young boy diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Cindy Ulrich, who helped organize the event, thought the group’s performance and willingness to help a family they did not know was impressive.

“SPG Improv was part of bringing hope to a family on a very difficult journey,” she said. “I was grateful and impressed with the professionalism and generosity of time.”

Learn more about SPG Improv and find out about upcoming shows.