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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Whose Program is This Anyway?

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on July 15, 2013 in Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic |

by columnist Madeline Karp,

You may have heard that the great improv comedy show of the late ‘90’s Whose Line is it Anyway? is making a comeback this summer.

As museum professionals, I think it behooves us all to watch it. Why? Because a) everyone needs a good laugh now and again, and b) I’m a firm believer that running a museum education program is actually just an exercise in improv comedy.

Let me explain.

I run a series of outreach programs that bring the museum’s exhibits to local classrooms. Each and every one of my programs has a curriculum, a set of connections to Pennsylvania state standards and a pre-written script.

I follow my script maybe a third of the time, and Tina Fey’s basic rules for improv almost always.

  1. Agree

  2. Don’t just agree – say, “Yes, and…”

  3. Make statements (don’t always ask questions)

  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Now, it’s not that I don’t like the script – it’s proved enormously helpful time and again – but it’s more that working with classrooms (and classrooms full of young children in particular) you need to be ready for pretty much anything. Just as every child has his or her own personality, each classroom has its own personality.

Some classrooms are wiggly. Some are quiet. Some are silly. None of them ever say what you expect.

An example. My program about the rainforest tells me to say: Does anyone know why rain is so important to the rainforest?  I’ll give you a hint:  these big, tall things need rain to live. What am I thinking of?

Trees. The technically correct answer is “trees, and trees need rain.” In a perfect world, the kids would always say “trees, and trees need rain” and it would lead seamlessly into my game about how trees grow.

The kids almost never say trees. This is how this exchange usually goes.

Me: Does anyone know why rain is so important to the rainforest?  I’ll give you a hint: these big, tall things need rain to live. What am I thinking of?

Child: Lilypads!

Or like this…

Me: Does anyone know why rain is so important to the rainforest?  I’ll give you a hint: these big, tall things need rain to live. What am I thinking of?

Child: A water snake!

And one time, it actually went like this…

Me: Does anyone know why rain is so important to the rainforest?  I’ll give you a hint: these big, tall things need rain to live. What am I thinking of?

Child: A BATHTUB!!!

My point is that kids don’t know the script. They don’t even know that I have a script. It’s exactly as Drew Carey always said at the start of Whose Line, “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”

Do I care if the kids remember the words “evaporation, condensation and precipitation” after my program is done? No. Do I care if they had fun and that we talked about rain and the rainforest? Yes. Odds are they’ll remember something about the water cycle and the rainforest, even if it’s just “rain comes from clouds and it rains a lot in the rainforest.” It’s good enough for me.

And in case you think improv only applies to kids’ programs…the same thing has always happened to me on adult tours, too. Someone asks a question about relative humidity, and suddenly the tour is more interested in the science behind document storage than the history of the documents themselves. Goodbye tour script. You were great while you lasted…all of five minutes.

So in short – when it comes to museum programs, by all means have a script. Know your script. Know permutations of your script. But don’t live and die by your script. Think of it more as a guideline than an actual rule.

What do you think? Do you use the rules of improv when presenting museum programs?

For more on the rules improv, click here, or check out Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

 

2 Comments

  • I think the problem stems from assuming two things:
    1. Kids know what a rain forest is.
    2. City kids know what a forest is.

    I remember once telling a young child riding her trike to stop at the corner and after this good child missed three corners in a row,and a follow-up question, it became clear she didn’t know what a corner was!

    Ah – vocabulary. I think the best bet is to assume no one knows the words in the script until and unless they’ve studied for SAT tests in late HS.

  • [...] Over at the Tufts Museum Studies blog, Madeline Karp has posted the latest entry in the Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic series, “Whose Program is this Anyway?” [...]

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