Changing Through Laughter with “Laughter for a Change”

Laurel J. Felt & Ed Greenberg

"I really enjoy improv…In life you normally have to plan out your decisions and actions and, in improv, you just do it right there on the spot. [Improv]…gives me a way of expressing myself in the moment. You have fun, and everyone just loves what you do."

Bennett, 17 years old, participant in Laughter for a Change’s after-school improvisational theater program at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools Most youths identify the fun of improvisational theater (improv) as their takeaway from participation. Improv is fun! But when it comes to convincing skeptical educators of the value of improv, such a testimonial falls short for two reasons. First, because fun is not the sole outcome of participation; improv instructors always witness their students develop in multiple domains. Second, because the imperativeness of fun for learning (Barab, Arici, & Jackson, 2005)—that is, the necessity of enjoying the process in order to really learn—is not universally recognized yet.

Systematic observation, research, and analysis of Laughter for a Change (L4C)’s 2011–2012 after-school improv workshop revealed the program’s multiple impacts. Our data suggest that improvising creates a “safe space,” a supportive context in which participants feel empowered to take risks and play freely. Such a positive affective climate—in which, according to Bennett, “everyone just loves what you do”—facilitates meaningful learning (Meyer & Turner, 2006). In the case of L4C, this meaningful learning comprised identity exploration, great understanding between different generations, development of theatrical skills, and personal and social growth. Moreover, this learning did not occur despite the fun that the participants had—it occurred precisely because of the fun.

Improv