Improvisation is commonly understood as a performance or creating something without preparation. As an art form, improvised theatrical plays are created spontaneously on stage without a script. As an applied form of theatre, improvisation has been utilised in fields requiring collaboration and a tolerance for uncertainty, such as in the business and education sectors. This dissertation contributes to the literature in educational research by investigating applied improvisation as a tool to promote student teachers’ interpersonal competence. Applied improvisation enables individuals to explore and practise teaching-related encounters in a fictional and psychologically safe context. Psychological safety is particularly important when practising challenging interactions. Despite the fictionality of the context, bodily experiences during improvisations may promote experiential learning.
The research summarised in this dissertation was guided by two primary research questions. First, I asked whether improvisation training influenced student teachers’ interpersonal competence and social stress. Student teachers (n = 19) participated in a 7-week (17.5-h) improvisation intervention, comprising the fundamentals of theatre improvisation and status expression (verbal and nonverbal behaviours indicating the social dominance of a person). The impact of the intervention was measured using subjective self-reports (interpersonal confidence, i.e., belief regarding one’s capability related to effective social interactions, self-esteem and experienced stress) and a large array of physiological measurements (heart rate, heart rate variability, skin conductance, facial muscle activity, frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) alpha asymmetry and stress hormone cortisol). Self-reports, physiological measurements and Trier Social Stress Tests (TSST; including public speaking) were performed before and after the improvisation intervention. An improvisation course was arranged for the control group (n = 20) following the intervention study. One year later, the long-term effects of improvisation training on self-reported interpersonal confidence were measured in a follow-up study.
Second, I asked how real versus fictional social rejections impact experienced stress and psychophysiological responses. Student teachers (n = 39) participated in an experiment including both real (interview) and fictional (improvisation exercises) dyadic interactions. In the real condition, student teachers were unaware that the interviewer was an actor trained to include subtle social rejections during the interview by using three types of social rejections: devaluing, interrupting and nonverbal rejections. In the fictional condition, student teachers were informed in advance which social rejection type would be used during a later improvisation exercise. Experienced stress and psychophysiological reactivity during social rejections were measured under both experimental conditions.
Following an improvisation intervention, interpersonal confidence and its components of performance confidence and a tolerance for failure increased relative to controls, whilst one year later the improved performance confidence persisted. Furthermore, a heterogeneous treatment effect was found. Those with the lowest pretest interpersonal confidence score benefited most from the improvisation intervention. No between-group differences in self-esteem were observed. Psychological and physiological indications of relief from performance-related stress were also observed following improvisation training. In addition, interpersonal confidence moderated self-reported and cardiovascular stress responses. Thus, interpersonal confidence may be worth controlling for in future research which examines the effects of interventions aimed at relieving social stress. The results also support the notion that repetition may also diminish performance-related stress, since the control group exhibited decreases in cardiovascular stress during some of the test conditions.
The primary finding regarding the second research question emerged through the absence of any systematic attenuation of the psychophysiological reactivity to fictional versus real-world social rejections. In other words, although student teachers knew that improvised social rejections were fictional, their psychophysiological responses during improvisation remained relatively similar and associated with those of real-world rejections. It appears as though personal relevance and engagement during improvisation explain the relatively similar bodily responses. This result suggests that interpersonal encounters can be realistically modelled through applied improvisation.
In this dissertation research, I also produced a validated self-report measure, the Interpersonal Confidence Questionnaire (ICQ), to evaluate the impact of social interaction training relying on applied improvisation. Using an additional dataset (n = 208), I validated the questionnaire and examined the impact of improvisation training on a larger sample. A confirmatory factor analysis identified six factors—performance confidence, flexibility, listening skills, a tolerance for failure, collaboration motivation and presence—that contribute to interpersonal confidence. Thus, the ICQ appeared valid and reliable as a self-report measure of interpersonal confidence.
In summary, the findings from this research indicate that a relatively brief improvisation intervention promotes interpersonal confidence, specifically amongst those with low interpersonal confidence. Furthermore, improvisation training serves as an intervention against performance anxiety and generates long-term improvements to performance confidence. This dissertation provides a theoretical framework and empirical support for the application of improvisation as a tool to develop interpersonal competence skills, particularly within professions requiring face-to-face interactions. Regardless of the fictionality of the improvisational context, genuine emotions and experiences may emerge, serving as experiential learning experiences. The significance of these findings may extend to theatre-based practices and drama education in general, which rely on holistic action and personal engagement in fictional contexts. The findings agree with previous research, suggesting that including the improvisation method in teacher education curricula can enhance student teachers’ interpersonal competence as well as their skills related to sensitive and responsive teaching. Finally, this dissertation contributes to social neuroscience by recommending an ecologically valid experimental design wherein naturally unfolding social interactions can be achieved using improvisation techniques.
Keywords: experiential learning, fictionality, improvisation, interpersonal confidence, intervention, psychophysiology, social interaction, social rejection, social stress, teacher education, theatre-based practices