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Second City Joins Research Venture With U. of C.'s Booth Business School

By Ted Cox | February 1, 2017 5:46am
 Heather Caruso of the Center for Decision Research and Second City's Kelly Leonard explain their unlikely partnership.
Heather Caruso of the Center for Decision Research and Second City's Kelly Leonard explain their unlikely partnership.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

OLD TOWN — The Second City and the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business are forming an unlikely partnership to study human interaction in general and improvisational comedy in particular.

The city's premiere improvisational comedy shop announced at its Second City Training Center Monday that it would join the Booth School's Center for Decision Research in studying the "magic" behind improv comedy for clues to human interaction.

"Invention and creativity come from a lot of discomfort," said Kelly Leonard, executive director of insights and applied improvisation at Second City. He added that studying that discomfort, and the ways it can be relieved, and how that affects the creative process, "is sort of a natural weird next step for us."

 The University of Chicago's Center for Decision Research will study the Second City Training Center for keys to human interaction as played out in improv classes like this.
The University of Chicago's Center for Decision Research will study the Second City Training Center for keys to human interaction as played out in improv classes like this.
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The Second City

"Our commitment to understanding real human behavior makes this partnership a natural and exciting collaboration," said Heather Caruso, executive director of the Center for Decision Research.

"As any participant in improvisational exercises knows, these practices make it possible for each of us to more clearly recognize some of the most interesting aspects of our everyday human nature — our impulses, hopes, anxieties, habits and our untapped abilities to guide ourselves toward more fulfilling behavior through insight and practice. We look forward to sharing our findings in the classroom and beyond."

Caruso said it would give researchers an opportunity to get out of the lab and into the field to flex their rigorous data muscles in a setting designed to overcome natural human inhibitions.

Leonard called improv "yoga for your social skills," adding, "I've seen so many lives changed by this work."

According to Leonard, the findings could conceivably alter how Second City goes about teaching improv, while also having practical applications in fields like business or education.

"What if we taught elementary-school teachers games — improvisational games — that can achieve focus among a classroom of children?" Leonard said. "If that improved listening by 5 percent, that could change the world."

Calling the research center an "ideas partner," he added, "We suspect there's a lot there that's behind the things that we do."

Leonard laughed at the idea that, as Mark Twain once said, dissecting comedy was like dissecting a frog and would kill it. He said he was not concerned about Second City serving as a guinea pig.

"We're actually studying improvisation more than comedy," he said. "The improvisation produces comedy, but the improvisation is more about the human-to-human interaction."

It will also be sort of divorced from the comedy-factory elements of Second City, at least to begin, as next month researchers will monitor participants in the RewireU program designed as "improvisation for professional development."

The Second City Training Center, 230 W. North Ave., has previously worked with more than 600 companies through Second City Works, the business-to-business arm of the company's teaching programs.

Second City Chief Executive Officer Andrew Alexander said as unlikely as the partnership is, there's already a certain connection between the troupe and the university.

"When three University of Chicago alumni — Paul Sills, Bernard Sahlins and Howard Alk — founded the Second City in 1959," he said, "it would have been inconceivable to think that their work in improvisation would one day play a role in workplace behavior research at their esteemed alma mater."

Even so, Leonard predicted it would "affect every part of the business in a real powerful way."