Taking a Cue from Improv

After watching a performance of Sci-Fi Double Feature–a mash-up of live video performance and puppet theatre– an enthusiastic patron asked the creators of the production: “How did you come up with this brilliant piece of work?”  They explained that their artistic differences could have hindered their collaboration, but instead synergized their talents pushing them beyond their comfort zones.  Edward Westerhuis, the animator/filmmaker, stated he learned from his partner’s improvisation skills, mainly by saying “yes” to any idea and playing with it until it led to something new. He also stated that saying “no” to an idea hinders the process, and is much more defensive and restrictive.  It made me think, could this approach work for multi-inter-trans-disciplinary research teams with disparate “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina 1999)?


Tina Fey, a known improvisation comedian states with her line of work you need to contribute by being open-minded and non-judgmental, always with the intention of saying “yes and” and with the goal of being part of the solution (2011: 85-85).  Paul Farmer a clinician-anthropologist states that complex life or death problems, he terms general problems, are commonly punctuated by, “this can’t be done” (2005b).  Like Fey, Farmer asserts that it’s better to say “yes, and” to continue the conversation so that originality, creativity, and innovation can flourish (2005b).

Yet, Farmer is realistic and asserts that innovation and progress require a change in the way disciplines collaborate (Farmer 2005a).  I whole heartily agree, as being a Master of Science candidate in an interdisciplinary faculty has allowed me to preview challenges faced in multi-inter-trans-disciplinary contexts.  As “research is essentially knowledge production” (Hall et al 2006:766), it would seem one’s epistemology, value judgments, and disciplinary allegiance –read as inter-personal barriers –are obvious places to begin transforming disciplinary work (LeLe and Norgaard 2005).   However, inter-personal barriers are only half of the equation (LeLe and Norgaard 2005).  For example, the academy is set up to maintain boundaries through granting agencies (Albert et al 2009; Hall et al 2006; Lamont 2009), academic appointments, publication processes, professional scopes of practice, regulatory bodies, professional associations, and medical and research hierarchies (Hall et al 2006).  Thus, true health science multi-inter-trans-disciplinary collaboration requires changes in disciplines relational understandings as well as transforming systemic structural level constraints (LeLe and Norgaard 2005).

Sci-Fi Double Feature may seem an inept example for health sciences researchers endeavoring to deal with general problems, but I disagree.  These artist-practitioners have come from different disciplines with different epistemologies, value systems, languages, theories and skill sets, yet they were able to collaborate to create an innovative production that pushes the boundaries of video and theatre.  Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health, did the same.  Through advocacy and persistent innovative thinking, he not only continued the conversation, but changed it for many individuals who believed that HIV medications were not “cost-effective” for resource-poor countries (Farmer 2005ab).  We should be like the Sci-Fi creators, Paul Farmer, and Tina Fey and respectfully think flexibly by saying, “yes, and.”



Albert, Mathieu with  Suzanne Laberge and Brian D. Hodges

2009  Boundary-Work in the Health Research Field: Biomedical and Clinician Scientists’ Perceptions of Social Science Research

Farmer, Paul

2005a  Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Los Angeles: University of California.

2005b  Pathologies of Power: Rethinking Health and Human Rights in the Global Era. 56:52 min. Calvin College. January 10.               http://www.calvin.edu/january/2005/farmer.htm, accessed February 4, 2014.

Fidler, Brian and Edward Westerhuis

2014  Sci-Fi Double Feature. http://www.ramshackletheatre.ca/shows/sci-fi-double-feature/, accessed February 4, 2014.

Fey, Tina

2011  Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Hall, Judith with Lesley Bainbridge, Alison Cribb, Jane Drummond, Carlton Gyles, T. Philip Hicks, Carol McWilliam, Barbara Peterson, Pamela Ratner, Elizabeth Skarakis-Doyle, and Patty Solomon.

2006  A Meeting of Minds: Interdisciplinary Research in the Health Sciences in Canada. Canadian Medical Association Journal 175(7): 763-771.

Knorr Cetina, K

1999  Epistemic Cultures:  How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Lamont, Michele

2009  How Professors Think : Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Pp. 53-106. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

LeLe, Sharachchandra and Richard B. Norgaard

2005  Practicing Interdisciplinarity. BioScience, 55(11): 967-975.


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