Psychology 24, Section 2

Exploring Psychology through Improvisational Comedy and Drama (1 unit, P/NP)

Professor Sonia Bishop and Mr. Adrian Vazquez
Monday 4:30-6:30, 3105 Tolman Hall (Beech Room), Class number: 41932

Have you ever wondered why focusing on external stimuli as opposed to your internal state can help you feel better? Why some people are more in tune with their own and their friends' mental states than others? Whether we can improve our attentional skills? How young children’s perceive the world? How we convey and recognize emotional states using our faces, voices and bodies? How status influences interactions?
The field of psychology allows us to address these questions from a scientific standpoint. Interestingly, many of the underlying concepts also inform the teaching, practice, and performance of improvisational theater. Improvisational theater has many forms ranging from simple party games (as in 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?') to unscripted full-length plays. It is used to explore a character’s goals, emotion, and relationships, and can provide a forum to examine issues that are of central interest to social psychology (e.g., challenging stereotypes). Here we interweave both these disciplines in order to introduce students to psychological concepts such as multi-modal emotional expression, object permanence and divided attention in an interactive and fun setting. Through improvisational exercises we will illustrate both how an understanding of psychology can improve improvisational comedy and drama and how experience with improvisational formats can in turn illuminate and bring to life a range of psychological concepts. In this course students will learn key psychological concepts through a combination of lecture and experiential learning. Each class will begin with a short lecture on a specific psychological concept followed by improvisational games to tackle understanding of the given concept in multiple modes, and culminate in a short class reflection and discussion. This seminar presupposes NO previous improv or theater experience, or knowledge of psychology. Some people who have not done improv before may find the notion intimidating, but we encourage you to give it a go! Think of it as a form of adult ‘play’ where we rediscover imagination and explore ideas, and where there is no ‘wrong’ way of doing it. We are happy to answer further questions about what it will entail by email ahead of the class. We expect this class to appeal to students with broad interests in psychology and also improvisation.
Trigger Warning: We will provide guidance on all exercises, however as we are asking for spontaneous creativity from participants, and we live in a society where problems and injustices are deep and real, there may be moments when these issues spontaneously appear in the content of the work. We ask that you bring understanding and patience for your own mistakes and those of others for the duration of this class, and the instructors will always endeavor to maintain a safe space for all.

We may possibly be joined by other guest instructors from the Bay Area improv community.

Instructor Bio

Sonia Bishop ( is an associate professor within the Department of Psychology. Her area of expertise concerns the brain basis of emotional and attentional processing and how this can go wrong in anxiety as well as other conditions. She is also a keen amateur improviser and a member of Pan Theater in Oakland where she has taken a number of classes.

Adrian Vazquez ( has a decade of experience teaching improvisational theater to people ages 14-74. He has studied improv at Bay Area Theater Sports, Bard College, Upright Citizens Brigade to name a few. Now he primarily coaches, practices, and performs at Pan Theater in Oakland.