7 Questions AIN Conference Interviews

Keynote Speaker: Aretha Sills

The AIN conference team is very excited that Aretha Sills will be a Keynote Speaker at the world conference this summer and has agreed to share her insights and resources.

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work?

  • Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition, by Viola Spolin (Northwestern University Press)
  • Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows by Paul Sills (Applause Books)
  • Handbook of Recreational Games by Neva Boyd (Dover Books)
  • The biography of Viola Spolin found at www.violaspolin.org/bio

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?

Play is a form of liberation, and there is nothing like seeing people experiencing freedom on a regular basis, not that it’s always easy. Even brief moments of freedom can inspire the search for more—for my father Paul Sills this is a political idea as well. Viola Spolin’s whole teaching method is a way to liberate ourselves mentally and physically from the invisible and visible strictures that bind us.

3. What do you love most about the idea you are speaking about?

I’m speaking about the origins of improvisational theater in America, with stories and photos from the originators that show how modern and relevant they were. I’ve found that it’s eye opening to audiences to see that progressive women created this field and that their ideas were so radical people are only now beginning to see how necessary they are to democracy, community, and personal expression. It’s also a family history, and they were fascinating people, so I love to share their stories.

4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme:  Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications Of Improvisation In Society?

Communicating beyond borders actually describes how improvisational theater emerged in America through the work of Neva Boyd, Viola Spolin, and Paul Sills. Neva Boyd was a social worker, teacher of social work, and theorist of play. She was involved in the recreation and playground movements in the Progressive era in early 20th century Chicago, and she used play to integrate recent immigrants into the existing culture. Viola was a child of immigrants who loved to play, and who studied social work with Neva Boyd. Later, when she taught theater in her community to children and immigrants, she needed a non-verbal way to communicate complex theatrical concepts to her students, and her education in the uses of play as a teaching method helped her to create theater games, though as she said, she was more interested in transformation than assimilation. Viola’s son Paul Sills created new theatrical forms based on their ideas, and brought their work to the world. It’s been reaching across boundaries and inspiring new forms in many fields ever since.

5. Favorite form of communication?


6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

As Neva Boyd argued, play is like a natural incubator for Jane Addams’ idea of social ethics–in other words that democracy doesn’t work unless we each get out of our own cultural sphere and get to know people who are not like us, and try to understand what they need. Many of Viola Spolin’s theater games actively embody this idea. We learn social ethics through play because we need others to play most games, so there’s a built in incentive to work through disagreements and compromise to keep the game going.

And, as Viola Spolin says, true improvisation activates the intuition, which is an area of knowledge beyond prejudice, preconception, cultural strictures, cliche, and all the old rules that we live by mostly unconsciously. Focus allows us to see clearly (even if only momentarily) past the systems that divide us and make direct contact with each other. I don’t think it’s a secret that we desperately need this right now.

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

I’ll be teaching improvisational theater, improvisation for writers, and using improvisation to devise new material around the U.S. and internationally. You can find info about upcoming workshops at www.violaspolin.org.

I direct a troupe called The Predicament Players (after a Spolin quote: “the only real joke is the human predicament”) and we recently launched an interactive show of Spolin’s theater games in L.A. Unified School District elementary schools, primarily in low-income areas, that will be starting up again this fall. Many of the children in the audience have never seen live theater, let alone adults playing with abandon! They are the best audiences in the world. We focus on creative problem solving through play and how play helps groups work together happily.

Bio:  Aretha Sills Sidecoach Aretha Sills is the granddaughter of Viola Spolin. She studied theater games for many years with her father, director Paul Sills (creator/director of The Second City and Story Theater), and has conducted workshops for Paul Sills’ Wisconsin Theater Game Center, Bard College, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Stockholm International School, Sarah Lawrence College, and Northwestern University. She has worked with Tony- and Emmy-Award winning actors and has trained faculty from Northwestern, DePaul, Columbia College, The Second City, The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, LAUSD, CETA, and many other institutions and schools. She is the Associate Director of Sills/Spolin Theater Works and she directs The Predicament Players. Aretha created and directs a theater game show that tours Los Angeles public elementary schools. 



Aretha Sills working with a group of international educators in Stockholm, 2017. Photo by Vega Ebbersten.

Keynote Speaker – Dr. Raquell Holmes

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work? 

You can hear what I say about my work. I have been having conversations with scholars, women leaders and computer engineers. I invited the independent scholars of the Ronin Institute to “Create, Perform Life Theater“. I spoke with Felicia Davis of the Black Women’s Collective on elevating Black women’s voices. I spoke with Drs. Kyla McMullen and Jeremy Waisome hosts of Modern Figures about becoming a scientist and creating improvscience.

For those committed to reading, these linked articles from both mainstream and academic publications put my work in context: Nature article on Spontaneous Scientists, comments on Black Women in Computing and the academic journal article STEAM: Using the Arts to Train Well-Rounded Scientists.

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?

I am inspired by scientists who are passionate and generous in their work. And I am motivated because many are limited by the techniques they possess to share their thinking and engage in productive dialogue, particularly when constrained by work hierarchies. These bright scientists have a hard time asking questions and sharing ideas and don’t know how to get around it. I help scientists work within these boundaries, and it’s using improvisation. I’ve seen the change happen. Together we create an environment in which they can grow and give their technical expertise with their humanity. They become better communicators and collaborators. Their work, their lives and the world improve. That’s inspiring.

3. What do you love most about the idea you are presenting/speaking about?

I love sharing the philosophy and the results of our work helping people talk confidently about things that they thought they could only say to themselves, or that they dreamt about but didn’t know how to bring into existence. I love sharing that it’s possible to build environments and teams that help people become greater at what they do, whether they are graduate students learning to speak about their ideas assuredly, women seeking to advance their careers or leaders of science organizations who need to grow and innovate. It’s what I’m working on all the time with my clients and with the folks who participate in the Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research conference that I chair. These are hundreds of professionals who are removing boundaries between science, art and the public. Some I work with directly, yet everyone leaves these environments having discovered a new lasting approach to their work.

 4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme:  Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications of Improvisation in Society?

I love the theme. Too often we see borders or barriers where they do not need to exist. In the world of science, it can be that our areas of expertise are different, so we don’t have a common language. Or that our work is done independently, so we go for long stretches without talking with others, and our conversational muscles are weak. Building ensembles in science helps us move beyond our silos to be part of the larger world picture in a tangible way. The trick in communicating beyond is that to succeed we have to focus not on beyond, but on where we are, on the person in front of us who we need to reach. That’s where improvisation comes in. Improvisation in society helps us to see what we have to offer and supports where we want to go. Beyond.

5. Favorite form of communication?

Does play count? We learn so much about one another in play, but I don’t think it’s formally recognized as a mode of communication. Otherwise, I love conversation. Short, meaningful, interested in one another conversation.

6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

  • Through improv people can see that it is possible to create new things in the world. Together, we can create more than we can imagine or do by ourselves.
  • There’s a calming, caring experience that comes with creating things together. That is why improv can be socially therapeutic.
  • Gives us the courage and the means to step out of our boundaries—both self-imposed and culturally-imposed

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

Going to Japan! At the Global Faculty Development initiative at the University of Tokyo, I will teach about integrating improv in science education. Before that trip, I will be in New York City leading the conference: Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research www.cestemer.org. Artists, performers, scientists and engineers will be sharing playful, creative works in progress. We’re excited to be international and inclusive. I think together, AIN and CESTEMER, are a beautiful version of Arts and Science.

Dr. Laura Lindenfeld, Executive Director at The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science ®

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work?

If I understood you, would I have this look on my face? by Alan Alda

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?

The amazing team at the Alda Center and the scientists we serve.

3. What do you love most about the idea you are presenting/speaking about?

I love most that I get to practice what we preach every time I speak – connecting with rather than presenting at!

4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme: Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications of Improvisation in Society?

If we don’t cross borders and transcend boundaries through our communication, we’ll never create the change we need. I love this theme.

5. Favorite form of communication?

Face to face

6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

First, improv fosters connection, which creates empathy and facilitates real listening. Second, because improv is fun, spontaneous, and joyful, and goodness knows, we need more joy in this world!

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

I look forward to doing more reflective writing and to spending some time relaxing in the summer sunshine!

Bio: Dr. Laura Lindenfeld is Executive Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and Professor in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She holds a Ph.D. in cultural studies from the University of California, Davis. As the Alda Center Director, she oversees a dynamic organization that has trained over 12,000 scientists worldwide and introduced over 40,000 to the Alda Method®. The Center provides international leadership in conducting and connecting research and practice to advance clear and vivid science and medical communication.

As a communication researcher, her work draws inspiration from the idea that we can make better, more informed decisions about how we shape our collective future. She is passionate about supporting scientists to communicate their work in more direct and engaging ways. Her work focuses on how we can advance meaningful, productive interactions with communities, stakeholders and decision-makers by strengthening linkages between knowledge and action. Much of Laura’s research focuses on environmental and sustainability communication. Her work seeks to understand how we can support effective stakeholder engagement and build strong interdisciplinary teams and communicate our science more effectively and persuasively.

Laura’s work has appeared in a range of journals such as Science Communication, Ecology & Society, Environmental Communication, Sustainability Science, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and Food & Foodways. Feasting Our Eyes. Food Films, and Cultural Identity in the United States (2016), her co-authored book with Fabio Parasecoli, was published by Columbia University Press.

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work?

I recommended my next book (with the working title, Improvised Interactivity). If you cannot wait, I recommend one of my early 2003 books, Design Your Own Games and Activities: Thiagi’s Templates for Performance Improvement that presents a structure for spontaneity. This book explores how to take serious things lightly and light things seriously.

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?

The reaction of people, individually and in groups. to my performances. Especially, the delayed reaction of people who call me six months later to claim that something I did changed a part of their life. These types of comments keep me inspired – and humble.           

3. What do you love most about the idea you are presenting/speaking about?

The combination of personal experience and scientific evidence. It is nice to know that what I learned from real life is proven by empirical research. The presentation is autobiographical and describes how I crashed through locked gates that tried to keep me away. I love the fact that it may entice some people to tilt windmills.   

4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme:  Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications Of Improvisation In Society

Politicians and exploiters are out to erect more borders and barriers to separate people for personal gain. This devious plot is spreading around the world at an exponential rate. By enabling us to authentically play and laugh with everyone else, improvisation provides us with a set of tools for being ourselves and discovering the essential universality among all human beings.

5. Favorite form of communication?

I prefer direct communication instead of indirect, assertive communication instead of accommodative, expressive communication instead of subdued, informal communication instead of formal, playful communication instead of serious, person-oriented communication instead of status-oriented, spontaneous communication instead obsessively planned. While I can fake expertise and enjoyment of face-to-face conversations, I love the written mode of communication.

6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

I don’t know. I don’t know. (Also see answer to #4! 🙂 )

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

I am consolidating my areas of interest into a common core of principles. It will be a slim book, probably published posthumously.

Sivasailam Thiagarajan, Ph. D.
(812) 332-1478
4423 E Trailridge Road
Bloomington, IN 47408 

Nancee Moes, MFA Improvisation Instructor at Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work?

The Second Circle by Patsy Rodenburg

Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson
Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin

2. What inspires you most to do what you do?
Nancee Moes, Improvisation Instructor

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
Hands down: the scientists. All the time I am meeting and working with incredible human beings from all over the world who are doing curiosity and problem-driven work that makes the world a better place. I could never do what they do, and so to be able to bring what I do well to what they do well, and then to enable them to communicate it more effectively, it is truly an honor and a pleasure.

3. What do you love most about the idea you are presenting/speaking about?


4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme: “Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications of Improvisation in Society”?

There is a clock tower at the center of the campus where I did my undergraduate studies, and at its base there is carved a quotation by Paul Hindemith, “People who make music together cannot be enemies, at least not while the music lasts.” Whether improvisation is musical, or theatrical, or conversational, its very nature calls for collaboration. Creating something together in real time—playing together—means we must not only seek to affect others but also allow them to affect us, and I cannot think of anything more sorely needed in this divisive world.

5. Favorite form of communication?


6. Share at least 2 reasons why you think the world needs improv.

Because we must unlearn the habit of focusing on our own perspective, our own thoughts, our own ideas, at the expense of others. When we are young we give generously of our attention and focus outside of ourselves because we must; we are learning so much all the time and our developing brains gift us with the ability to be fully and utterly present. We lose this as we age—even more so nowadays—and improv offers a way to relearn what we used to know.

Play! This is where curiosity and creativity and ingenuity flourish. To play and to play together, is the best way for collaboration to ignite.

7. What else are you doing in the near future?

This Spring and Summer are marked by work on the Alda Center’s online workshops—developing curricula and facilitating sessions. I’m keen to expand what I’ve learned in this process to other areas: the courses we teach and the workshops we facilitate.

On my own time I’m excited to do some theatre this Summer (acting) and Fall (directing). As much as I love my job it is good every now and again to just do art for art’s sake :))


 Bio: Nancee Moes is a teacher, director, and performer. When she’s not working on new curricula she teaches undergraduate and graduate students, pushing them to develop skills in presence, audience connection, and personal investment. She is also the coordinator for Science Unplugged, a program where she coaches 30-minute talks that Stony Brook graduate researchers develop about their work, then ‘tour’ in local high schools.

Nancee earned her BA’s in both Communication and Writing from Grand Valley State University and completed her MFA in Dramaturgy at Stony Brook University.  She is the recipient of the ’17-’18 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Adjunct Teaching and an honorary member of the Golden Key International Honor Society. Few things excite her more than embodied performance, and she is thrilled to be able to connect this passion with helping scientists engage audiences in their community, in other fields, and in the world at large.


Elizabeth Bojsza – Assistant Professor of Practice, Improv Lead 

1. What should people read if they want to understand your work.

If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on my Face? by Alan Alda

2. What inspires you most to do what you do

I am inspired by our human drive to learn more about the world in which we live. I work with people who are used to applying their natural curiosity to scientific research, it is awesome to see them apply that same impulse of questioning and critical thinking to their communication about their work.  Gives me tingles every time!

3. What do you love most about the idea you are speaking about

I love the joy that our workshops can bring to people.  I love seeing participants leave reinvigorated to go back to their work with a renewed sense of purpose and an excitement to share that work with a broader audience.

4. What thoughts do you have about the conference theme – Communicating Beyond Borders and Barriers: Applications of Improv in Society

I have been thinking a lot about the role of scientists and science communication in civic engagement.  There are several areas of scientific research that have been politicized in recent years: things like climate change and vaccines, and things that scientists have always struggled to communicate– like uncertainty and significance.  Non-experts bring their preconceived ideas into communication about science, and those ideas can either be a barrier or a springboard for communication.

5. Favorite form of communication

I have a soft spot for handwritten letters, plays, and hugs.

6. Share at least two reasons the world needs improv

life is unscripted
improv skills are communication skills

7. What else are you doing in the near future 

At the Alda Center for Communicating Science, we are launching new workshops specifically for those working on studying climate change and for women in STEM fields.  We are also developing modules that focus on applying our core training to writing and to visual communication. We have a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline!

Bio: As lead of the creative team of improvisation faculty, Elizabeth is working to innovate and build on the already strong foundational curricula of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. She finds the skills of analysis and feedback she honed as a theatre artist directly applicable to facilitating experiential learning for scientists and medical professionals, and pulls from her over 15 years of academic and professional teaching and teaching mentorship to create powerful learning experiences for Alda Center workshop participants.