Improv, College Advocacy's Best-Kept Secret

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Published in Israel Campus Beat and The Jerusalem PostNovember 6, 2012

By Chloe Kent, ICB Reporter

The connection between Israel advocacy and improv may not be immediately clear, but a growing number of student activists are realizing that they can learn a lot by harnessing their inner improvisational performer.

Last month, The David Project and Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies sponsored an event for New England-area college students at improvisational comedy theater Improv Asylum in Boston’s North End.

The idea for the event emerged from The David Project’s repositioning as an organization in the brand of advocacy they practice, “Improv offers a critical set of skills for being a successful Israel advocate,” said Jacob Levkowicz, The David Project’s New England campus coordinator, who helped facilitate the event. “At the end of the day, what we feel strongly about is finding common ground with students from other backgrounds. Part of that process is listening to what others have to say. That’s the idea of improv.”

"To succeed in improv, you need to listen," he continued. "You're never onstage alone."

The exercises taught at the workshop encourage active listening, quick responses, and personal engagement— all skills necessary for successful communication. “It’s a kind of a two-step approach,” Levkowicz said. “How do we change how people view Israel, and how do we find common ground with other students?”

“A lot of people think that doing improv means getting onstage and stealing the spotlight by channeling your inner Chris Farley in a Matt Foley-like frenzy,” said comedian Benji Lovitt, who was not involved in the recent workshop but has extensive experience performing Israel-related standup for Hillel, Birthright and Masa groups. “It's not true.

"To succeed in improv, you need to listen," he continued. "You're never onstage alone. You're part of a team of people who are both reacting to you and causing you to react. Unless you can both hear and listen to who they are, what they're saying, and what their character stands for, you're going to make yourself, your partner or the scene look bad."

Lovitt said that some of the same skills that make improv succeed can have similar impact on advocacy efforts. "When doing Israel advocacy, it's also critical to both listen and hear. Listening and remembering that you're not an improv or advocacy robot will help.”

Nearly four hours long, the event featured three components: Levkowicz and his colleagues led a personal narrative workshop in which each student had approximately eight minutes to share their personal connection to Israel in groups of three. This component emphasized taking a personal, conversational approach when discussing Israel. Next, comedy professionals led an improvisation workshop, which was followed by a performance by the professionals at the venue.

Levkowicz said the event represented a new approach to achieving the key goals of Israel advocacy.

“We want to emphasize that the way to change how people feel about Israel is by telling a story of why Israel is important to you, and when reaching out to other students, to try to find common ground and areas where you can work together.”