Theater of public policy

Jon Hokenson, Editor

Park University’s Speech and Debate team and the Pi Kappa Delta Honor Society welcomed The Theatre of Public Policy on Oct. 2. The Theater of Public Policy is a traveling improvisational comedy group that uses current political events, laws, bills and other policy issues as their sketch material.

“People can be a little skeptical at first of the novelty of what we do,” said artist Keren Gudeman, who said she’s been performing with the group for seven years. But she said most audiences end up seeing it as a refreshing way to engage in educational life.

The group often uses classic improv exercises. One example is the three-headed actor, which is a common improv comedy mainstay. Three performers share the stage close together and respond to shouted audience prompts one word at a time from left to right.

For the Theatre of Public Policy, instead of ideas shouted from the audience, topics were the result of group discussions about the recent news.

Two of the questions the group tackled were: “should politicians be allowed to have Twitter accounts?” and “can you use a nuclear bomb to destroy a hurricane?”

“I thought the improv show was a great way to engage students and facilitate discussion,” said junior communication studies major Taylor Dumsky. She said the humorous environment made her feel more comfortable with the idea of expressing a differing or dissenting opinion.

Park Assistant Professor of Political Science Matthew Harris, Ph.D., says he thinks this eased environment is important to effective discourse.

“Comedy mixed with the serious discussion really opens people up,” said Harris. “I feel like it’s a good idea to mix humor with some serious topics in a way that makes people open to having a good substantive conversation.”

Harris said these discussions are particularly important for college students, so he tries to use his own humor, with debatable results, in his classes.
“Students are the people who will be here 60 years from now. Given my diet, I probably won’t be,” said Harris.

He said he encourages student involvement in politics at any level, be it local or state because, “they have a voice and they have a perspective.”

Associate Professor of Communication Lora Cohn, Pd.D., said she organized the event to highlight the value of civic dialogue and communication. In addition to her teaching duties, Cohn also coaches Park’s speech and debate team. She said she thinks the skills learned from speech and debate mirror those promoted by The Theatre of Public Policy.

“It’s important to have your own ideas and have your own voice, but it’s also important to listen to other people,” said Cohn.

She said using humor as a lens to view serious topics can also open a person’s mind to seeing how some of their own views might be absurd from someone else’s point of view.

“‘I don’t like so and so because they voted for Trump,’ or ‘I don’t like so and so because they voted for Hillary Clinton,’’’ said Cohn. “I can realize through this kind of show how silly that is then maybe we can get back to a better place.”

The group doesn’t have specific plans for returning to Park or Kansas City, but said they would be happy to do so and hoped their audience had as much fun as they did.

“With improv if you’re having fun on stage that’s your only real measure of success,” said Gudeman. “Were we having fun? Were we in the moment? Maybe not every scene hit but we’re working together as a team, so there’s lots of ways to talk about being successful.”