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    A handful of people stand in a circle at one end of the conference room, focusing intently but not entirely sure what they’re doing. A young woman takes a few steps toward the floor-to-ceiling windows, then stops. “Red ball,” she says, holding a handful of nothing out to the man in front of her. He takes it from her, careful not to drop it. “Thank you, red ball,” he replies.

    This is the first of many unusual exercises at an Improv for Clinicians autumn workshop, at the U of L medical school’s Kosair Charities Clinical and Translational Research Building. The event is a production of Second City, the famed improvisational comedy troupe whose many iconic alums include John Belushi and Tiny Fey. For Improv for Clinicians, performers Becca Barish, a licensed social worker, and Katie Kershaw, a bubbly Eastern Kentuckian happy to be back in her home state, lead the medical students and faculty in the games and participate in the antics. Once the three imaginary balls, each one a different hypothetical color, make their way around the circle, the group repeats the exercise with a pantomimed sleeping baby, $30,000 in cash and a dead rat. The moral? Good communication requires active listening.

    “Our thought process behind this workshop is that we can do these fun exercises and explore what skills are necessary to be successful in that exercise, and then how those same skills apply directly to the work they do,” Barish says. “So if we’re talking about people in the medical field: being agile, being in the moment, listening to what someone is saying, being self-aware, being aware of what’s going on with them and being very empathetic.”

    Second City has been holding pop-up improv classes for decades, reaching out to communities wherever they go on tour. Many of these workshops teach the finer points of the improv craft to aspiring comedians, but so-called “applied improv” workshops, especially those dealing with wellness, have become more popular in recent years. Improv for Clinicians fits right in with the medical school’s Being Well Initiative, which aims to prevent burnout by providing resources such as martial-arts classes and meditation training. “Half of physicians will burn out at some point in their career, which means that half of patients are dealing with a physician who has hit a wall,” says Karan Chavis, chief of staff at the medical school. “We also see this in medical students and residents.”

    Cardiologist Tao Liu is one of the workshop participants, and he says it’s a great way to help prevent misunderstandings in clinical practice. “The games are simple, but they do demonstrate profound truth,” Liu says.

    “When people come into these rooms, sometimes it will be a mix of people who have different work dynamics — people who are teachers, mentors or even counselors. When you’re in this space, everyone is equal,” Kershaw says. “And everyone is silly, everyone fails, everyone succeeds. We’re all just kind of in the room together.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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