During the fall semester, aspiring engineers and business majors attended a USC School of Theatre improv class, many describing themselves as introverted or shy.
While in professor Debra De Liso’s classroom, they became her “hambones,” shedding self-consciousness to deadpan their way through a ballet dance-off or to perform a monologue in the voice and character of a bizarre relative.
De Liso’s “Improvisation and Theatre Games” is one of more than 200 USC courses offered each semester that is enjoyable and beneficial to students but outside of their particular field of study.
During the fall, more than 6,000 enrolled in offerings ranging from “3-D Animation and Character Design” to “Hip-Hop Music and Culture” to “Hussies, Harems and Housewives,” the eye-catching title for a course on architecture and women’s history.
On a recent evening, De Liso’s students acted out the “Stalking Assignment,” their nickname for a class project in which they observed a stranger in public and re-created that character in class. Brought to life that night: an agitated activist seeking petition signatures on Trousdale Parkway and an undergraduate having an all-too-public conversation with her boyfriend via cell phone.
“It’s just a world apart from the math and science I do all day,” said sophomore Yoav Schoss, who majors in astronautical engineering. “It’s a perfect escape.”
Among the other offerings for non-majors is “Practical Foundations of Comedy,” a USC School of Cinematic Arts course exploring the nature of the art, from early writings by Aristotle to the latest video on YouTube.
The course allows an aspiring comedian to learn about the craft through lectures punctuated by footage of comedic greats like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin or a clip from the raunchy comedy hit There’s Something About Mary.
Occupational therapy professor Kim Eggleston teaches a workshop that allows students to explore a number of creativity outlets, from authoring a humorous story to producing a comic strip.
One class project had an immediate benefit for a student who used a comic strip to apologize to his estranged girlfriend, who took him back, Eggleston said.
“The message is that creativity is impressive,” said Eggleston, who said she often receives emails from alums who seek her out for creative “pick-me-ups” when they feel bogged down by the stress of a new job or family responsibilities.
But while these courses may be an amusing distraction for students, they are nonetheless hard work.
Describing its essence, De Liso called improv “playwriting on your feet.”
She explained: “People might say this is just a fun class, but I think it’s really important for communication skills and learning to tap into emotions. A business major has to improvise in sales all the time. Improv takes a lot of courage.”
With that in mind week after week, as De Liso’s aspiring architects and psychologists succeeded in driving their classmates into fits of laughter, she never gave up on converting them into theatre majors.