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Conquering Fears on the Improv Stage

Published on August 11, 2023 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 6 months ago


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Huijie (Jade) Feng, PhD

Huijie (Jade) Feng, PhD, began her improv career to conquer her fears of public speaking.

By Kate Knab

Consider, for a moment, the way you walk. Maybe it's a touch too fast, maybe it's a loping stride. Now imagine someone tells you to straighten up, lead with your head. Lead with your chest or your knees. It's probably uncomfortable at first, and odds are you will feel a little silly. But for Huijie (Jade) Feng, PhD, that silliness cultivates self-awareness, growth, and healing.

Dr. Feng is a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Neurology at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where she studies rare genetic epilepsy to better understand possible disease mechanisms and develop therapeutic treatment options for patients. Although she enjoys her work and how collaborative her lab is, Dr. Feng shared how easy it is to become tunnel-visioned in the world of academia. This, combined with a period of grieving in her personal life, created a need for escape. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of improv classes, she did what most of us probably would not do.

She led with her heart, and she went for it.

"I wanted to do something that scared me," Dr. Feng said. "When we're scared of something, we conjure up this monster that we cannot conquer. But when we actually start to do it, you realize it's not that scary at all. You start to have fun. That's how I feel performing on stage."

During her first improv show at a comedy club in Philadelphia, Dr. Feng sat in the audience with several members of her bereavement support group. Three actors took cues from the audience, who shouted out a request for the familiar scene of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. But in improv, it is more fun to think outside the boat, so to speak. Why act as George Washington when you could perform as the river? Or perhaps as a sea monster trying to wreck the rowboat? Which is exactly what the actors did.


Dr. Feng (not pictured) completed six improv classes before her first live performance this summer.

Since her first experience as an audience member, Dr. Feng has completed six improv classes, and had her debut live performance this summer.

"The first skill you learn in class is to say 'yes, and' to everything your scene partner raises because you're trying to build a story," she said. "I appreciate the communication skills I have gained from active listening and active reacting to what other people say."

Dr. Feng favors a more sarcastic, dead-pan delivery, while others in her class of 12 are more "vibrantly" humorous, giving themselves entirely to a scene. Several students want to become actors or comedians, but the majority represent different walks of life and, like Dr. Feng, are simply trying something new. The varying skills and expertise bring a level of harmony and humor to each scene as participants react to and support each other throughout the performance.

But getting on stage is only the first hurdle. Improv does not require script memorization, but it does require you to be quick on your feet. Dr. Feng had to figure out how to deliver humor in English, which is not her native language. She had a difficult time understanding popular culture and sports references. With some guidance from her teacher, Dr. Feng quickly learned that sometimes her perceived shortcomings give her an advantage.

"My instructor told me I could still be funny by interpreting a joke or reference as I understand it," Dr. Feng said. "I can create an even funnier scenario because I'm breaking other people's expectations of what they think the scene means."

For anyone interested in improv, Dr. Feng encourages attending a show, if only to see what it might be like to break out of your comfort zone. It has been a great opportunity for Dr. Feng to test boundaries and meet people outside of academia.

"Improv brings people together," she said. "Laughter really heals."