It’s a Friday night in Wheaton and in a building at the corner of Front and Hale streets downtown, Brian Howell is acting out a scene about a cheerleading try-out.
“No Bethany, you’re great,” he says to one of the members of his musical improv troupe, Futon Music. “You’ll be a cheerleader next year!”
If you knew Howell was a professor at Wheaton, you could be forgiven for thinking he taught theater classes. In truth, he’s the chair of the anthropology department, where he teaches courses about globalization and culture theory, among others.
For Howell, who joined Wheaton’s faculty in 2001, acting and anthropology are deeply connected. He said he believes that improv exercises can help cultivate deeper understandings of ourselves.
“I’m not actually a cheerleader who is trying to best my best friend Bethany or whatever,” Howell said. “But, I can make that scene real by tapping into things that are real, that are true about me, or finding ways to make them true in that moment.”
Howell traces the beginning of his interest in theater to 2017 when he started getting to know Mark Lewis, professor of communication and director of Wheaton’s Arena Theater.
“Before 2017, I think I had a fairly conventional view of theater as ‘putting on a show,’” Howell said.
This perspective changed when Howell attended a 3-day workshop with Wheaton professors Andy Mangin, Mark Lewis and Michael Stauffer called “Theater as a Way of Knowing.” He said the workshop made him realize that theater is a “whole process of learning to know yourself, to read others better, to be present and to engage in these small moments of preparations that make the performance possible.”
Howell’s engagement with theater grew when his wife gave him improv comedy classes at Westside Improv as a Christmas present in 2021. She signed him up for a Level 1 class, and he said he was hooked from the very first session.
Howell played the piano as a child, but he hadn’t been able to channel his musical side for many years until joining Futon Music. In the improv troupe, he combines his love for music and theater.
Howell incorporates aspects of experiences at Westside Improv in his classroom. He said he believes that joy is a “great element of good learning,” and it can be achieved through improv theater games.
The games are usually light-hearted, like passing around an imaginary ball, or energetic, like Zip Zap Zop, a game where participants gesture with their hands and make eye contact in order to send “energy” to another participant around the circle.
“Something as simple as that makes everybody look at everybody else in the room and put their brains on something silly and momentary that allows them to be really present,” Howell said, “and then when they sit down again I find that they’re more relaxed, and they’re ready to engage.”
In an article in February for Christian Scholar’s Review, Howell wrote about his use of theater games in the classroom.
“Our Christian selves are formed through the physical, enacted lives we live,” he wrote. “Getting my students, and me, to improv our way out of our heads and into the room has been one of the most effective, and enjoyable, means of leading us all into the renewal of our minds.”
Sophomore anthropology major Elinor Hiller said Howell’s improv theater games have helped her focus in class. One day in the fall semester, she felt exhausted and run down before her culture theory class. But after a round of Zip Zap Zop, she said her mood improved.
“Within minutes, I felt like my head was clearer and I was more energized,” she said.
Howell said improv classes have made him a more compassionate and observant professor, helping him notice the anxiety of his students far faster.
“I can see just by their body language and their eye contact, not even just with me, but with the other people in the room, that they’re not having a good experience,” Howell said.
He also has become more flexible and less rigid when planning lessons. The flexibility of improv taught him that it’s OK to not get to everything that was planned for the day.
Howell said that the ritual of theater games at the beginning of class come from his studies as an anthropologist. Both anthropology and sociology, he said, are interested in whole person experiences and go beyond just minds and bodies. These fields emphasize connections with other people; this, he believes, is what improv is all about.
“You are up there with other people, you together are creating a world, a scenario which is happening in front of your audience, which is happening with you,” Howell said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Howell joined Wheaton’s faculty in 2011.