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Helping Filipino Youth Prepare Their Communities for Disaster Response Using Theater Improvisation Games

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In my quest to prepare citizens for disaster, I found a natural process that small groups of 16 or fewer people use to solve urgent problems instantly. The desire to help and the ability to work together drive this process. And I discovered that these small group abilities could be practiced using theater improvisation games. I created the Heroic Improvisation curriculum to help everyone get ready for disaster in a fun, low-cost way. Participants increase their ability to make choices together for future high-stakes events in a low-stakes practice environment. The Heroic Improvisation Workshop was designed with theater games to give small groups confidence in disaster through practice. Derived from improvisational theater concepts in a low-cost format, the Heroic Improvisation Workshop gives groups experience in responding to situations where there is no script. Participants increase their ability to make choices together for future high-stakes events in a low-stakes practice environment. In the Heroic Improvisation Workshop, the participants practice the innovation abilities of: • sharpening perception (Step 1: Alert), • finding resources and overcoming communication barriers (Step 2: Ready), • forming a team quickly (Step 3: Connect), • focusing attention to solve the problem (Step 4: Focus), • moving into action together (Step 5: Move).


The Heroic Improvisation Workshop helps people help themselves, catalyzed by fun and laughter. Small groups are the building blocks of communities. When small groups are prepared and resilient, the entire society benefits. This idea will be implemented in poor communities in Manila, the Philippines.


Urban slum dwellers in Manila are the most affected by severe weather events. Third World Improv (Manila) and Heroic Improvisation (Washington, DC) will train urban youth on small group abilities and Fluid Leadership necessary to respond to extreme weather events using theater improvisation games. Youth (18-24 y.o.) are generally interested in disaster, environment, service, working in groups and having fun. Therefore, training youth to help their communities prepare for future disasters in a fun way is good fit. In February 2014, we piloted the Heroic Improvisation curriculum to 12 groups in 4 regions of the Philippines. We had 216 Filipino participants complete the training, ranging in age from 10 to 70 years old and groups such as airline staff, conference center staff, disaster survivors, emergency response staff, an indigenous tribe and school staff. We have found when we get Filipinos to practice for disasters through low-stakes improvisation games, they get curious about the knowledge and skills needed to be ready for disaster. The improvisation games in the Heroic Improvisation curriculum become the fun gateway to motivate gaining other knowledge and skills about disaster. Our proposed training uses improvisation techniques to build a stronger team, and introduce participants to Fluid Leadership, Heroic Improvisation and Disaster Preparedness. At the end of the training, the team will generate a project idea to reach out to their community to experience disaster preparedness and measure the impact of their training


  • Yes, for two or more years


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years


  • Yes


Mary Tyszkiewicz, Ph.D. , founder of Heroic Improv, is an expert on small group innovation and program evaluation. Gabe Mercado is a native Filipino, a corporate trainer, and a man who has a passion for helping Filipinos help themselves. He is the also the founder of Third World Improv in Manila.


I have been working on the Heroic Improvisation workshop idea since 2011. Since then, I have run this workshop with hundreds of people in the U.S. and Philippines. In the 15-day Filipino pilot process in 2014, Gabe Mercado and friends harnessed 80 days of volunteer effort to bring the workshop to 12 groups in 4 regions of the Philippines. We had 216 Filipino participants complete the training in English, Tagalog or Waray, and ranging in age from 10 to 70 years old. We brought the workshop to: • 3 groups of trainers, • 4 groups of employees (airline, conference center, and school), • 3 groups of disaster survivors, • 1 group of emergency responders, and • 1 indigenous tribe. The most dramatic outcomes for the 3-hour workshop came from the disaster survivors. Through the workshop process, survivors told emotionally poignant stories of how they got through the storm. The workshop facilitated survivors uncovering their own heroism through their own experience.


Heroic Improvisation (HI) for disaster preparation is different in many ways. 1. Traditional disaster exercises focus on Knowledge (what to do) and Skills (how to do it). The HI workshop (HIW) is different because it focuses on Abilities - how a small group works in a high-stakes event. 2. Disaster exercises are boring. Heroic Improvisation workshop is fun, using improv games. 3. Disaster exercises sometimes feel distant from how things work in a high-stakes situation. HI improv games help participants feel like they are in a high-stakes event, while practicing using low-stakes games. 4. HI is accessible for all levels (officials, 1st responders and citizens) to practice. 5. Disaster exercises can be expensive. HIW uses actors and imagination to practice for disaster. When we did the workshops after Super-Typhoon Haiyan, we did the games in places without roofs or electricity. 6. We can train youth to learn these games to share with their communities. 7. We can also train the youth to document the impact of how Heroic Improvisation training catalyzes local communities to be prepared for disaster. 8. HIW transcends language. The concepts and games are universal.


I have had the experience of working with young (18 to 24 year old) American disaster volunteers, who were able to document innovations during Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012. I believe we could do something similar with Filipino youth. I also would like to use text-based data collection techniques. I also believe that the youth would come up with their own disaster preparedness projects, which would be tailored to their communities. I have not been able to pilot this idea yet.


Current Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) planning is focused on governmental units, not citizens. In a disaster, the first responder is the citizen. I have found when people care and connect in small groups of 16 or fewer, they can solve problems they have never seen, with people they have never met, in an instant. This small group innovation is under-documented. I believe that people help themselves frequently in high-stakes situations. What the HIW does is just help people feel CONFIDENT that they could move into useful action in a crisis. And it is fun. We need more people feeling confident about helping each other to solve our current issues.


We learned amazing stories of Filipinos helping themselves through the Heroic Improvisation Workshop. We found in our pilot that applied improvisation techniques work in disasters to help: • save lives, • transcend language and • support diverse people and groups to find solutions in an instant. Feedback from Filipino participants about the workshop was uniformly positive. Representative comments were: • Fun, experiential workshop • Easy-to-follow Heroic Improvisation process • Imaginative disaster simulations help to practice the process • Anyone can be the leader • Everyone can join in and support the action


We would like to take this initiative worldwide, with youth groups as leaders. Our current effort is implemented at the grassroots with volunteers. Youth groups would start preparedness efforts with HIW for their community to practice small group ABILITIES for high-stakes situations. They would collaborate with local Red Cross to teach KNOWLEDGE of natural disaster and SKILLS to prepare. The youth would measure the impact of community preparedness. And in a disaster, youth could document the innovation they see around them. Youth would take the lead in TRAIN the TRAINER for disaster preparedness and impact of disaster training. And youth and communities would have fun doing the training.

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

Filipino communities found their own insights to solve problems through our project. Engagement with the issues experientially is a great way to start design thinking in communities. Three examples from our 2014 pilot: 1. Professional Manila-based trainers immediately began to update their earthquake knowledge and skills. 2. Special needs school staff saw how disaster abilities track with how they handle challenges with their students daily. 3. The Subic Bay Deputy Fire Chief saw that HIW is a great way to engage citizens in disaster preparedness and volunteered to use his weekends to run workshops for the local community. When we do this with more communities, those communities can generate their own insights. And HI will document these grassroots insights for all to use. See Gabe Mercado's December 20, 2015 comment below for examples of local and national Filipino groups we plan to partner with in demonstrating how grassroots resilience projects can work in Metro Manila.


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Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

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Expert Feedback Comment 3: Sustainably Scale Approach Beyond Improvisation and with Local Partners

In our initial work in the Philippines, we found that many repetitions frequently is a good way to rapidly improve the program. We also used this same pattern to train new people to train other communities in Heroic Improvisation. Our pilot project was a grassroots effort, funded by family, friends and volunteers. With more resources, we plan to keep this same successful pattern of many, small, and fast iterations to improve the youth program. As the program improves, we can use alumni from previous programs to help teach the next community. In this Open IDEO effort, we will collaborate with the local Philippine Red Cross and emergency responders to teach the disaster knowledge and skills to the youth groups. To make this effort sustainable over the long haul, we are searching for a well-funded local partner organization to help communities help themselves be resilient to climate change. This partner organization would monitor on-going projects, book new communities for training and collect evaluation information the youth generates from each community. With more and more grassroots inputs, we would improve the program and document how small communities are coming up with their own creative solutions to resilience. As a grassroots effort with on-going funding, we envision this work as a sustainable curriculum that can be maintained by local community centers and schools. We also would enroll the leaders of the local government units (barangay captains) to link our efforts as input to government activities. We are working on a comic book manual for Heroic Improvisation that will be easily translatable to the many languages in the Philippines, once we expand outside of Metro Manila. Images are a powerful way to communicate important information to large communities.  See also team-member Gabe Mercado's list of local partners in his comment below from December 20, 2015.

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Expert Feedback Comment 2: Trauma and Local Participant Project Support

Because the Philippines has so many natural hazards, most Filipinos have been disaster survivors in their own lifetimes. This is another reason the Philippines is good testing ground for global climate change resilience projects. In our proposed project, we will collaborate with local Filipino social workers in the communities. Improv games were created in the 1930s in the U.S. through collaboration between social workers and actors to help U.S. immigrants. Social workers have been great collaborators for our U.S. project and they helped us handle trauma issues as they come up in the workshops. We will adapt our training based on our Filipino experiences and the expertise of our collaborating social workers. The goal of our Filipino pilot is for the local youth groups to bring their projects for community resilience to fruition. Depending on funding, this project will work with one to three youth groups in Metro Manila urban slum communities. Currently, the pilot is envisioned as a four-month project, in four phases. Phase I is an initial 4-day intensive leadership training of the youth, at an off-site location. Phase II is four 1/2-day training sessions over four weeks to develop the youth groups' disaster knowledge, skills and abilities for resilient communities with collaborating local partners. Phase III is five 1-day sessions over five weeks for the youth to create their projects for their local communities with expert mentors. Phase IV is four 1-day sessions when the youth implement, document and evaluate their resilient communities projects.

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Expert Feedback Comment 1: Contribution to Broad Resilience Picture

Heroic Improvisation is ready for the next level in the broad resilience picture! The heart of our work is "helping people help themselves" catalyzed by fun improv games. The unit of action for resilient communities is groups of 16 or fewer solving problems confidently together. The games help participants experience small group abilities needed for resilient action. Plus, we make the experience of resilience simple and fun! This practice through improv games gives communities the confidence that they can solve other issues together. All people need to do is take their desire to help and ability to work in a small group, and they can solve any problem instantly, sometimes with people they do not know. We have documented that working together playfully helps refugees and disaster survivors use these same small group abilities to solve their current problems together. Instead of speaking conceptually about resilience, our improv games have them experience challenge and then overcome that challenge together in a small group. Our games reliably generate adrenaline in a low-stakes way, as a practice for high-stakes situations. We have many case studies from child migrant refugees in the U.S. and Filipino disaster survivors that show how improv games catalyzed communities to solve their own problems. (We are also working on a survey to measure the impact of the games.) They use the shared laughter as a building block for trust in community. Then, the community used that trust as problem-solving capacity to tackle current community issues. To me, community resilience is the ability for small groups to confidently tackle any challenge, existing, future or sudden. And our case studies show that improv games catalyze that confidence in a low-cost, time-efficient (5-60 minutes) and attractive way. As an experiential technique, our participants make their own discoveries about problems they can solve together, inspired by these playful games. These games are a great way to jump-start what being a resilient community feels like at the grassroots level. The games can be used to catalyze small groups in communities to encourage local input into resilience activities.

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Thanks so much for the questions Chioma!

A big chunk of our curriculum has already been adopted and is being spread nationwide by Gawad Kalinga ( after the designer of their disaster preparedness program worked with us and participated in our initial rollout in 2014 and so we are quite confident that many parts of the program can be scaled and adapted to the very specific needs of unique communities throughout the country. In fact in their final curriculum, the heroic improv part is matched with hard skills such as first aid and knowledge such as disaster maps to comprise a multi day DRR program.  Additionally, aside from GK, I have worked in the past with organizations such as Dakila ( and RockED Philippines ( and am confident that we can get their help and collaborate with them to spread the knowledge and skills throughout their network.  Within government, we are also optimistic that we can get some help from the National Youth Commission ( in rolling out the project as well and this would be perfect for we do recognize that there needs to be strong youth participation across different communities and economic groups for a project like this to achieve critical mass.

I hope this answers some of the questions!

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Chioma -- We are thrilled to be a finalist and excited to answer the expert questions.  Our team is working with our Filipino partners to get clear answers to the expert questions.  We are very excited about the next steps!

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Hi Mary! 

Below is some feedback shared by our experts! We'd love to read your responses!

This is a very exciting idea. I'm a big fan already. It is a very innovative approach that addresses the restrictions of most community-based disaster risk reduction activities, promoting participation and new skills. I totally get it -the idea is commendable. However there is one important point that deserves further exploration by the team. I think there is a strong emphasis in supporting DRR activities, but 'resilience' is a different approach. Resilience is not only about 'how to respond' to an event, but also how we maintain what exists, how we prepare and how we recover. Exploring how the method proposed contributes to a broad resilience picture will take the idea to the next level.

If participants are past disaster survivors, what mechanisms are in place to deal wtih potential traumatic memories? Will participants be supported in bringing their project ideas to fruition?

It'd be helpful to learn more about your next steps to scale this approach in the Philippines. What is your goal for the local communities? Can this become a sustainable curriculum that can be adopted and maintained by local community centers and schools? In addition to improv techniques, what other disaster training orgs can you bring into the conversation?

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Congrats on making it to the Feedback Phase Mary! We would love it if you can take some time to answer the new Refinement questions that we've added to your original idea submission form. To answer the new questions, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post. Scroll down to the entry fields of the new Refinement questions. Hit Save when you are done editing.

Also, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 11/16" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

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Great initiative Mary! This is a very interesting way to prepare Filipino youths for disaster response through improvisation techniques. Can you tell us a bit more about how you're planning to partner with Thrid World Improv in Manila? Have you piloted this program in other disaster-prone communities and what are some learnings that you might apply to the new program in Manila?

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Great question, Shane. Since 2014, I have been a partner in this work in the Philippines with Gabe Mercado - founder of Third World Improv. We piloted this work in the Philippines in 2014, where Gabe has an extensive network of collaborators. We would co-deliver the content of this program with native Filipino improv actors and disaster preparedness trainers to Filipino youth groups. There are THREE main learnings from our pilot work in the U.S. and the Philippines. 1. YOUTH GROUPS LOVE IMPROV I have piloted this work with the FEMA Corps, a national U.S. service program for 18-24 year old members, who work in teams of 10 to help disaster survivors recover and prepare for disaster in the U.S. Therefore, I know this initiative will work well with teams of youth. 2. IMPROV GAMES TEACHES ABILITIES IN A FUN WAY Adult training focuses on Knowledge, Skills and Abilities. Disaster exercises - in general - focus only on Knowledge and Skills. Therefore, there is a gap in testing your Ability to apply your Knowledge and Skills in a disaster. Heroic Improvisation focuses on the small group Abilities anyone needs to respond to a disaster. Through case studies and participant observation, we found our Heroic Improvisation participants were motivated to learn Knowledge and Skills, once they experienced the Abilities they need in disaster in a fun way.
The laughter makes the learning stick. The improv games are inexpensive, attractive and easily repeatable. When we brought these games to survivors of Super-Typhoon Haiyan 100 days after the storm, we did our workshop with no electricity in a school that still did not have a roof. All you need is skilled facilitators and a space to move around in. 3. LANGUAGE IS NOT A BARRIER WITH IMPROV GAMES The Philippines has 120 languages and I do not know any of them. Our Filipino collaborabors mostly knew Tagalog, which was not the language of disaster location, which was Waray. Improv games are so simple. Many have non-verbal elements. The instructions are easily conveyed in any language and the group can practice disaster abilities easily. We also used similar games with Central American child migrants in short-term care facilities in the U.S. The games transcended dialect differences in Spanish and helped those Guatamalan kids who did not have Spanish as a first language to participate fully in the games.

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Thanks for the comment Shane. Mary and I have a great working relationship. We pioneered this program in 2014 to 12 distinct groups and communities and we've found that her extensive background in disaster research and my experience in applied improvisation and facilitations compliment make for a great dynamic and the feedback has been quite positive. We are looking at ways to bring this initiative to more vulnerable communities throughout the country.