“Dental school students are often intimidated by working with patients,” says UCLA School of Dentistry Adjunct Professor Craig Woods ’78, D.D.S. ’82. “It’s one thing to do procedures on manikins and models and plaster extracted teeth. It’s totally different to work on a human being who’s anxious and upset.”

Woods’ key to getting proto-dentists to lighten up? Improvisational comedy.

When he is not filling, drilling or teaching, Woods performs with Jump Start Improv in Hermosa Beach, and for the past year he’s been sharing his enthusiasm offstage as well.

Last summer, Woods took a course called “Medical Improv: Train the Trainer Workshop” from University of Washington Professor Belinda Fu and Northwestern University Professor Katie Watson, who also teaches at the training center of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe. Woods then convinced the curriculum committee of the School of Dentistry to let him offer a similar class at UCLA.

He proposed improv as a way to teach dentistry students how to get on the same wavelength as their patients. “My pitch was that acting students don’t go into the first day of acting school and perform act 2, scene 4 of King Lear,” recalls Woods. “They break it down into all these little parts. So I said, ‘Let’s break down these improvisational skills and teach dentistry students how to read the emotion of their scene partners — the patient.’ That’s what this class attempts to do.”

To instill dentists-in-training with spontaneity, confidence and powers of nonverbal observation, Woods steers his charges through exercises like “Hello, Blank.” “You have two people in a scene,” he says. “One person decides, ‘OK, I’m going to portray this emotion.’ They walk up to their scene partner and say, ‘Hello, Name of Person,’ and they do it in whatever emotional state they’ve chosen to be in. The other person tries to guess the emotion just from the other person’s tone of voice and the way they walk.”

How does “Hello, Blank” apply to dental practice? “When you go into the operatory, usually you’re just thinking about how difficult the procedure is. Then you take one look at your patient and go, ‘Oh my God — I’m going to spend the next 10 minutes calming them down.’ As soon as a patient walks in, it’s important to pick up on how they’re feeling,” says Woods, who first enrolled in a Redondo Beach improv night class five years ago. “It felt very natural to me as this socially acceptable outlet for role playing and being whimsical.”

While Medical Improv is not expressly designed to show dentists how to get laughs from their patients, research suggests that a lighthearted chairside manner can yield other rewards. Woods cites a study from the University of Chicago that compared physicians who got sued with physicians who had never been sued. “They recorded a lot of office visits, and one thing they discovered is that doctors who never got sued were the doctors who used more humor.”