Dr. Ajay Heble

University of Guelph professor Dr. Ajay Heble has been awarded a 2023 Killam Prize, among the most distinguished research awards in Canada.  

A professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies and founding director of U of G’s International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI), Heble has received the $100,000 award in the humanities category. 

He is one of five winners of this year’s prize, which recognizes Canadian scholars with sustained excellence and impact in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences and engineering.  

“It’s an honour to receive such a prestigious award,” said Heble. Referring to colleagues at U of G and their national and international collaborators, he said, “This award is a testament to a great team of people I get to work with.”  

Calling him a globally renowned scholar, visionary arts leader and innovative community builder, the Killam citation said Heble “has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of musical and other forms of improvisation as vital models for social change.  

“Particularly noteworthy is the way in which this new field has addressed pressing issues of social and cultural transformation, human rights, transculturalism, pedagogy, the civic cooperation of aggrieved populations – issues central to the challenges of diversity and social cooperation in Canada.”  

Contributions to our understanding of improvisation

A longtime faculty member in the College of Arts, Heble has led studies of how improvisational practices can promote inclusivity, democracy and sustainability.  

“Improvisation is a powerful model for thinking about issues of social justice,” said Heble.  

IICSI has worked with groups locally and abroad. In Guelph, the team has run programs involving artists and youngsters through KidsAbility. Other projects range from working with partner organizations addressing homelessness in Vancouver to use of African American experimental music practices and improv to “sound off against structures of oppression,” he said.   

Heble has received large-scale grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, including a $2.5-million grant awarded in 2022 to expand the global reach and impact of critical improvisation studies.  

A new ImprovLab opening on campus this year will serve as IICSI’s home. Equipped with a 140-seat research performance space, the lab will enable researchers at U of G and abroad to conduct practice-based studies of improvisational performance and audience reception and to hold community workshops for improv research.    


Dr. Ajay Heble