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Yes, and…

Depending on your tastes and personality, when you hear the word “improv,” you may have feelings of delight, nausea, extreme humiliation, terror, discomfort, annoyance and excitement.

It’s probably a safe bet that all that was swirling around when my coworkers and I took an improv class together last week as part of our staff retreat. I personally was a curious and willing participant with about 2 percent of ohmygoshwhatareweabouttodo mixed in.

Mike from Austin’s Cold Towne Theater kicked off our three-hour session by telling us that improv would change our lives. Um, ok. He didn’t say it an obnoxious way or anything, but that’s a pretty bold claim.

Well folks, I’m here to say that a.) it was a super fantastic experience, b.) I had so much fun, c.) everyone/team/office/group of friends should do it, and d.) it changed, well I won’t say it changed my life (at least not yet), but it absolutely made me think about some things in a new, refreshing way that I’m sure will improve my work and personal life.

Ease Up on Saying “No”

The title of this post, Yes, and… refers to one of the building blocks of improv comedy. It represents the mindset of building a scene together, piece by piece. I create something in the scene (“This is my 300th dog show to compete in.”) and my partner accepts that premise and then adds to it (“Yes, and I never would have guessed that by looking at your dog.”).

It’s a cycle of creation, agreement and growth where each person is contributing, listening and supporting. (Mike said improv actors always tell each other, “I got your back,” before a show. In other words, if you get stuck or throw out a curveball, I’ll work with it. Don’t worry.)

I love this as a mindset for approaching creativity and brainstorming, but I think it’s also a valuable perspective to have on life in general. We learned that a critical part of improv is to roll with what you’ve been given—don’t say “no” to anything. Mike challenged us to look at how often we say “no” to things and question what’s behind that rejection, which we often offer without much thought.

Other surprising applications from improv:

Listening and eye contact – Mike kicked off the class by playing a bunch of games to warm us up. The premise was always very basic, but you could easily get tripped up if you weren’t really paying attention or if you didn’t make sure your teammates were connecting with you.

One game called Pass the Clap (and no, our team was not above constant giggling at the name) required you to stand in a circle and try to clap simultaneously with the person next to you. Of course the key to accomplishing this was to first make eye contact and sort of signal to the other person that you were about to clap. If you just quickly turned to someone and clapped at them before they were ready, they’d always be a beat behind you.

Be in the moment – the quickest way to ensure you won’t be funny is to tell yourself that you have to be funny. If you’re too focused on the outcome, you’ll screw up the process that will eventually get you to that outcome. So many applications for this, and it’s important to keep in mind, especially at the start of any new project, creative or not.

Rethink constraints – there was one game when Mike asked us to pick a celebrity, a place and a job in 10 seconds. It really didn’t matter what three things you chose, but I found myself trying to impose constraints on my choices. Well the first celebrity I thought of is Brad Pitt, but the other team just used Angelina Jolie, so I shouldn’t say that. Really? It literally had no bearing on the game, so why did I care?

It made me think about situations in which I assume certain boundaries or rules that probably don’t exist. When someone in the business school sends me an e-mail telling me about their cool new program, I sometimes assume they want a 2,500 word feature on the home page right away. But that’s a constraint I’m unnecessarily creating.

The inverse of this was also interesting, in that sometimes constraints are a blessing. In the Yes, and … game, we did one round where we just had to create scenes out the air. But in the second round, we were given a foundation—you’ve met via online dating, you’re neighbors, you work at a carnival together. That constraint actually felt liberating, in that it instantly gave us a direction and characters to work with. As a result, that second round produced much more creative exchanges.

I can’t say enough about what a wonderful experience this was. We had so much fun, and we even played one of the games at the start of our staff meeting today. Apparently we are now as hilarious as these guys:

Related link
My boss, David Wenger, blogged about the experience, too. BONUS: He found a very dramatic picture of our instructor Mike!

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