Back in New York, people had been encouraging me to do comedy for years. But as far as I knew "doing comedy" meant either a) moving out to LA, pitching agents and studios on ideas, only to have your heart trampled on, or b) doing standup at an open-mic or "bringer" night at a comedy club after midnight, only to have your heart trampled on. And then someone suggested I try improv classes - where there are no scripts, and - kind of like "the Tree" in Empire Strikes Back - the tools you bring in with you (thought, intelligence, sense of humor, and the rules of improv - more on that below) are the only ones you have (or need).
While I wouldn't quite say that I "do comedy" (although I did move out to LA, so maybe part of me thrives on the possibility of heart-trampling), improv has changed (or in some cases validated) the way I think about things. I'm often able to detect improv training in performers on and offstage, and even watching TV, I see some sitcoms reflect improvisation training more than others. There was a lot about improv that I enjoyed - the energy of the spontaneous, the ability to find things that were funny because they were true. But chiefly, I enjoyed the teamwork, finding "the game" of the scene and playing it through, helping others on stage who were struggling by giving them something they could work with, and using my quirky (yet-I-hope-delightful) brainworks to play things truthfully while building something together. Standup is solitary and lonely; improv is group energy, a family.
In a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy this morning, Rachel Cort, Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, addresses the "yes-and," the most well-known adage of improv, as the "ritualization of collaboration." She also talks about the "group mind" that emerges when a group of improvisers play (yes, "play," more on that verb later) together well enough to sense how the others think - then, they are able to build something together without too much dissent, because all are united in their mission to move things forward.
To "yes-and" Cort's article, it's also important to highlight the fact that improv has very clear rules that all improvisers must agree to. It starts with the "yes-and" that she describes above, and then extends to a "don't deny - justify" that she alludes to; improvisers can never say, "that's ridiculous" or "that would never work," because it shatters the reality of the scene instead of justifying it. The "justify" and "yes-and" commandments can be extended to "heightening and expanding" - thinking about the environment around the given suggestion or established reality of a scene. This is sometimes articulated as "if this is true, what else is true?" If a thing seems outside-the-ordinary, maybe it exists as part of a universe that we haven't yet seen or considered. This leads to a natural build of an organic and truthful reality, even if the "thing" itself is ludicrous.
Cort also uses the following great sentence (in a paragraph citing Lisa Colton at See3, an inspiring leader in the conversation about online community and engagement - I'm unsure if the sentence is Colton's or Cort's): "The atomic unit of innovation should not be seen as the lone genius, but rather as the collaborative team." Whatever you think about the term "innovation" (which was fodder for another post), the team as egoless center, as pure space for thinking creatively, resonates deeply.
At the heart of improv is the overall injunction to "make your scene partner look good." This is also a permutation of "love your neighbor as you love yourself" - treat others in the scene as you would want to be treated, reach out to them when they need you, not because it helps you, but because they need you. When it works, this kind of ethic leads to a reduction of individual egos, a process of "play" rather than "work," and a pride in the collective product.
Cort notes that "improv skills can set the stage for idea generation within professional teams and organizations, but this skill set also closely ties into empowering Millenials by honoring and including their voices and ideas." I would extend the empowerment umbrella to include any "underheard" work population - whether it's the young, or the more experienced middle management, or people who are new and could see things with fresh eyes, or longtime assistants who have seen people and ideas come and go. All perspectives are valid, and help with the idea-generation process. What emerges may be honed by experts and championed by higher-ups, but will also be a product of the collective, with all (or hopefully most) parties feeling a creative stake in the process and therefore more of a responsiblity to see it through.
In short, improv is about building a project that uses the strengths of all participants, and moves the project forward. When I think about the potential impact of improv on a work environment - especially in nonprofits - I'm imagining a place where the process of creative ideation is known as "play," even if it's hard work. People come to the table not with pre-conceived frustration about egos that may block progress, but with open hearts and minds, with the knowledge that their contributions are valid. And as for the upper-level management folks, they would give up going for "the joke," "the glory" or "the prominence," and treat every moment with coworkers as a chance to deepen relationship, validate creative partners and heighten, explore and advance the action.
For many companies, this may seem like a dream, or a departure from reality. But for an innovative few, it may be as easy as saying "yes, and." And if that were true...what else could be true?
(For more about the impact of improv on personal and team empowerment, see these incredible speeches by Jane Lynch at Smith College in 2012, starting around 7 minutes in, and Amy Poehler at Harvard in 2011, starting around 5:00.)