Key Lessons from my Improv Journey

One of the things I enjoy about celebrating a full 12 Days of Christmas is that it serves as a bridge between two years. Not an end of one and a beginning of another but a moment to pause and reflect as I cross the calendar border. In reflecting, I can’t believe it is almost the second anniversary of my very first Impactful Improv Facebook post:  

My strong desire to share the benefits I achieved through improv remains a core value of what I do. For the next 3 days of posts, I am returning to the core of Impactful Improv with some lessons and stories from my improv experience before a final blog to close out the 12 Days of Blogs and settling into a monthly blog schedule for the year.

Let’s start today with some of the basics. In case you are unfamiliar with improv, it is a comedy genre where the players perform scenes made up on the spot. Most people associate it with the TV show Whose Line is It Anyway? which features short form improv games with lots of suggestions from the audience. There is also long form improv which, in very simple terms, is a series of interlocking scenes inspired by a single word like a mini play. When done well (and sometimes even when it is not), people have a hard time believing that the audience suggestions are not plants because the performance can appear to be well rehearsed. I promise you it is not.  Here are some of key lessons I have learned from improv:

Practice

Teams don’t really rehearse as much as practice the improv mechanics. Like a sports team practices to get ready for game day, an improv team works on some of the technical aspects of the form and practice drills to hone their skills to be ready for show time.  While an experienced improviser can easily “jam” with other improvisers, teams practice to build team rapport which translates to great interactions on stage.  (More to come on improv and teams in the next post.) We get better when we practice and the better we get, the more confident we become.

Everyone Can Play

In my first blog post, I was in awe of how improvisers could just make up an entire routine in an instant. From taking a series of classes, I learned it is not that hard. The hardest part for me was getting outside of my own head. Someone once told me the reason our minds go blank is subconsciously we are afraid of saying something that will make us appear stupid, so our mind prevents us from saying anything at all by going blank.

In a Play and Exploration lab facilitated by Dave Bindewald from the Center for Play and Exploration, I learned studies show in order to activate parts of our mind, we need to temporarily shut off other parts. For example, when we are being creative, our mind suppresses the part of the brain with the inner voice which says “that’s dumb” or “you can’t”. This helps us to think more freely. In growing up, most of us have lost our childlike curiosity and creativity. We all still have the ability to be creative, we just need to exercise the skill which atrophied from lack of use. There are many ways to get back in creative shape.

Improv has many exercises to help remove fears and switch from logical thinking to my creative thinking. My favorite warm-up exercise is “Five Things” where one member of the group provides another with a prompt to list 5 things in a category such as types of cereal or book titles. The goal is to as quickly as possible name five things without worrying about if it made sense or not. The first couple are generally in line with the category, but more often then not the last few are completely ridiculous. I think one time I named car tires as a type of cereal.

Improv provided me an outlet to help awaken my creative side both on stage and in business. In fact, I notice when I am not actively involved with an improv team or class, I need to make sure to do extra exercises to keep my creative energies flowing.

Being Present in the Moment

My mother says ever since I was little, I was always worried about what was going to happen a year or ten years from now. It helped me in my career as a project manager since I needed to predict risk and issues and manage schedule accordingly. When I started taking improv classes, I needed to work on just being in the moment and actively listening. In today’s hectic world, it is easy for our mind to be racing from one topic to another. In improv, I had to be fully present in the moment and listening to my scene partners. On stage, if you miss something, a scene can quickly become disjointed since it will look like you are not in the same scene. That is not any fun for the performers or the audience. 

Being fully present has been one of the greatest benefits I received through improv. Not only on stage, but in all aspects of my life. When I am with my friends and family, I am enjoying making memories instead of worrying about my giant to-do list. Too often in my past, I would be at an event thinking about the work I needed to do when I got home or a looming deadline. Truth be told, I can’t tell you what those assignments were, but I can remember the many times I missed out because I wasn’t present either physically or mentally. Now, wherever I am, I am more focused. This has resulted in more effective meetings and deeper experiences with friends and family.

Improv has reinforced the importance of practice, unleashed my creativity and made my richer. As we start the new year, I hope you will stretch yourself to try something new or at least be more present in your journey. And if you are feeling brave, go ahead an take an improv class this year.  

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