Paul Z Jackson on the Myths of Improvisation – Parts 1-3

Over the weekend, my family was invited to a very pleasant backyard dinner with three families. Talk always turns to what we all do, and it did. There was a professor of German, an advertising exec, a project manager for Xerox and a gentleman who works in renewable energy membership programs for utilities.

“So you two own a comedy club?” Yes, we do, but there’s a little more to it, and off we went. I’m always interested in what other people do, and how they do it, but I’m finding that we are a curiosity.

The inevitable “I could never do that,” and “I’m not funny enough, ” came up. Frankly, most of the time offstage, we’re not funny, either. And this got me to pondering, in a quiet moment over iced latte and ice cream, about the myths that continue to weigh us down in improvisation.

Today, I caught a tweet in the feed from Paul Z Jackson, the President of the Applied Improvisation Network, about the myths of improvisation. I could rewrite what he said, but I’d rather just pass it along:

 

“Experienced improvisers tend to be very enthusiastic about their craft. Yet many people unfamiliar with improvisation imagine they won’t enjoy it. They feel daunted or even frightened. It’s a response that goes beyond a natural caution when dealing with the unexpected – after all, we face uncertainty every day.

This contrast can perhaps be accounted for by various myths circulating about improvisation. Here is the first of three of the most prevalent.

 

Myth #1: You have to be funny

One myth says you have to be funny. This myth has two main sources. The first is that many people see improvisers creating comedy shows on stage or on TV (Whose Line Is It Anyway? as perhaps the most popular example), so they simply equate improvisation with the performance of comedy. In my view, improvisation is not necessarily about performance or about comedy. The second source is that even in contexts where there is no performing, the moment of improvisation is often funny because of the element of surprise. Laughter is generated by wit or by relief from the straitjackets of tension.

 

Of course it’s okay to perform and it’s wonderful to be funny. But the principles and techniques of improvisation are not about being funny, and trying to be funny is generally a mistake. It’s also a misleading trap, responsible for excluding people who think they cannot be – or who have no desire to be – funny.

 

Improvisation is about connecting, listening, adding, engaging with uncertainty, been present in the moment, attending to the here and now. You might do that for the purpose of being funny. Equally, you might be aiming to get better work from a team; or using improvisation skills to be more confident in how you present yourself.”

Myth #2: Improvisation is for when it goes wrong

You are often called upon to improvise when things don’t go according to plan.

Many of the natural language uses of improvisation reflect this. For example, “It was raining, I did not have my umbrella with me so I improvised some shelter with a sheet of newspaper.” Or, “We were ship-wrecked on the beach so we improvised a hut.”

But it’s not always when something is wrong or plans go awry: it may be that circumstances are slightly unusual or unexpected. You watch a football match and the sports commentator says, “Oh, he wasn’t expecting the winger to make that run, so he’s improvised a clever pass inside.”

Our view is that you can also improvise as a deliberate first choice – with no question of anything having gone wrong. Suppose you know that you will be facing conditions of uncertainty. Or you know that you want to create something new with other people. In such circumstances it makes good sense to choose to improvise. You appreciate that you don’t need to have everything planned. You come in ready to see what happens, to adapt and to respond as events unfold.

Now you find yourself improvising as things go well, able to delay decision-making until the optimum moment, operating with more information, with timely responses to exactly what’s there.

This is the quality of improvisation recognised by surgeons, firefighters and the military. You find it in organisations that devolve responsibility to a front-line, because they appreciate complexity and value what emerges. It accompanies a view of the world not as a static, mechanical model with traditional cause-and-effect predictability, but as a more flexible place, in which reality is not a simple and obvious given, but co-constructed as we go along, client and practitioner, person to person.

That is the sort of improvisation we’re primarily focusing on here: Improvisation by design, where you do it by choice, build your skills and flourish by applying them.

The third myth says that improvisation is chaos.

It’s not. There’s a continuum from complete predictability through complexity and onto complete chaos.

Chaos is chaos, where there’s no structure, no order and no predictability. Improvisation applies best in conditions of complexity – when there’s both structure and freedom; planning and responding. A great deal of our lives takes place in those conditions.

We are always adapting and responding within the normal circumstances of everyday life. Almost every conversation is unscripted, for example. Unless a journey is utterly routine, it will contain improvisational elements – what you see along the way, who you interact with. So it makes sense to think about improvisation as offering support for everyday life, which is somewhere between chaos on the one hand and formulaic fixed structure on the other.

 

There are doubtless other myths of improvisation; those are three key ones we hear a lot, and it’s good to dispel them so that we can really get cracking on the bits that matter.”

 

Paul’s blog is at http://www.impro.org.uk/blog, and you can email him at info@impro.org.uk.

Let’s Play 5 Things

In the world of the ComedySportz Show, 5 Things is often a centerpiece game. A player is sent out of the room and the audience is polled by the referee for five active activities that they’ve actually done. The ref then changes out elements of the activity to make it really difficult – like skydiving out of an airplane made of helium Jell-O piloted by the band One Direction, using semaphore flags as a parachute.

The guesser is called back on to the playing field and is given 4 minutes to do the activities – with clues provided by their team using gibberish and mime. It’s an amazingly difficult game that showcases communication skills, cooperation and the ability to fail gloriously and graciously. 5 Things is also fun to play and watch.

Today’s post pulls together 5 different thoughts from blogs and articles folks have sent me. Your job is to guess how they are connected.

1. It’s a Post Called “5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Best People”

Peter Economy talks about important things like encouraging risks, giving people advancement opportunities and encouraging play.

2. Focus is the Next Big Thing

We spend a portion of each workshop we lead playing games that reflect on the importance of focusing on what and who is in front of you. Improv performers talk about “being present”; in today’s hyper-information world, just being present sets you apart and gives you a huge advantage over the pack. Dr Marla Gottschalk refers to a Stanford study that shows multi-taskers at a disadvantage in focusing on the task at hand. Here is the link to the study, in case you are too busy to read Marla’s post.

3. The Only Woman in the Room

Ellen Leanse writes about the inherent sexism in high tech. I’ve worked in high tech sales and marketing, and I’ve seen these forces in action. Historically, it’s also been a problem in improvisation. It’s getting better in many groups and many places, but there’s still work to do.

More interesting to me, in the context of today’s post, is this: what opportunities are we missing when we surround ourselves only with people who share our backgrounds, culture and characteristics?

4. Talent Selection Instead of Talent Development

John O’Sullivan writes about coaching in “serious” youth sports; this interests me partly because I coach U-14 Rec Girls Soccer and partly because the same concepts apply in running an improvisational theater group. I try to think “long game” in both areas.Read this and think about the company(s) you work for and with. Are you able to think “long game”?

5. Motivating Senior Employees to Help with Onboarding 

Judith Shervin’s post is on point and practical. Your front-line leaders know what new people need to know now. Everybody wins, and a small sacrifice in the short game reaps benefits in the long game.

How many point did you get in today’s game of 5 Things? You are in control of the scoring – you make the rules. What connects these items of employee engagement?

Opportunity.

Patrick Short is busy developing a certification program Applied Improvsation for CSz Worldwide. As in ComedySportz, the points matter.

Why You Should Take an Improv Class

This is a repost from Courtney Pong of CSz-San Jose, one of the 20+ CSz Companies around the world producing the ComedySportz Show (as well as teaching classes and leading corporate workshops in Applied Improv). Find the original piece here.

When Saturday Night Live announced Sasheer Zamata as their newest cast member to join the venerable late-night institution, we were floored to discover that not only had she gotten bit by the improv bug after seeing a ComedySportz show, but followed that urge by taking a chance on enrolling in a weekend workshop. Her first training course in improv was with ComedySportz Indianapolis (est. 1993) and the rest is comedic history/NBC’s future.

Zamata discovered improv because she was curious about comedy (it is what we do, after all), but that got us thinking about the (almost!) 30 years of teaching in the ComedySportz training centers. We asked ComedySportz playerz across our 20+ different locations and confirmed what we suspected: Improv is kind of for everyone. But why?

Photo credit: AP / Cate Hellman Photography )

Sasheer Zamata, Photo credit: AP / Cate Hellman Photography )

1. Because it scares you
“Getting out of your comfort zone is a scary concept yet also something many people wish they did in their lives, and an improv class is the perfect chance to seize the opportunity!  It’s a safe environment where taking chances, engaging risks, and being free to fail is encouraged.” – Jeff De Leon, CSz Quad Cities, player since 1995

2. To become a better friend, neighbor, parent, stranger
“As a teenager I started improv, something that I will be grateful for the rest of my life. I have grown to a person who has travelled the world with the mantra of ‘Yes! And’ but also respect for others and myself. Sounds sappy, I know, but I would not be the person I am today without improv.” – Rachel Wareing, CSz Manchester,player since 2001

“Thanks to improv, I have friends – good friends – in America, France, Australia, Switzerland, Bangladesh … all over the world. It gave me a forum to meet them, and the confidence to make friends with them.” – Sam Al-Hamdani, CSz Manchester, player since 2007

“You learn how to be a better parent. I kid you not – I would have been a disaster as a parent without improvisation training. I’m better at building frameworks, responding rather than reacting and I can recognize game-playing by children (and other parents) when I see it.” – Patrick Short, CSz Portland, Owner, player since 1987

“The learned elements of improv are woven into every fiber of my day to day life — I couldn’t be more grateful for my time studying with CSz. Confidence. Compatibility. Being a human being that people enjoy being around. That’s what you get from training the improv muscle in your brain.” – Andrew Pauly, CSz Milwaukee, player since 2009

 3. Improve your work life
“Improv classes improve public speaking ability and foster creative thinking. These are fundamental skills that are applicable not only to the stage, but also to many business and civic functions. If you want to gain an edge in the job market, make a better impression on your boss, or increase your visibility or networking, improv classes are excellent resources.” – Andrew Busam, CSz Twin Cities, player since 2007

“Improv is a great life skill for business and relationships. You never know when you’re going to get caught stealing office supplies, and being able to smoothly talk your way out of it in an instant could be a real game changer.” – Aaron Miller, CSz Philadelphia, player since 2013

“Whether you’re an actor looking to breathe more life into your performance, or a freshly-minted CFO who wants to be a more confident public speaker, improv can be life-changing. I’ve been doing it since I was an awkward teenager, and it’s made me the person I am today: a markedly less awkward adult. I’m a working actor, instead of a weird shut-in.” – James Moore, CSzTwin Cities, player since 1995

“You’d never guess how well improv skills help you to communicate in the corporate workplace. Learning to stay positive, accept the ideas of others, and then add your thoughts to enhance discussions all lead toward better relationships with co-workers and a more positive experience at work. I swear I wouldn’t have survived working 15 years at the same company if I didn’t have improv.” – Mickey McGee, CSz Portland, player since 1999

“Improv can make you fearless in ways that can give you an outstanding advantage in a classroom, a board room, a sales floor or a job interview.  Improv can grant you the power to say what needs to be said, to get done what needs to be accomplished, to pay attention to what really matters, and to figure out how to make just about anything fun, and those are skills that translate to nearly any walk of life.” – Aili McGill, CSz Indianapolis, player since 2004

4. Spark creativity
“One reason I took improv classes was to reconnect with my imagination as a young adult. Learning how to be playful again led to a perk I didn’t originally consider – developing deep, long lasting friendships with fellow classmates.” – Yvette Rebik,CSz Chicago, player since 2013

“Everyone is creative, whether they know it or not.  An improv class is a good way to find out how to let it out. We spend our lives being told to behave like everyone else, let’s take a look inside and see what stories and characters you’ve got to bring to life, what’s special about you.” – Jill Bernard, CSz Twin Cities, player since 1993

“I took improv classes to to learn a new way to make people laugh, and to entertain.” – Matthew Bistany, CSz Boston, player since 2013

“Improv classes train your brain to get out if its own way when you need creativity. Also, taking an improv class reduces your chances of watching reality TV and therefore guarantees that you will be smarter in the long run.” – Michael Wilcoxen, CSz San Jose, player since 2009

“I first saw a show in 1993. It took me until 1995 to take my first improv class and it changed my life. I wanted to become famous. However, I found that making people laugh at any level is worth it. It is a gift I can give to total strangers and that makes me feel so good.” – Sam Whittington, CSz Portland, 1997

5. Meet people

“As a long-time teacher of improv, I’ve seen: business networking which led to employment. Friendships established. One wedding that I know of (one couple met in the class and got married.) And of course there are several weddings that have happened because people took our classes and made into the show where they met their future spouse.” – Jeff Kramer, CSz San Jose, Owner, player since 1985

6. Be a better listener

“Improv will train you to look for the best ideas that are already around you. When you’re making it up you can’t afford to throw anything away. Before I took classes I was shutting down good ideas left and right without realizing it. Now when I hear it happen, it hurts. That’s how instinctual it becomes. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who clearly wasn’t listening to you? Improv classes will make sure you’re never that person.” – Ben Gartner, CSz Twin Cities, player since 2007

“Improv can be so energizing. To discover a creative relationship with like minded people is such a cool and exciting experience.”- Mike Kauth, CSz Milwaukee, player since 2001

Credit: Flickr Commons, Doug88888

Credit: Flickr Commons, Doug88888

7. Relieve some stress
“Improv is a huge stress-reliever for me! In 1986, I was managing a small non-profit theater company, working 80 hour weeks and making very little money.  Improv classes saved my psyche!” – Dianah Dulany, CSz Houston, Owner, 1986

8. To overcome obstacles
“Improv is very freeing.  When I’m on stage, I can be anyone from a pilot to a toddler, and I’m not limited by other people’s conceptions or misconceptions about me. Here is a blog I wrote about taking improv classes as a person who uses a wheelchair.” – Katrina Gossett, CSz Indianapolis, player since 2013

“Taking improv classes is important because there are less fortunate children in other countries who don’t have any improv classes to take.” – Graham Tordoff, CSz Seattle, 2013

9. If you’re not all stocked up on fun yet
“Learning improv reopens a person’s mind to the idea of play; a concept we embraced as children and often have to suppress as adults. Play leads to creativity, imaginative problem solving, and the acceptance of ideas no matter how silly or crazy! We all need more play in our lives.” – Doug Neithercott, CSz Twin Cities, Artistic Director, player since 1994

“You know how people are always saying ‘dance like nobody’s looking’ or ‘sing like nobody’s listening?’ Learning and performing improv is a chance to be like that all the time. It’s a rewarding way to live.” – Benji Cooksey, CSz Houston, player since 2012

“Once we “grow up” and become adults, there are so few opportunities to just play. Improv is a fantastic opportunity to let yourself be silly, flood your body with endorphins and shake off stress.” – Olivia Brubaker, CSz Philadelphia, player since 2007

“Taking an improv class exposes you to a variety of people from all different walks of life, but they’re all there for one reason — to have FUN.  Even if your goal isn’t public performance, the laughs and support you encounter is amazing.  The friendships I’ve made in the improv community have been some of the most rewarding I’ve had.” – Chris Duval, CSz Seattle, player since 2013

“Laughter is such a positive force – taking the opportunity to think on your feet, communicate/cooperate/collaborate with others,” – Stephen Bennett, CSz Houston, 1998

“Improvisation is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. People from many walks of life can benefit from this skill, not just comedians.  It’s the most fun thing that can change your life.” – Brainne Edge, ComedySportz Manchester, Owner, 2001

10. Because life, man

“Improvisation teaches you to embrace your failure, rather than fear it, helping you learn and grow from the times you fail, both on the stage and in life. So that next time, you’ll take that failure and turn it into an even greater success.” -Travis Williams, CSz Richmond, player since 2006

“One of the greatest gifts I get from improv classes is the conscious reminder of how good the word ‘Yes’ feels, to give and receive. Saying ‘Yes’ to all dialogue, situations, and personalities costs nothing and encourages brave acts of creativity and kindness. I am more daring in my offerings to the world.” – Anjl Rodee, CSz Seattle, player since 2012

“The basic rules of improv, which you will learn in any improv class, can be applied to every aspect of your life. The idea of “yes, and!” will transform your life for the better. If you do not take a class, you will never know.” – Nicole Devin, CSz Milwaukee, player since 2004 & CSz Chicago in 2012

“One of the great things I have learned is getting rid of my preconceived notions about how things should go. By accepting a yes, I open myself to greater possibilities. I also learn to place trust in my partners.  All of these translate to other areas of life other than the stage. I find do much joy in being a part of the creative process with other people. We’re capable of so much more when we are active participants in creating with others.” – May Yera-Smithwick, CSz Houston, player since 2004

“Life is all about making connections. I have learned how to truly connect with people, moments & basically life. There is such beauty in that.” – Jennifer Lewis, CSz Richmond, player since 2012

“In my ComedySportz classes, I get students who want to become professional stage actors or improvisors, but I also get students who want more confidence or need improvement in their communication skills for their jobs or businesses.” – Andrea Lott Haney, CSz Indianapolis, 2001

“Taking an improv class creates opportunity.  If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you always got. Improv creates new experiences and new outcomes.” – Patrick Adamson, CSz Quad Cities, Owner, 1996

11. You are new to a city!
“On five occasions, my career required moving to a new city. Four times, that meant struggling to meet people and make friends. The fifth time, I took a 101 class at CSz Portland. I’ll never fear moving again. I know where to find my people.” – Bill Evans, CSz Portland, player since 2012

“I first took improv classes at college when I was doing my degree at NYU. I think it helps me to be a better communicator, listener, performer, and thinker. I get excited when I meet other improvisers. I always assume that I’ll like them and they’ll be easy to talk to. It’s what I imagine it feels like when one friendly dog meets another friendly dog across the street. They just want to play.” – Kate McCabe, CSz Manchester, player since 2011

12. Learn how to problem-solve like a superhero

“What a lot of people don’t know is that being involved in improv is the single best thing I have done to improve my work life. I get stressed less easily, am able to better find solutions to difficult problems and can think creatively on my feet, faster than ever.” -Maria Bartholdi, CSz Twin Cities, player since 2011

“Improv has the ability to reshape your mindset from a negative to positive outlook and transform you into a superhero solution finder. Improv does for regular folks what bionics did for Colonel Steve Austin – it makes you better than you were before. Better, Stronger, Faster!” – Kelly A. Jennings, CSz Philadelphia, player since 1992

“I took my first improv workshop hoping it would help me to better perform standup comedy. I had no idea that improv itself would prove more rewarding for me then solo performance could ever be. Stumbling upon those lessons in teamwork, listening, adaptability and acceptance of new ideas–I had no idea how much I would get out of that. Now I’m a billionaire superstar and the King of Mexico!” – Mookie Harris, CSz Indianapolis, player since 1989

“Improv changes your entire perspective on the world around you. Suddenly, problems have multiple solutions and you see opportunity in even the tiniest scenarios. An improv class shows you how to take care of yourself and the people around you, which is just what this world needs.” – Camille Mitchell, CSz San Antonio, player since 2012

“If you can improvise in life, you can solve problems and isn’t that what life is mostly about?” – Melissa Kingston, CSz Milwaukee, player since 2005

“Not only is taking an improv class the most fun you’ll have, it also helps sharpen your mind for everyday life.” – Ethan Selby, CSz Boston, player since 2013

“Improv classes give you a chance to forget formal ways of thinking and truly let your body and mind respond in the moment. By actually listening to and not filtering your gut instincts, you’ll be amazed at the sheer joy of giving your mind exactly what it wants.” – Chad Woodward, CSz Indianapolis, player since 2006

BONUS THING (because I didn’t count them properly the first time, but maybe it’s a bonus because it’s the most important reason that needs no reason…)

Because you want to
“If you see an improv show and think, “I could never do that,” that’s a great reason. If you’re the funny one your friends keep saying should do stand up, that’s a great reason, too. I saw it as the first step on my road to SNL (I was an ambitious little thing), and so far I’ve ended up with wonderful opportunities and adventures as well as incredibly supportive friends I proudly call family.” – Jessica Carson, CSz Spokane, player since 2005

“A good improv class is like bungee jumping. It’s a safe way to do something absolutely terrifying.” – Nate Parkes, CSz Portland player in 2002 & CSz Chicago since 2009

“Everyone knows there are thoughts and ideas inside you that don’t have the chance to manifest. Improv is the tool and the exercise that brings your ideas to life. You’ll find yourself and all the inner angels and demons through improv classes…And don’t you owe yourself that?” – Sam Hansberry, CSz Twin Cities, player since 2010

“I came to CSz at a time of great personal upheaval and I knew I needed to do something just for me (“you do you”). I instantly felt surrounded by warmth, humor and acceptance. The big bonus: I found something I excel at and take great joy in performing and teaching.” – Amy Milshtein, CSz Portland, player since 2010

“If you want to be more confident, more outgoing, a more well-rounded actor, a stronger communicator, a better team player, a more effective leader, or if you simply want to feel more comfortable in your own skin, you should take an improv class. It will change your life.” – Jon Colby, CSz Indianapolis & Chicago, player since 1998

Interested in taking an improv class now? Contact ComedySportz at info (at) comedysportz.com (tell us where you are and we will direct you to the nearest club.)

Frames for Improvisation Training

You can live, you can get along, or you can thrive. You can create or destroy. You can learn in different ways. You can command or connect.

These are true about people, and they’re also true about companies.

As a member of the Applied Improvisation Network, I’ve attended conferences for the past few years to exchange ideas, gather new exercises, get inspired by people from 30 countries doing this work and to develop stronger and more meaningful frames for our work. I’ve always been good at fitting improvisation to a goal, or set of goals, on a departmental level for our clients. When asked what my long-range hopes for improvisation are, I’d usually say, “Two things: World Peace and an end to the phrase, “It’s Not My Job.”

In Berlin this year, I found a number of very powerful frames.

One of them comes from Montreal; Michelle Holiday and the always delightful Belina Raffy presented a workshop on Thrivability, and they are proposing a series of events beginning in 2014 to explore the concept around the globe.

The frame is simple. Life itself is improvisational. Michelle talked about it in a 2012 blog post:

“Improvisation is the way life works.  

Here’s what I mean.  Living systems (like plants and people and companies) appear to be static things, but in fact, it’s more accurate to think of them as pattern and process.  They create themselves continuously through ongoing interaction with their environment.  And their environment is constantly throwing new, unpredictable things at them.  So what do they do?  They respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances.  This is how all the parts of your body manage to maintain homeostasis (and you!), for example, even as you spring sudden changes of temperature, strange new foods and weird chemicals on them.  They improvise.”

The way we’ve arranged and run organizations has moved us away from the skills we naturally possess, and like anything else, without practice, we lose our ability. Improvisation can bring those skills back. It truly is about world peace, or at least saving the world. Read Michelle’s full blog post here.

Brent Darnell compared improvisation to Medina’s Brain Rules. I will explore this more in future posts, but it’s a mind-blowing frame. Improvisation is connected to virtually every way we learn.

Gijs van Bilson, Joost Kadijk and Cyriel Kortleven talked about corporate culture and multiculturalism, putting a whole new frame on improvisation and “getting to know each other better” requests from our clients. Organizations can destroy other cultures, equalize everyone (nobody is different) or create using cultural differences.

Alike van der Wilke and Henk van der Steen framed the old ways of companies – the “Anglo Saxon Way” in comparison to what’s happening now – the “Rheinland Way”:

Command, Control and Communication is being replaced by Connection, Craftsmanship and Trust.

In three short days, I was gifted with frames for applied improvisation in the following ways:

Improvisation is about life itself and how we thrive.

Improvisation is about how we learn.

Improvisation can help us create with our cultures, instead of destroy with them.

Improvisation is about how we organize.

We need improvisation training for what lies ahead. AIN President Paul Z Jackson says we need improvisation “to engage more fully in the present, and to prepare for an unknowable future.”* Yes, that is yet another frame.

We can get rid of the phrase, “It’s not my job.” Can world peace be far behind?

Blind Bobsled

It makes me crazy when I hear people say that it takes special skills to improvise.

It just takes the right situation, the right opportunity and the right attitude. Given those conditions, anyone can improvise. What gets improvised may be more or different from what you expected.

How about an applied improvisation game that involves moving around a space, adjusting for other players, finding new situations and avoiding crashing into each other?

While blind?

Jane Wolfe recently led a workshop where she taught the game Bobsled; she learned it from me, I learned it from William Hall at the AIN Conference in San Francisco in September, 2012.

I appreciate the shout out, and her story is very cool.  Improv with the Visually Impaired.