5 Life Lessons from Improv Class

Reprinted by permission from Caitlin Mendersee.

I decided to take a class. My divorce support group and all the “starting over” books I read said that hobbies would restore my sanity and help me meet new people, friends that weren’t ours. I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to incorporate improvisational acting (“improv”) into my life (think Who’s Line Is It Anyway?). This was one of those ideas simmering on the back burner so many years that the bottom had begun to crust and sear itself into the pan. I took a leap and stirred up the pot.

The first Monday night I was nervous and excited and mostly really happy to be around other adults (as a work-from- home Mom, this is a big deal). Our instructor, Patrick, is an improv guru extraordinaire with almost thirty years of experience performing and teaching improv all over the world. I assumed he would impart some acting wisdom, help us to conjure up comedic one-liners, teach us about scenes and blocking. I had no idea how deep the lessons would be and how far they would branch out into my life.

Lesson #1: Celebrate mistakes

One of the first games we played the first week was called “Zip, Zap, Zop.” We all stood in a circle facing inward and passed the energy around the circle. The first person said, “zip” while looking and pointing at another person in the group, who then did the same with “zap,” and the third indicated “zop.” (The fourth person then begins the cycle again with “zip”).

Within a few turns I said “zop” instead of “zap.” Moments later a classmate was struck with zip and stared straight ahead with wide eyes, suddenly and inexplicably mute. Pat paused the game and said with a grin, “Ok, here is what we do when someone, inevitably, messes up: we celebrate! As a group we join our arms around the shoulders of the people adjacent to us, and we move into the middle together and exuberantly shout ‘AH-OOO- GAH!’” Belly laughs abounded as we partook in this community celebration of inexorable mistakes.

It was a beautiful reminder to take life a little less seriously. Over the next weeks this small and silly practice in class injected patience and lightheartedness into my treatment of mistakes from myself, and very importantly, my sweet three-year- old.

Lesson #2: Live without self-censure

Pat often repeats what he said the first class: “Leave the judge, the critic, and the editor outside the improv classroom.”

The judge tells us that what we just said or did is not “funny enough or good enough” She needs to stay out of the improv room. The critic takes on others, telling them (or imagining telling them), “That was so wrong, what were you thinking?” He doesn't belong in our improv class. The editor keeps me from saying things before they even travel the short distance from brain to mouth, thinking they aren't "perfect". He is responsible for most instances of "going blank", and doesn’t help improvisors, so he needs to stay outside, too - but can sometimes be useful in other areas of life. 

It is important in the rest of life to go back and edit, use reason and responsibility, consider the impact of our locution and deeds. We must also cultivate spaces for uninhibited creativity and spontaneity.

Lesson #3: Trust my teammates

My romantic partnership of six years recently slowly, painfully crumbled to dust in my hands. At first I had to rebuild my self; developing independence and personal strength was crucial. What with juggling a freelance writing career, my daughter, dating, friendships, exercise and I don’t know—eating—my life is busy. I am finding that when I try to go it completely alone, I easily spiral into a helpless heap of anxiety.

I came into this class envisioning improv scenes as a canvas for funny all-stars to strut their comedic genius. I quickly learned improv scenes are an act of sublime symbiosis: one teammate picking up where the other left off and only together creating a world.

Learning to trust, to really lean in and depend on other people, has been an arduous but truly magnificent experience. I don’t have to have it all together all the time; my team can step in for me where I leave off. And that is a beautiful thing.

Lesson #4: Commit to my choices

Week four we finally started to act. Patrick led a Jill Bernard character creation exercise, giving us four body areas to focus on: head, chest, hips, and feet. He said to go with whatever our bodies wanted to do when he gave the instructions: “Hips. Positive. Go.” Each person had a unique interpretation of happy hips, some wobbling, some sensual, some bouncy: all intriguing. Pat emphasized that our job was to make very specific choices about who this person was. Who were we channeling? What do they sound like? What phrase do they repeat? Most importantly, Pat said, make a decision and commit to it.

In the improv class sans editor, judge, and critic my choices are momentary judgment calls without forethought. In life my choices ought to be tempered by wisdom and cultivated values. I am learning, however, that so long as I listen to my heart, incorporate wisdom, and draw near to beautiful souls who will hold me accountable to a life aligned with my values, I can jump! I can leap and make choices and at almost thirty years old I am finally learning to commit to my choices. See it through, and let it be what it becomes.

Lesson #5: Let things emerge naturally

I know I am funniest when I am completely oblivious. I think there are people who can manufacture a hilarious moment. These geniuses of hilarity and composers of comedy are enigmas to me. I cannot force funny. I also cannot force life (or people in my life) to act the way I want. Improvised acting reminds me to let things develop as they will.

In the game “Hitchhiker” three people are on a road trip and pick up a hitchhiker who is portraying a specific characteristic (physical, emotional, verbal or occupational). Everyone else in the car must then “catch” the characteristic. One guy entered the car and immediately became extremely paranoid. His demeanor alone was not that funny, but he committed to his choice. Within seconds the three others knew what he was doing and watching four people on a road trip going from neutral to paranoid in three seconds was hilarious. It could have not been so, but it just was. It emerged naturally.

Tonight I will return for improv class number six and it feels a little bittersweet (it's almost over.). Life is a series of improvised scenes. Some work better than others. I’m incredibly grateful for the reminder to laugh at anomalies, create spaces without censure, trust my life teammates, commit to my choices, and then let the chips fall where they may.

The link to Caity's blog is temporarily down. We will re-link when she does.

How CenturyLink Misused "Yes, And"

In 2016, the regional telecommunications company CenturyLink (formerly Quest and formerly US West) began running a series of commercials promoting their Prism TV offerings. The spots featured the actor Paul Giamatti playing himself, somehow stuck in a house with a family who uses Prism TV, and are, therefore, "Hollywood Insiders".

One of the commercials, titled Improv, portrayed the family as improv experts who know all about Yes, And. Watch it here:

"By saying Yes, And," the father says, "We are accepting the reality created by our comedy partners, Paul."

Um, no. No, you're not...  Dad. And thus, CenturyLink (and their ad agency) misstate what Yes, And is all about. Yes means we honor what you have said by treating it as real. The And is supposed to come from us, not something thrown back at the person who initiated the interaction.

All four family members treat Paul with a lack of respect in this spot. Improvisation is based in respect.

The lack of respect is also representative of how our company has been treated by CenturyLink since they bought Quest and become our telephone provider. At the time this commercial ran, we were down to one landline, used for faxes. After I saw this commercial for the second time (and was sure of what it said), I canceled the landline and set up faxing on our VoIP system.

There are reasonable debates about how to implement Yes, And. I'm not sure how this script got shot the way it did with no one questioning the fallacy. It did get produced, and it fits very well into the Prism TV series of a terrible family treating a good actor badly.

Again, improvisation is based on respect. It requires engagement, empathy, focus and cohesion. Improv doesn't need jerks. Actually CenturyLink, the first rule of improv is be nice.

 

From Enemy to Ensemble

Written the day before the 2016 Election; exhausted from the tumult. Is there any way that improvisation could help save our national discourse?

Jonathan Rossing is the Chair of Communications Studies at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, WA. He's also a ComedySportz player, formerly with CSz Indianapolis. His recent article in the Gonzaga Bulletin helped me answer this question - with a yes, of course.

Are we listening at all? Just waiting to speak? Listening for ammunition? or Listening to understand?

Are we listening at all? Just waiting to speak? Listening for ammunition? or Listening to understand?

"If we commit to a “Yes and” ethic, we might start to discover ways to build consensus and to cooperate rather than simply standing toe-to-toe shouting “No!” It may challenge us to say “Yes” in moments of intense disagreement where we’ve been trained to see nothing but an impasse. Yes does not mean whole-hearted agreement; instead it signals one’s willingness to honor an idea, to give it space to be heard. “And” signals a commitment to add something new that builds on the previous idea. It doesn’t mean we forfeit all our needs and values, but it calls us to the challenging work of respectful cooperation, collaboration and listening."

We need to bring Yes, And into all parts of our lives. It may be easiest to start at work, yet it may be even more valuable elsewhere.

Here's a link to the full article: From Enemy to Ensemble

What I learned in My First Improv Class at CSz

From Eric Earle:

  • Mistakes are good. Mistakes are an offer to you and to the world. We love mistakes.
  • People are always making you offers -- and you have to listen to them. Listen closer.
  • Don't plan. Act.
  • Break the rules. Or at least, bend them. 
  • Don't take life too seriously. It's a game. Relax. Have fun. 
  • Don't live your life always trying to avoid mistakes. That's silly. Embrace them. Use them. 
  • Pay more attention to life.

Improv woke me up. I'm alert. I'm focused. I'm alive. 

Life is happening all around me. And I have to be there for it. Creatively. 
But most of all improv is just fun. Life is fun. And I think sometimes we forget that. Improv reminds you.

Improv gives you presence because it puts you in the present moment. It teaches you that you have to focus and listen harder than you ever have... yet softly, with a sense of fun.
...
After improv I went shopping. 
There were these huge jars of fruit. (Normally there are smaller ones out there.)
"I don't know if I can eat this whole thing," I said, picking up the big jar and showing it to the worker. (I normally would have just been quiet and left.)
He laughed.
"Oh I can bring you one. The cooler is off ... let me run to the back and get it," he said. 
...
Earlier in my shopping, I had been thinking about an Odwalla juice, but I had forgotten.
Then I walked by and saw this girl getting one. 
"Oh! You reminded me I was going to get one of those!"
Then she asked me a question and we started chatting. Improvising.
I've started conversations in the past, countless times. But this felt more natural. I wasn't trying to start a conversation, I just did
This one I didn't think about. I just did. It's like I was living in real time and just flowing. Shopping was improv. 
Life is improv.

Eric Earle started our CSz 101 on April 7. His blog is here.

Let's Fight About Making Mistakes. Or Let's Not.

Another mantra in the performance improv world is the celebration of mistakes.

In our classes, we want to get people past the point of editing things, and worrying about their ideas and just get them to go - to make a decision, to make a move. To that end, we "celebrate" mistakes. Participants can take a circus bow, saying, "I Failed!" and everyone will applaud wildly. This comes from a simple need: if we wait for the perfect thing to say, nothing will ever be said. Let's practice on going with our first idea, and if the idea turns out to be terrible, so much the better. We laugh about it and move on.

In our own performance ensemble, we laugh and often roll around on the floor at mistakes made within scenes or games. Even better, sometimes these mistakes result in new ways of doing things and new game ideas. Mistakes are opportunities for laughs and sometimes for growth. We love mistakes!

So, naturally, we carry the concept forward into Applied Improvisation.

Almost everyone who teaches in Applied Improv brings this "celebration of mistakes" forward into their work. This seems like a great fit, especially as people are just figuring out how to work in the games and exercises. It starts to become (or at least seem) less of a fit as our clients think about applying the lessons of the workshop to their work lives. "We can't be making mistakes all of the time," one told me recently.

Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN is trying to get practitioners to ease up on the celebration of mistakes: "People keep telling me they learn from their mistakes.  And I’m pretty sure they are mistaken." Read Paul's blog post here.

I've worked with more than a few clients who bluntly tell me they cannot make mistakes. Some of them, like 9-1-1 operators (that's 9-9-9 to our friends in the UK) and front line employees at a blood-testing laboratory service, are probably right. We don't want avoidable mistakes in their work - the results could literally kill someone.  

In those jobs, the time for making mistakes is in practice (or training).  Once the whistle blows, and we're on the clock, we need precision and error-free work.

I look at mistakes in Applied Improvisation the same way. Our workshops are practice, where people can learn new skills and figure out that errors won't kill them, or even hurt them at all. My teaching is that mistakes are part of the process of learning new skills. You can't learn something new without messing up a lot. Our workshops are a great place to mess up without consequences. "In life, we are the players who live with the consequences of the actions," says Paul Z Jackson, "Context is so important."

When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

We want to learn to be OK with ourselves for making mistakes, but often, we're still not supposed to make them in real life. Lots of "people and organizations create high stakes environments across the board, rather than leaving room for learning and innovation. It seems like skillful leaders are those who can be purposeful about creating spaces/processes where mistakes are valued." (Jim Ansaldo, Director of Camp Yes And at Indiana University)

When is a mistake not a mistake?

"We've seen numerous scientific and technological discoveries that were the unintended consequences of other pursuits. In the Design Thinking world, the concept of "rapid prototyping" suggests that a trial and error process using stakeholder feedback is the quickest route to operationalizing great ideas." (Jim Ansaldo)

Perhaps the word "mistake" isn't even the right word for every instance of unintended results.

So, what ARE we teaching?

In Applied Improvisation, I think we are actually teaching people to be better to one another. We know mistakes are a part of doing business, so let's minimize their impact on people on our team.

My Five Pillars of the Improv System are:

  • Listening
  • Accepting
  • Supporting
  • Taking Competent Risks
  • Letting Go of Mistakes

Mistakes are going to happen, but are we going to let our team become dominated by them, or could we:

  • Own and accept it
  • Fix it as soon as possible
  • Share it so others learn
  • Move on

If we create a culture where we own it, fix it, share it and move on, we'll spend less time and energy and reduce the paralysis that comes from fear of making mistakes. Wouldn't that be a more pleasant place to work? Wouldn't that also make our customers happier? (In a Design Thinking environment, we might substitute "use it" or "analyze it" for "fix it".*)

The key thing for me in our vendor relationships is what happens when something goes wrong. It's easy to provide "good customer service" when everything runs smoothly. The response when something doesn't go right is what separates great vendors from the rest. Own it, fix it, share it and move on.

In the operational side of our own company, I'd like to be one of those great vendors, providing value and keeping things simple, but when something goes wrong, own it, fix it, share it and move on. 

Of course, we don't want to see the same mistake over and over. We don't want people deliberately messing things up. What we really want is for people to forgive each other easily for mistakes, make the problem right, have the organization learn and move on. We also want to stop the paralysis that fear brings to teams.  The world is changing too fast to let fear hold us back.

Applied Improvisors struggle to get clients to take the leap of faith to work with us. Part of the struggle might be significantly reduced if we stop "celebrating mistakes" and tell you what we're actually talking about.

It's all in the context. It usually is. It's also in the words we use to tell people what we do.

Just to keep the controversy alive, Patrick Short would like to include this list of 40 Things You Can Learn From Mistakes. He would also like to thank Jim Ansaldo for helping to cut to the heart of the matter.

Positive Outcomes

From Bill Evans, now a ComedySportz Player with CSz Portland:

I was on the phone with mom on a Sunday evening in early April 2008, lamenting my lack of friends in my new home town, when she reminded me that I had always wanted to take an improv class.

Always began in 1987, in Chicago, when I saw Second City perform a sketch revue during a college visit to Northwestern. That show, and the improvised set that followed, made being on stage look so much fun.

A mere 21 years later, prompted by mom’s gentle reminder, I Googled ‘Portland Improv.’  Serendipitously, I learned that the CSz 101 class began the next night.  With no time to talk myself out of it, I signed up for my introduction to improv.

It was a blast! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the eight-week class was a life-changing experience. There was no ‘eureka’ moment, just two hours each week being present, laughing, exploring and connecting with like-minded people.

When the class ended, I began coming to weekly Minor League Classes, where I met even more people who enjoyed this form of connection. I had found my tribe. Almost instantly, I had a new circle of friends who were not only hilarious, but also agreeable, positive and extremely generous people.

That’s no coincidence. Those are all traits of good improvisers. Turns out these skills, practiced for the sake of good scenes, mold even better people. What a fortuitous turn.  And what a great group of people to help keep my head up during difficult times … my break-up … the loss of a job.  Improv always gave me something to look forward to, even when life was difficult.

How did it change my life? I am a happier, more positive person. I’m rich in friendships. I’m involved in the most satisfying romantic relationship of my life with a like-minded and generous improviser. I’m creatively challenged and I’m living life actively.  Improv has opened so many doors, allowing me the confidence to perform in front of audience, host shows, write and perform stand-up comedy, study sketch writing, teach, perform dinner theater, and write and perform scripted stage shows. I’m probably forgetting something.

All of those personal accomplishments, I dare say, were beyond my wildest dreams six years ago. None could have been achieved without walking into that introductory 101 class hoping to meet new people and have a little fun.

Mission accomplished.

Bill Evans plays ComedySportz. And Hockey. And works in social media and communication. Follow him on Twitter: @bevans10

The Yes, And Controversy

Yes, And has been the mantra of the improvisational performance community for a long time. By default, it became the mantra of the Applied Improv training community, too.

Along the road, improv performers discovered that what they know and the theories they put into practice are desirable in business, so we began offering what we knew to the corporate world. Many companies are trying to find the best ways to put improv into their own practice; the benefits are numerous:

  • People become more adaptable
  • People become more cohesive members of their teams
  • People develop more empathy
  • People treat each other better
  • People treat customers better

And so on. Each company that embraces it discovers how improv culture and skills have a positive impact on their people, in many different ways. These impacts can result in better employee engagement, lower turnover (which saves a ton of money), happier customers, better products and services and more money made. Sounds great.

Most of this training revolves around (or at least includes) the concept of Yes, And.

With Yes, And, we say "yes" to whatever our partner says, and then provide the "and", building on their ideas. They say, "yes", to us and build on what we say.

Improv nirvana results. Except when it doesn't.

Like everyone else, I fully embrace Yes, And. I teach it in performance improv classes. It's a centerpiece of many of the corporate engagements I lead. Yet, both my understanding and teaching of it have evolved.

On the performance side, I teach that PERFORMERS need to play using Yes, And. The CHARACTERS they are playing do not.

By that, I mean if their character thinks an idea or offer is misguided or wrong, they can say, "No". Performers don't have that right - they don't get to judge what another player is doing in the middle of the scene. What that player has offered is REAL and needs to be played with, even if that "playing with" means "NO, I won't do that".

I got quoted by author, blogger and teacher Pam Victor in her discussion of Yes, And, in which she claims that she doesn't even teach it any more (I think she does, but terminology IS important):

In a discussion online, General Manager of CSz Portland, Patrick Short, helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.” 

I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.) But saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because... it is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.

The whole Pam Victor blog, a bit NSFW, can be found here.

So what does this mean on the Applied Improvisation side?

Yes, And means something different than "You're right!" My favorite distillation of the meaning comes from Sue Walden, who, in a workshop, summed up Yes, And as RESPECT (Yes) and INSPIRATION (And).

  • YES = I respect you as a person and I respect your idea(s)
  • AND = I will be inspired by your ideas and build on them

The power that our Yes, And training gives companies is that their people are very well-trained in "No" and "Yes, but...". Like our improv-performing friends, co-workers often respond with "No" out of panic, fear of the unknown, politics, status battles and agenda pushing. Working in Applied Improvisation training gives groups a chance to exercise their "Yes" muscles. Most of us are really ripped and toned with our "No" muscles. Yes, And gives us a chance to work on our "Yes" muscles. (Thanks to Andy Crouch for that analogy!)

And here's a wild thought:  There's a time and place for Yes, And.

Design Thinking folks use a double-diamond chart to define a process.  Starting from a point, they ideate and widen the diamond to discover the challenge. Then, they narrow it to define the problem. Development of potential solutions are another widening of the diamond, followed by a narrowing as we deliver the product or service.

The periods where we EXPAND the diamonds are the times for Yes, And. Accept all ideas, no matter how off the wall or wrong they may seem. You never know when one of those crazy ideas spurs a much better idea in another team member's head.

When we have reviewed our ideas, and are narrowing them down, we don't need to invoke Yes, And directly, except the connection to respecting our teammates. Companies are sometimes afraid of Yes, And turning into GroupThink and sending them over a cliff because no one will say, "No!" That's reasonable. There is still a place for standing up against bad ideas. It's just not in the Discover and Develop phases.

(The chart is from a cool article on design empathy, from Business 901. Check that out here.)

Yes, I still teach and lead with Yes, And.

On the performance side, working in CSz 101, I want to use Yes, And to help people get past the panic of "my mind is blank". Yes, And focuses you on responding to your partner. Saying yes first gets you started and away from the blank mind. It's also cultivating an attitude that your scene partner is a huge set of gifts to you (and you to them), just by being there and focused on THEM.

In Applied Improv, we need Yes, And just to get to a place where we are truly listening to and respecting each other. Past that, why not use Yes, And as our code of recognition? We can be secret agents representing a new way of thinking and getting things done. We can be Heroes.

Patrick Short has worked a lot recently with companies involved in sustainability. Because, Portland.

 

Bananas and Fishing Poles - Design Thinking & Improv

Can Improv training teach skills that help in design thinking?

Of course, WE think so. This is what we do. It does bolster one's case when an Intel professional feels the same way, and succinctly tells what he learned :

"Elevate the Team, not yourself.

Don't plan too far ahead.

Own your failures.

Listen completely.

These are a few of the insights I’ve taken away from my experience with improv. There are many more. Learning the basics of improv took me way out of my comfort zone (there were times when I couldn’t even see my comfort zone), but in the process I’ve become much more comfortable in my own skin, a better presenter and communicator, and more confident in my ability to deal with the surprises. Practicing improv is a great way to bring teams together and is a perfect complement to any team that needs to be creative and innovate on a regular basis."

How does improv culture, specifically Yes, And, help in Design Thinking?

"When product innovation teams are ideating to address user problems/opportunities, the ideas must be allowed to flow. “No” or “but” can put a stranglehold on ideation. It’s evaluating ideas before you need to do so. Most early ideas are just stepping stones in a larger journey — if you don’t acknowledge the stepping stones, the team will never be able use them to get to the BIG IDEAS. Once you’ve gotten a solid set of BIG IDEAS, then you can begin evaluating."

Don't get locked in too far ahead.

"Of course your business plan must start with a powerful idea and market to pursue, but if you only build and launch what you planned from the outset and don’t iterate with your users or be open to new directions based on their insights, how confident are you that you are really going to meet their needs? Some of the best ideas can come from your customer as they respond to the bad ideas you put in front of them.  Trust that your team can ride the insights to get to the right product, instead of hoping you can figure out every detail at the outset."

Roger Chandler's complete blog post can be found here:

Improv: What Do Bananas and Fishing Poles Have to Do With Design Thinking?

 

I Was Used For Design Thinking Purposes

Shimon Shmueli set me up.

He’s the leader of Touch 360, a “strategy, innovation and design” company; he’s got a high-tech industry resume several times longer than my arm, and he was getting ready to speak at an Applied Improvisation Network regional gathering in Portland.

My contribution was to lead a series of warm-ups to the evening focused on design thinking.

I was walking to the front of the room, and Shimon took me aside and told me he thought I should lead the group in Sun and Moon.

Sun and Moon is a simple and profound activity. Participants stand in a circle, and are asked to pick a “sun” and a “moon” from among the other people. They are not to let on who they’ve picked; it’s a secret. When the game starts, they are to move quickly to “become equidistant” from their sun and moon, as fast as they can, and if their targets move on them, they have to keep moving. Chaos ensues. (There’s also a second round, but it’s not germane to the story.) Shimon had seen me run the game at a Portland State University class he teaches on entrepreneurship.

We ran the game, it was fun, and the very bright group of participants completely got the “jolts” of understanding that Sun and Moon offers.

Following another exercise, Shimon started his presentation, Creativity by Emergence and Leadership.

I can’t completely do his thesis justice, but let me try:

Doing something truly new requires intentional creativity.

Improvisation is great for

  • scenario playing and interaction prototyping
  • brainstorming via emotional uplift and allowing failure
  • demonstrating

But if a new product or service or other innovation is a story, does improvisation do the job?

Improvisation is:

  • Process, not product
  • Limited in its resources
  • Sequential, not parallel

Shimon compared improvisation to the TV show Survivor:

  • no overall leaders
  • simple rules
  • safer in large groups
  • steer toward consensus
  • unpredictable, internally and externally
  • players avoid “visibility” (they don’t want to stand out from the group – publicly)
  • common objectives fall apart fast

For design, and true, intentional creativity, you need a story line – setting the stage, anchor points, climax and the end – along with coloration.

Shimon also compared improvisation to swarm theory, and showed us videos of a very large, very active flock of birds.  If it’s “beautiful” or “cool”, it’s because we (the observers) are applying those values.  There is no creativity in what is happening inside the flock. The birds are each reacting to the moves of a group of birds in their immediate vicinity, and are continuously adjusting to aim for the center of that group.

It’s just like Sun and Moon, said Shimon, where the individual participants where simply responding to a couple of simple rules and the moves of their “sun” and “moon” (the birds in their immediate vicinity).

And that’s why we needed to play Sun and Moon. I was used.

Is he right? Is what we do just a series of responses that do not indicate intentional creativity?

Sometimes, yes. But I like to think there’s more to it than that.

Add a few constraints to improv, including some rules, styles (coloration) and a goal, and you can tell a story.

Even if improv performance is not your goal, accepting an improvisational mindset is a great way to lead to intentional creativity – build a great team and turn them loose – with constraints and a goal.

If all you are doing is reacting to the people nearest you, maybe you are just flying around in a flock. Or playing Sun and Moon. It’s fun, it might look beautiful, but it’s not creating anything.

I was used.

Status

The great improvisational teacher Keith Johnstone pioneered the idea of using status as a tool in improvisational theater. Human beings give each other physical and verbal cues to establish status. If someone has high status, they’re calling the shots; if someone has
low status, they’re the peon.

Status is a seesaw, Johnstone explains—you push one end down, the other end pops up. You can raise my status either by saying “I’m smart” or “You’re dumb.”

If you’ve ever walked toward another person on a sidewalk, or in a hallway and had to do an awkward little dance to figure out which side you’ll pass each other on, you’ve experienced one of the simplest example of a status battle.

We use the tool of status onstage to make our scenes more dynamic. We find that equal status situations aren’t very interesting to watch. It’s interesting that in real life, equal status (or near equal status with give and take) gets positive results.

These on-stage status battles aren’t too far removed from reality. In many organizations, maintaining one’s status is more important than getting anything done. We teach it to business people to help them understand the sub-textual power struggle at work in any human interaction.

Caught in a status battle? See what changes if you match the other person’s status. See what happens if you raise their status. Since status attacks are often the work of insecure people, try a little flattery.  And look how status games connect to bullying.

In our work, we’ve found Status to have profound effects on Customer Service. We’ll post more on that soon.

Excerpted from Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. Thanks to Jill Bernard for her essential contributions.

Thesis: Theatrical & Improvisational Techniques for the Corporate World

Michelle Baxter, (MS, AA) – Drexel University) has released her Master’s Thesis.

Title
Theatrical & improvisational techniques for the corporate world: how the performing arts are helping create a more adaptable workforce for the 21st century

Author(s)
Baxter, Michelle N.

Advisor(s)
Vakharia, Neville

Keywords
Performing arts; Arts administration; Leadership–Study and teaching; Organizational behavior
Thesis
Thesis (M.S., Arts Administration) – Drexel University, 2014

Abstract
Performing arts organizations are helping create a more adaptable and innovative workforce by providing the business sector with corporate workshops that utilize theatrical and improvisational techniques that build leadership skills and promote team building. This paper aims to help performing arts organizations see the mutually beneficial practice of offering corporate training workshops. These programs not only help businesses explore the ways in which they can remain relevant and innovative in today’s competitive global market, but in doing so, they also create sustainability for the arts organization itself. Performing arts organizations must expand marketing efforts for corporate training programs, which not only increase earned revenue but also raise awareness about the role of the arts in the creation of a more innovative and adaptive workforce. While some performing arts organizations may look at this as “going corporate,” the organizations that provide these workshops truly see this as yet another way that the arts are able to positively impact our communities.

Here is a link to the site where you can download the pdf.

Improv for Music Educators

CSz Keyboard Player Mark Anderson approached me  and asked if I would be interested in teaching improv skills, theory and music to the regional meeting of American Orff-Schulwerk Association. Mark teaches in elementary schools and got involved with the Orff Approach several years ago. Mark sees a lot of connections between the two disciplines of Orff and Improvisation, and he's even taught us at a team practice.

We had six hours to play with, including lunch. The morning was devoted to improvisation theory, culture and skills - all experienced through games, and then reflected upon. All of the teachers took to it like ducks to water.

In the afternoon, we shifted gears into creating songs using improv. Most of it was fantastic, but there seemed to be some elements of hesitation. I was at a loss to understand it, given how well the previous work had gone, until Mark explained it to me: Words. Orff teachers aren't used to inventing lyrics!

In or out of comfort zones, beautiful music was created. Connections between the forms were clearly made, and lots of fun was had. Read Mark's terrific blog piece on his experience.

Patrick Short has been writing songs since he was 8. Find some of the more recent ones at shortboule.com.

 

 

LEGO

What do you learn from building with LEGO?

They're just pieces of plastic that kids play with.

In April 2013, I participated in a workshop led by Aneta Key, Chief Executive Muse from AEDEA Partners, LLC (aedeapartners.com) in the Bay Area. One portion of it was devoted to building a "library" using LEGO pieces. A group of us had to share a bag of bricks and other parts, while each quickly designing and constructing our own library.

We had to begin and complete the project with very little instruction
Each of us had to decide what was meant by a "library"
We had to use what was in front of us
We had to deal with sharing limited resources
Some of us even had to negotiate trades for the pieces we needed

Following the building, we were given some time to "present" our designs within our groups, and then to respond to each others' presentations.

In my own small group, we had interiors, exteriors, whole libraries, parts of libraries and a a representation of a "digital library" - someone built a computer server with their LEGO pieces.

  • What different approaches did people take?
  • What can we learn about people from the approach they took?
  • What did each of us bring to the process?
  • What did each person focus on in their presentation?

It took me a couple of months to get my LEGO kits together; I convinced my teenage son to part with his bucket of LEGO pieces (delivered to my office with a laugh). After a couple of hours of sorting and dividing, I headed off to the store for a set of "plain" bricks to give the sets enough pieces so that 4-6 people could share them. (Do you know how hard it is to find plain LEGO bricks?  If you want to build Hogwarts, you are in business, but just old school bricks are hard to find.) I persevered, and found a 650 piece set. Later, I found out about a used LEGO store, so Alex Falcone and I went there after a nearby corporate workshop and bought a bunch of flat pieces - bases, if you will.

So I'm set - we have 8 big Ziploc baggies with a variety of pieces in them.

We used this exercise 5 times in the first week with wildly different groups:

  • College textbook salespeople
  • Property management maintenance guys (yes, ALL guys)
  • A gathering of the Applied Improvisation Network Portland Local Group
  • High school grads in a "pre-work" program sponsored by the public schools
  • Middle schoolers in our CSz Summer Camp

In one amazing week, we witnessed colleges, apartment complexes, restaurants, places to work and tree houses being built. Many tree houses included pools, flying ability, an aquarium and amazing ways to climb aboard. My favorite college looked like a microscope. One of the apartment complexes featured an unpaved part of the parking lot - "we haven't paved that part yet."

All we did was play with LEGO, but we also learned about:

  • Imagination
  • Cooperation
  • Making do with what we've got
  • Recapturing a sense of play (even a couple of middle schoolers needed help with that)
  • Just starting and seeing what happens
  • Designing improvisationally
  • Failing often
  • Presentation skills
  • Building on others' ideas
  • Sharing experiences from our selling stories
  • What's most important to us in doing a good job
  • Gibberish skills - expressing our design without real words and seeing what we're able to communicate

Is that all?

What have you learned?


Patrick Short has been teaching applied improvisation for business since 1989, used Duplos (large, little kid LEGO pieces) in an exercise he's always called, "LEGO", and now he has a naming problem. Follow him on Twitter @patrickshort4

Improv Boosts Leadership Skills: Tabaee

Dr. Farnaz Tabaee and Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development

We work in an era of uncertainty.

Today’s economic environment runs fast, competes globally and refreshes faster than a Twitter feed. To stay competitive, business, industry and education leaders must think on their feet, making spontaneous decisions with confidence. Yet this skill isn’t taught or even encouraged in more than a few MBA programs or leadership seminars. With an eye toward changing that paradigm Dr. Farnaz Tabaee presented Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development, a doctoral thesis that proves improv is a necessary tool for success in the 21st Century.

Born in Persia, Tabaee immigrated to the US at the age of 16. After graduating from college, she started as an engineer in the IT world, then changed careers to instructional design and leadership development. Unsatisfied with the instruction she was receiving, she wanted to teach but was hamstrung by the thought of standing up and speaking before a crowd. “Over and over people told me to take an improv course,” she reports. Tabaee did and took an improv class where she was expected to act in a scene without any initial instruction. She found the experience so daunting, she dropped the class after the first session.

One year later, she gathered her strength and signed up for another improv class. The class, taught by the same instructor, started with immediate scene work which led her to quit after the first day. Yet this time she noted some interesting changes in her presentations. “I was more confident and people noticed,” she recalls. “I became a better listener, a better coach and a better trainer.” Armed with continued success as a trainer, Tabaee went on to complete the improv series of classes at Second City Hollywood and continued to perform with ImprovMasters.

As fascinated as she was with her own experience, Tabaee was equally frustrated with the way business managers clung to the old way of doing things. “In my IT years, I was astounded by managers who kept to a business plan simply because it was there, even if the incoming data was contradictory to their original assumptions,” she says. “Intuitively I knew that improv was a very useful tool for leaders but I had to prove it.”

First, she had to convince her advisors at Pepperdine that improv is a topic worthy of a doctorate. It was a tough sell. Her initial advisor shot the idea down, claiming there wasn’t enough data to support a dissertation. Undaunted, she found a second advisor and two years, 350 pages and over 400 references later, Dr. Farnaz Tabaee proves that improv is an invaluable tool to business.

THE STUDY

Her initial research uncovered some remarkable facts. It showed that business leaders make intuitive, ad-hoc improvised decisions 75-90% of the time, yet very little research has explored this improvisational skill set. No other leadership skill set that is applied at least two-thirds of the time has ever been so underdeveloped (Meyer, 2010; Mintzberg, 1973). She also found very high levels of stress in today’s business leaders. This combination of high stress and ad-hoc improvisation leads to ineffective decision making due to the leaders' inability to think clearly under high amounts of stress. One of her sources, Montuori (2012), sums up the situation adroitly, “Leaders must learn to manage stress, and become more adaptive problem solvers, capable of creating, innovating, and working quickly and under conditions of great uncertainty.”

Using a holistic model of improvisation that was revised using the grounded theory approach (where research results shape the theory), Tabaee designed the Improvisation of Leaders Workshop. This three and one half hour workshop was used as the basis of her research. Why three and one half hours? “Improv is learned experientially,” she says. “You need time to learn, practice, reflect and process. You also need time to feel safe and forget about the outside world. I had to break up one of my sessions in two, one hour 45 minute classes and it just wasn’t as effective.”

Tabaee conducted her study using 67 participants from various disciplines including: education, aerospace, finance, insurance and manufacturing. All of the participants were executive management, directors, middle managers, supervisors, team leaders, or project managers. Individual classes took place in different regions of the country and different ages, genders and educational levels were represented.

Pre-workshop interviews measured participants’ knowledge of improv and their stress levels. During the workshop, participants agreed to list three specific actions they would bring from the workshop to their workplace. They were further encouraged to apply at least one of the actions they had listed and commit to making a behavioral change. A post workshop survey was conducted immediately after the session, in addition to an interview a month after the session which inquired about the effects of improv at one month and three month intervals.

The results prove astounding. Ninety percent of participants reported gaining listening skills or the ability to express thoughts without judgment or both. Participants also felt more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being wrong or judged. Out of the 33 women in the study, 24 (72%) of them expressed feeling more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being judged.

In improv, “competent risks” are taken and mistakes are tolerated. After participating in the study, 81% of participants reported that they were better able to accept their own and their staff’s mistakes and learn from them. This theme also trickled down positively to other areas of the leaders’ effectiveness, leading to greater productivity and less stress.

“Competent risk is an important concept,” insists Tabaee. “People in business hear the work ‘risk’ and immediately think ‘careless,’ ‘sloppy’ or ‘disaster.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Competent risk means working within a known skill set at your highest level of intelligence.” As one of the participants put it, “I’m not feeling too restricted in my choices and can take a risk and speak up more often.”

Participants also gained an understanding of collaborative creativity. Seventy two percent indicated observing this phenomenon at the workshop or later in their work environments. One participant summed up how improvisational techniques improve relationship focus at work. “Business is about relationships and relationships can be enhanced by improvisational techniques. …Even if I don’t get along with some people, [I’ll] never forget to focus on maintaining and flourishing relationships at home and work.”

Tabaee’s study also noted lowered levels of stress, increased mindfulness, affirmative competence (individuals feeling confident enough to take action), desire to share leadership and the ability to make OPTIMAL Spontaneous Decisions (OSD.) OPTIMAL stands for Open to the Present Thought and Intuition and Mindful in Action and Leadership. OSD means that by combining rational thought, intuition and mindfulness, problems can be solved rapidly. In follow-up interviews, leaders admitted their jobs required this skill. As one phrased it, “Plans are overrated, especially in today’s fast-paced business world. Spontaneity does not mean irresponsibility or carelessness. Using it is often a necessity.”

In follow up interviews one month after the study, participants continued to enjoy higher levels of productivity and performance. This included employee retention, particularly among the Gen Y group. “There is an inter-generational problem in managing Generation Y employees,” observes Tabaee. “Managers often don’t trust them with challenging assignments, don’t share information easily, or don’t answer their ‘why’ questions. Improv teaches how to share information, give up control and welcome questions.” One participant noticed the benefits immediately, “We may actually be able to keep our Generation Y employees [instead of having them leave] after a few months or a year.”

Many participants also noted better family relationships. Tabaee is not surprised by that effect. “The techniques improve communications and help remove fear across the board. That will help in any relationship be it business or personal,” she says. She speaks from experience. “My kids are constantly using improv with me. If I say no to ice cream they prompt me to say, ‘yes…and.’”

AFTER-EFFECTS

After the study 100% of the participants agreed that improvisation techniques offer value to business. Participants reported quicker decision making skills, less stress, better employee retention rates, improved communication and appropriate delegation of leadership. They are also trying to bring improv to their departments, as one person reported, “It was very eye opening to see myself be creative at the workshop, so I tried to transfer what I had learned to my staff at staff meetings including [Tabaee’s] 4S principles of improvisation and not looking at failure as a mistake but an opportunity. We now do an opening exercise with these principles in mind. The energy level has gone up in my team and more innovative ideas are flowing out of my staff.”

There is also concrete evidence that improv increased awareness and decision making abilities. At pre-test, 91% of leaders indicated they were not aware whether they used improvisational techniques in making their decisions. At the post-test, after learning improvisational and OSD skills, 71% of participants agreed that they would change the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. From post-test to interview, 85% of participants changed the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. At the final interview, a cumulative total of 97% of leaders reported that they would change the way they make spontaneous decisions from pretest by using their intuition more effectively and applying improvisation principles. Reasons leaders brought for changing to OSD included 40% by using tools from the Workshop; 58% noted they learned how to be more spontaneous; 68% admitted to having more confidence and better at trusting their intuition; 98% noted they possessed the awareness of using improvisational skills to make OSD.

Given all of this, will improv be a required class in business school? “I sure hope so,” says Tabaee. “Business schools are lagging behind, still teaching models appropriate to the industrial revolution. They say people need to be more nimble and flexible but how do you teach it? Improv, of course. It rewires your brain allowing you to make spontaneous decisions efficiently and at the height of your intelligence.”

And don’t forget having fun. “Humor and laughter are a key component,” she concludes. “I had one president of a large financial company say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to play. I am in my mid 50s and have no kids; it seems as if I had forgotten how to play. Thank you for showing us how to be creative together like that. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.’”

Dr. Tabaee’s comments were made in an interview on June 11, 2013, with Amy Milshtein and Patrick Short of CSz-Portland. Article by Amy Milshtein. Dr. Tabaee can be reached at Farnaz.tabaee@gmail.com

Tabaee, F. (2013). Effects of improvisation techniques in leadership development. Doctoral Dissertation, 341. Pepperdine University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15093coll2/id/349

Employee Engagement

I was chatting with a colleague recently. She had just quit a job at a law firm because the boss was crazy and horrible to work with.  She also commented that there is “complete turnover in the firm every year.”

That got me to thinking. What does THAT cost?

Aside from a happier workplace with more innovation and the tribal knowledge that accumulates when employees actually stay with a company, does it save money to keep employees?

Yes, it does. Let’s read from the Wall Street Journal:

“Integrated reporting is in its early stages in the U.S., but German software giant SAP AG released its first full integrated report in March, combining traditional accounting benchmarks with newer metrics on things like greenhouse-gas emissions, research and development “intensity” and staff turnover.

SAP reported, for example, that its operating profit is helped or hurt by about €62 million, or more than $80 million, by each percentage-point change in its employee retention rate.

‘There’s a lot of support for meaningful and robust HR metrics for use inside organizations,’ says Timothy Bartl, of the HR Policy Association.”

(Apples, Oranges and Outliers, Emily Chasun, Wall Street Journal, Jun 4, 2013.)

So, buried in this article about FASB and reporting metrics is a bombshell about how important employee retention can be to the bottom line.

Why aren’t we doing everything we can to keep the people we have? Employee engagement is critical – not just in soft, unproven areas, but to profitability.

What could help the beleaguered law firm?

  • Leadership skills training
  • Communication and listening skills training
  • Team building
  • Creating an atmosphere of fun
  • Celebrating victories
  • Altering a culture of blame for mistakes

Applied Improvisation could help with all of that. If only they knew to ask…

Is there a company that you know could use this help?

Improv and Social Media

As more and more people become aware that improvisation has something to bring to companies, the questions start to get more specific.

How do we apply this stuff? How do we justify spending money on improvisation training?

Previous posts have explored:

  • Leadership
  • Employee Engagement
  • Design Thinking
  • Even Sales

Now, a blog piece from social marketer Kelly Jo Horton ties improvisational skills to how companies manage their social media – image, customer service and more.

“You need people who live to find ways to collect, segment and report on data. You obviously need good storytellers. And you need that “secret sauce” that can’t be taught in a college course but comes from life experience and maybe, just maybe, taking an improv class.”

Kelly sums it up with these bullet points:

  • Say. “Yes, and…”
  • Listen to your audience
  • Improv is a 2-way conversation
  • Improv artists fail 20% of the time
  • You are never in complete control

She also gives our organization a nice shout out. Much appreciated. She learned well, and in turn, is teaching people well.

One more thing: to effectively implement the improvisational mindset, you do not have to be a public-performance level improv “artist”. Anyone can think this way – they just need the door opened for them.

Improvisation plays an important role in corporate social media. Read Kelly’s blog piece here.

Patrick Short taught the CSz 101 class that Kelly Jo Horton took 12 years ago. His next class kicks off September 14th, 2015. Many other CSz players have taught her since then in our Minor League classes. CSz is in 25+ cities, and we can find a space for you, too. Find a ComedySportz® City near you. Tweet us @comedysportzPDX.

Why Customer Service Matters

In 2014, I had the honor of performing as Master of Ceremonies at the Annual Customer Service Banquet for the Port of Portland and PDX, our airport.

310 people from 65 companies attended; they were honoring the Customer Service Superstars nominated from each of the companies who do work at the airport – airlines, government agencies, rental car companies, parking and transportation, retail, restaurants and services. The Port of Portland has an employee group that coordinates customer service across all of the companies – treating each customer as a client of all of the companies, whether they are at that moment or not. It’s a holistic approach, and as a frequent consumer of PDX services, I can attest that it works. The airport is frequently voted the Best in America.

At the end of the event, I transformed into a referee and CSz-Portland performed our ComedySportz® show, themed on customer service. It was a rocking good time, but the most important and affecting part of the night came earlier.

The Port of Portland had received an email, through Huntleigh USA, from a woman in Aurora, CO, complimenting a Huntleigh skycap, Moses San Nicolas, on his wheelchair service. Let’s read the note:

Gary Wolf
Huntleigh USA
7535 NE Ambassador Place
Suite A1
Portland, OR 97220

Dear Mr. Wolf:

I hope you will take the time to read this letter, as one of your employees needs to be recognized for the help he provided to me and my sister, Denise, on a trip we took from Portland to San Francisco on 10/1/13. This was the hardest trip either my sister or I had ever taken, for you see, I was bringing my 52 year old sister home to California to die.  As her little sister and the nurse in the family, I had the hard task of flying from Colorado to Portland, packing my sister’s life up in a suitcase, and bringing her home, where the rest of the family was waiting. She really did not want to go, and we had to term this trip as “just a visit” to her, because she was scared and nervous about flying home, and could not handle the fact that she would not be coming back to Oregon, her home since 1984. I think that deep down she realized, though, that she needed help in the final days of Stage IV lung cancer, which she was diagnosed with back in May 2013. She was kind of being forced to give up control of her life. She was very, very sick, and could not longer walk, and was using oxygen.

We had had a bad day so far on 10/1/13, as it was an extremely stressful day what with getting her packed, getting her dressed, getting her to the car, getting to the airport. She told me many times in the car that she did not want to go, and I was feeling guilt and fear as my mission to bring her home included kind of take her choices away from her when she had been independent for so long.

I brought the rental car back to the underground garage, and the rental car people were nice enough to call me a skycap.  And into our lives, pushing a wheelchair, walked Moses San Nicolas. I realize that we could have gotten anyone, but I feel that getting Moses was the first stroke of luck Denise and I had had since I got there.  He showed up, and took immediate control.  I had no idea how he did it, but he managed to get my sister in a wheelchair, both of my sister’s suitcases, and her oxygen concentrator, from the garage into the airport. All of the sudden, a huge weight had been lifted off of me, as I had worried the whole way to the airport how I was going to manage getting everything into the airport.  More importantly, he talked to us and calmed us down.  I think that he could sense that we needed a distraction. He told us about his family, where he was from, his life.  He asked my sister and me for our names, and he talked to my sister at length about her diagnosis, where we were going, why going home for treatment was a good thing. He was the best distraction my sister and I could have asked for. He stopped to allow her to smoke, one of her favorite pastimes, and she was grateful.  He never once judged her, or told her she shouldn’t smoke.  He was an extremely calming presence for both of us.  He got our IDs, got us our boarding passes, got us through security, got us to the gate, all the while talking about everything, asking questions, maintaining calm.  He even gave my sister a badge he had with his first name on it, which Denise stuck into her purse. Denise told him that she was really nervous about going home, and then told him how much he calmed her down and make this trip seem more “okay”. He left us safely at the gate.  My sister was mad that I only tipped him $15 and not $20!

My sister died peacefully on October 14th, at home, with her family all around her. We told our whole family about how lucky we were that Moses came into our lives for a short time.  In the few days before she got very sick, we talked about writing a letter to you about Moses, and she wanted me to do it immediately, so she could sign it.  Time got the best of us, and we never did get to write the letter than I am writing to you now. After she died, I went through her purse and found the name tag that Moses had given her, and it reminded me of how he touched her life in her last few weeks. The last picture taken of my sister is in the wheelchair, in the parking garage, with Moses standing next to her. She insisted that I take it, and then would not allow any more pictures of herself after that.

I don’t know that Moses knew what impact he had on our lives that day.  Being a skycap, I am sure, cannot be easy.  Dealing with the public, I know from my 20 years as a nurse, has its’ ups and downs. But he really made a difference to me that day, and more importantly, he showed genuine kindness and compassion to my sister, and for that, I will always be grateful. He made this sad trip just a little happier for me and Denise.

I hope you will be kind enough to give him a copy of this letter, so he can know that he is appreciated by me and my family. I hope you will confirm that you received this email.  I also sent it through the website to the corporate office.

Respectfully,
Renee N Gorkin, RN, BSN (on behalf of me and Denise Malaspina)
Aurora, Colorado

The Port flew Renee in for the banquet so that she could give Moses the additional $5. Denise’s two children, who live in the Portland area, were also there. This was a very moving event, and a terrific reminder that we usually don’t know much about other people’s struggles; meeting them where they are is important. I hope every customer service professional takes this to heart. (It would help if customers took it to heart, too.) I need to be reminded of this all the time. I hope you don’t mind me reminding you.

Renee Gorkin and Moses San Nicholas

Renee Gorkin and Moses San Nicholas

 

Here is a video reminder from a church in Arkansas, called “Get Service“, that reinforces the concept rather nicely. Serendipitously, this arrived in my Facebook feed from my cousin Cindy Maynard while I was writing this post. Meant to be, yes?

Patrick Short flew to DC the morning after the event and got royal treatment from Southwest Airlines and TSA employees who had been at the event. He realizes that it can’t happen every time, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. The email was reprinted with the permission of Renee Gorkin, Moses San Nicolas and the Port of Portland.

Why YOU Should Take An Improv Class

This is a repost from Courtney Pong of CSz-San Jose, one of the 25+ 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 25+ different locations and confirmed what we suspected: Improv is kind of for everyone. But why?

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 CSz Portland at office (at) cszportland.com or call us at 503.236.8888

Improv is the Opposite of Bullying

In the improvisation world,

  • it’s OK to be creative
  • it’s great to take risks
  • it’s OK to fail. And to fail again.
  • it’s good to lead, and then to follow
  • we understand about taking turns
  • we give each other “gifts”
  • we look for the good in other people
  • truth is found in agreement
  • there is a safe space

In the bully world,

  • you’ll be called out if you stand out
  • bullies pile on your failures
  • bullies take the lead and never relinquish it
  • bullies don’t take turns
  • bullies give away nothing
  • bullies look for weakness
  • the truth is what bullies say it is
  • there is no safety

Bullies are fighting a status battle*. They are usually wounded people with low self-image, and they were usually treated badly themselves. They try to make for it in the only ways they feel they can; they tear other people down to their level or below, or they deflect attention off of themselves.

Improvisors become adept at working with these approaches onstage, using the energy of a status battle to build tension and create interesting scenes. People playing bullies can generate a lot of energy and fun. In real life though, it’s so damaging.

Offstage, confronted with bullying, even many improvisors can forget why it’s happening and get caught up in the drama. When you think of it like a game, you can understand it, keep your balance and sometimes, short-circuit it.

More important, though, is the creation of safe space. All working groups – companies, schools, churches, meetings – need a safe space where all ideas and approaches are welcome. At some point, decisions have to be made, but decisions can happen after all ideas are on the table, and they can happen without derision or undue criticism.

For kids, it’s important to have a place where kids can be kids – free to follow their interests, and free to play their way.

Bullies can’t do their thing in safe spaces. Improvisational space – listening, accepting, supporting, taking risks and celebrating failure – is safe space. It doesn’t have to be on a stage.

What do YOU think?

* We talk about Status in Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business in some detail (it’s a quick read – there’s not that much detail). Every interaction between people can become a status battle – someone is trying to raise their own status and/or lower the status of the other person(s) involved.

Fixing Things With Improvisation

An edited transcript of a phone interview of Patrick Short, GM of CSz Portland, and Michelle Baxter, M.S. – Arts Administration – Drexel University, for Michelle’s thesis. The original interview was in January, 2014. The comments have been edited for clarity and sanity.

MB: I was checking out your website, and I thought it was really great how you break down all the different things that businesses have used CSz for, and I saw one of the things that really stood out to me was “post-downsizing,” since that is really happening a lot. My first question is really basic and broad – can you tell me about some of the programs you offer to these business groups, if you have any that are more popular or some that you’re finding are becoming more popular?

CSz: Most people contact us looking for Team Building. That’s a big umbrella to some people, but it’s a piece of what we do. Team Building is carried along in everything that we present and teach – even in our shows. The term we’re trying to use is “applied improvisation,” because we’re taking improv beyond performing for people, we’re using it as a tool to achieve goals. And while a lot of people call us for Team Building, the thing that’s exploding right now – for us here in Portland – is customer service. Every time we turn around, we’re teaching customer service. I did 4 events last week, 3 of them were around customer service – the fourth was on presentation skills. The one that I’m doing this week for a company is customer service or customer experience. A sales call that I just had is for a large tech company who is here in Hillsboro is going to be onboarding 70-80 new tech support people soon. They’re in the process of doing the hiring, and they’re talking about bringing us in for improv soft skills training; handing us each set of people, dividing them into two groups, two hours a day for a week. It’s a dream to have that much time to work with people.

MB: Wow.

CSz: Technical support – it’s at the heart of customer service. They’ve trained them on their products, and they’ve trained them on their system – most companies do that and then throw the the newbies in front of customers and expect great results. This company is thinking, “No, we have to be more excellent than that.” What I really appreciate about this company, beyond bringing us in – is that they’ve had 3 outsourced companies working with them, and they’ve discovered that’s not the most effective way to deliver the service. So this is really awesome. Service is huge right now.

MB: So what would you say are the skills people are looking to build in customer service outside of the more basic Team Building programs you do? How are they utilizing improv to improve customer service?

 

CSz: Listening skills; communication skills; accepting people or meeting people where they are; supporting each other on their team – which sounds a little like Team Building, but it’s beyond that. Understanding that you look good when you make others look good; taking competent risks; stepping outside the program when your intuition tells you something else needs to be done. You might have a rock-solid policy, but there are times when you have to dump the policy to do what’s good and what’s right; and then, minimizing the effects of mistakes – one of the beautiful things about improv is when we perform, it’s mistake after mistake after mistake, and we just embrace it. We don’t sit around and point fingers and worry about errors – we learn from them – we don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over, but each mistake is an opportunity. So, those are the main things. We believe in improvisation as a system of observing, connecting, and responding, and within in that system, the pillars that hold it up are listening, accepting, supporting, taking competent risks and minimizing the effects of mistakes.

MB: That is so interesting. You know, I think of all the people I’ve talked to, you’re the fourth person I’ve talked to, and I haven’t really heard that much about minimizing the effects of mistakes, and I love that, how that transfers. I have a theatre background, and that’s what improv is all about: Not saying “no” and rolling with what you’re given. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to be taking to the corporate world.

CSz: Absolutely.

MB: I’m glad you said that.

CSz: Everybody makes mistakes. The question is what happens after you make the mistake. I run a company and we have lots of vendors that we work with, and they make mistakes – WE’RE gonna make mistakes. too. It’s what happens AFTER we make the mistake. In our business, I love it when somebody tells me,“Oh, we double-billed this customer and we have to take care of it.” Because what happens? We end up fixing it and making a fan for life because most people don’t expect that from a company. People call us and say, “I was double-billed for Friday Night…” – we just take care of it – or even better, “We got sick, and we couldn’t come Saturday night – is there any way you could help us?” And our approach is “Great! When do you want to see the show?” There’s no “Sorry, you didn’t use your tickets.” It’s “When do you want to see the show?” We want people to get value. They call expecting nothing, and instead, they get pretty much exactly what they want, and they usually can’t believe it. They call ready to fight, and we’re listening and saying, “We get it – we’re on your side.” When WE’VE made the mistake, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to avoid it next time – it’s also an opportunity to convert somebody into a fan for life. When I work with vendors, I’m less interested in how they work with me regularly – that’s cool – but inevitably, somebody’s going to blow something, and what happens when they do?

MB: So what made you decide, or what made CSz decide to add this component to their programming?

CSz: That’s a fun story. I was with CSz San Jose; I played there from 1987 to 1992, and I served as General Manager. We did our ComedySportz show one night, and afterwards, some guys came up to us in our handshaking line, you know we have this thing we call a “slap line” where we high-five the audience on their way out the door – I don’t know if you’ve experienced that – but it’s an important part of the fan experience… These guys came up to us and said,“Can we talk to you? We want to think like you.” And we’re thinking, “Uh… alright… what’s going on?” They worked for Apple; they were in a department writing drivers, these software guys writing drivers – very glamorous stuff – and they were having trouble even agreeing on all of the goals, not to mention the path. And we said, “Okay. What do you mean by ‘think like us?’” They said, “It looks seamless. You agree on everything, you’re always moving in the same direction, it’s like somebody has an idea and everyone goes with it…” And we thought,“Okay, cool.” So we offered them our Adult 101 syllabus for 6 weeks at the campus in Cupertino for this group of 10 or 12 guys. Then, at the end, they wrote us a check, and we thought, “We have a new business.” So, it was a customer who came in and said,“You can do this for us – give it to us.” That was the first one, and clearly, we had no idea what we were doing except how to train them to be improv performers. It was a nice start.

It’s been refined over the years since then – by a lot. In fact, the refinement has accelerated over the last 5 years with my involvement in the Applied Improvisation Network. CSz brought a great attitude and great team culture to a whole bunch of skilled people who were really, truly focused on the show. Now, it’s really grown so much over the years that my focus has shifted. I still do the shows – I probably perform 100 times a year, but teaching Applied Improvisation has become a passion. I think it’s connected to the fact that here in Portland, I’ve always taught our 101 class – our adult class – that’s always been my niche.  I don’t teach many advanced improv classes – although I do some teaching in musical improv, since I’m a piano player, and I compose. I’ve developed a talent for teaching people who have not touched this before, and that matches what the corporate world needs very nicely. Having worked for many years in sales and marketing in the high-tech industry doesn’t hurt, either. I had to listen and learn about clients’ needs, and I learned a lot about what makes some companies work and others not work.

MB: So these next two questions are very basic, but I’m kind of using them as a gauge to see if there are certain areas of the country where these things are more in demand or if certain companies just have a better handle on it. I think it has a lot to do with marketing and I really had to dig to find theatres that I didn’t end up following through with because it was so hard to find out if they did corporate trainings. A lot of people I’ve talked to have said, “Yeah, we haven’t really marketed this yet, but we’re looking at it now because people are just coming to us more, and we’re thinking, ‘Well how much more earned revenue could we be looking at if we start marketing this?’”

 

CSz: There’s a detachment, too; because many people in our field look at working with corporations as “whoring,” and they’re absolutely wrong. We have never looked at it that way. If anybody wants a chance to make the world better, this is really a place where we could do it. Even entertainment-wise, we have never looked at it as, “Oh yeah, that’s just a corporate show.” It’s a challenge, it’s fun, it’s core to what we do. I wouldn’t be performing ComedySportz anymore if it was just all home theatre shows. Home shows are not challenging enough – they’re so much fun, and very rewarding, but that alone is not challenging enough for a career. I hope that companies looking for improvisation training get a chance to work with people who are passionate about working withthem. We are.

 

MB: Yeah. Interesting. I like that perspective on it. So just to give me a gauge, how long has CSz Portland been offering these training programs?

CSz: CSz Portland is 22 years old. We’ve offered Applied Improvisation from our beginning in 1993, although in a limited sense because I was the only person with experience when we opened up here with a new team; that made us vulnerable to issues.  If I booked something and got sick, I wouldn’t have anybody who was anywhere near competent enough to do it. So I limited it to some small engagements for a couple of years. It wasn’t that we DIDN’T do it, but I deliberately didn’t focus on it until I felt like I had people who had the chops who I could train to do this. Our first significant one would’ve been about 1995, so we’re looking at about 20 years. I’ve been doing it personally for 26+ years.

MB: So now what would you say in the past year – how many programs do you typically do in one year? Or do you want to give a gauge of how many you did in 2013? Are you seeing an increase year after year?

CSz: It was growing significantly through 2007 and then tanked in the recession. It never went completely away, but we were probably up to about 30 times a year in 2007, and probably went down to half a dozen a couple years later. I mean, it TANKED, and companies just stopped spending money on stuff that they didn’t have to spend. For 2013, off the top of my head, I’m going to say between 35 and 40. It was the most revenue we’ve ever had from it, and we’ve got – as far as days in front of clients this year, we’re already at 8 in the middle of January. It feels like it’s really growing. And we’re doing some things with more reach. I designed and sold a program to Radio Shack that’s been done 6 times, 4 in New York, 1 in Boston, 1 in L.A. I haven’t physically taught any of them.

MB: Interesting.

CSz: Other top CSz people have taught them. And we’re at that point where we can get together on Skype, and because we’ve been working together for years, and I’ve been leading train the trainer sessions at our shareholders’meetings and ComedySportz World Championship events – we have a common language. We won’t necessarily use the same games, but we have the same goals, the same articulation of our system. There’s actually a system of connecting, observing and responding and not just winging it. And that’s really helped a lot. We’re seeing more and more work nationally.

MB: Wow. I was also intrigued when Bobbi Block told me about your location because I know the arts seem to be more well-supported by the public in Portland and the surrounding area.

CSz: Portland and Seattle are artistic places. Everybody’s in a band and most people have started a theatre company – I’m joking, but it seems like that’s the case. And those that haven’t mostly knit. If you watch Portlandia, it’s not far off – it’s based in reality.

I think what drives this area the most is a combination of high-tech and the shoe companies. We have Nike; the North American headquarters for Adidas is here; there are smaller ones, too. Nike’s huge, and then we have a large tech sector. There are 15,000 Intel employees here. They aren’t headquartered in Oregon, but there are 15,000 employees here. Tektronix was a huge tech company–old school tech company–that spun off companies like crazy in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, and it’s been bought out and shrunk, but a lot of the companies they spun off are still here. There’s a big start-up mentality here. It’s not quite like Silicon Valley, but there’s a start-up mentality here. We’ve done a lot of work with Nike – it’s not like you get into Nike or Intel and go through the whole company. That would be sweet, but they don’t work that way – they’re very departmental. We go department by department. We’ve probably done 30 engagements with Nike. We’ve done at least that many with Intel. The drivers for this work aren’t so much artistic; there’s a big design community and there are some forward-thinking companies. Working with Nike is outstanding because they’ve already filtered out the people who don’t want to play. I call keeping the people on the fringe of a workshop engaged “border collie-ing.”You don’t have to “border collie” people from Nike.

And yet, we have to get out there and earn our money. We’re for-profit, so we’re not getting grants. And we do that by doing shows and training for corporate, church, association and school clients. We’re out there earning money. Because we’re clean, we can even play at churches – most improv groups wouldn’t play in a church – they simply couldn’t do it. We don’t have a problem with that. The other thing that happens with it – not only do they pay you, they laugh really hard, the audiences are great, and they’re grateful – truly GRATEFUL that they can have a comedy experience where they aren’t offended. It’s really super simple – we don’t make fun of what people can’t change – ethnicity, politics, religion – we stay away from those things and we’re able to be funny without offending anybody. We’ve done road shows for 21 years without a complaint from anybody – schools, churches, corporate, private, conventions – it’s still fun – it’s really hilarious.

There’s almost as much gratitude in our corporate workshops. Team Building has gotten to be a loaded term; apparently, there’s a lot of junk out there in the training world. During our final reflections, we always have someone tell us, “I thought this was going to be terrible and it was great!” I am always willing to hear that – and to understand that the fear and negative associations are a form of barrier that we need to get past early in our training events.

MB: Are you finding your repeat clients or customers – whatever you prefer to call them – such as Nike, do you find that you’re doing the same things for these different departments, or are you seeing people who – it’s kind of like you’re taking the workshop up to the next level and perhaps you’re trainings are getting more advanced with your return customers?

CSz: The stuff that seems to be exploding right now is the ongoing programs. The sales call I was at this morning would be ongoing – an insurance company I’ve worked with booked multiple stops to reach the whole company, and they’re talking about working with us more deeply in the future. I have booked an engagement for this Friday with a local ice cream company. It’s called Salt and Straw, and they make and sell ice cream flavors like pear / blue cheese, bacon brown ale… for Thanksgiving they had Turkey brittle, and sweet potato pie, and orange yam and they did the whole Thanksgiving menu – in ice cream. One of their most popular flavors is olive oil – it’s fantastic. First of all, the ice cream’s wonderful, second; you walk up, you usually wait in line, and everybody’s waiting to get into this joint, and then you get up front, and you can sample all the flavors – they don’t hurry you. They do a really nice job of connecting with you, and yet, they want to hire us to amp up their customer experience even higher. They want to focus on the “mistake thing,” not worrying about it, and just dealing with it. I will be working with their managers, and then they’re talking about on-boarding a significant number of people – they’re really growing. They want to bring me in to work with the people at the front end after they’ve had their basic training.

So what’s happening is this: 10 years ago, we taught Team Building – let’s get along, let’s connect. Now, we’re applying improv to higher level goals – really high-level customer service techniques – leadership, design thinking, creative brainstorming and more. Many times it can be the same activity or activities, but the difference is in how you introduce them, how you reflect on them and how you help your clients make the connections for themselves. That’s the value-add we offer. Anyone can learn these games, but working with somebody who’s led and reflected on the games at companies for 20+ years can switch on a dime, recognize what’s happening in front of them and connect it to their work during reflection, That’s the value we add.

MB: So would you say you’ve ever gotten feedback from somebody you’ve worked with, and they’ve gotten a benefit out of the workshop that you never even thought about, and it kind of puts that new spin on things for you?

CSz: That has happened. I don’t have anything specific that’s coming to mind, but that’s happened several times. Most of the time, they make a connection inside the workshop that I haven’t thought of. As I walk into Salt and Straw on Friday, I will be carrying all the reflection of all previous clients with me on all those games. If something comes up, there’s probably somebody who’s had something similar. But not always – sometimes, something will come together in a very, very new way.

I’m teaching my 101 class – my adult 101 class – for the 84th time in Fall, 2015. I’ve been there, and done that a lot of times. Last week, we played a couple games and struggled a little bit and the class determined that the problem was they kept assuming there were rules that I hadn’t said. And it was with these particular games that there was a whole new way of looking at it. I told them the parameters of the game as they played the game, and they were struggling because they assumed they couldn’t do things, but I hadn’t said anything about it. That was a whole new look that I hadn’t dealt with in the past, and it’s really fascinating because it also popped up in one of the other corporate workshops I was doing last week. People were saying, “Can we do this?” And my new schtick was, “If I haven’t said you can’t, try it. And the only thing I ask of you is if you think it’s going to ‘break’ the game, then maybe don’t do it. If you think its going to enhance your experience, try it. And if I find it breaks the game, that’s something I get to learn.” It’s really cool that that happened in 2 completely separate instances in the same week.

Usually, the lessons are happening inside. I have had people get back to me and say they’ve taken little pieces from the workshop and incorporated them into their culture. When we play a bunch of circle warmup games, we do this thing where if someone makes a mistake, the entire group puts their arms around each other and says “Ah-ooga” like an old car horn, and moves into the center; it’s a fun little ritual. Then everybody laughs, and says, “Hey we made a mistake.”Sometimes I make a mistake just so they can “ah-ooga.” I’ve had many, many clients tell me that “ah-ooga” has made it into company meetings. “Hey, we screwed this up. Ah-ooga! Now what are we going to do about it?”

MB: So with the feedback you get, and you touched on how customer service is something that you’re really working on right now, are there any other new programs that you’re looking at or exploring right now for businesses?

 

CSz: We’ll explore anything anyone throws at us. We’re very much driven by what’s in front of us as opposed to thinking about stuff and then trying to go find a client for it. We’re in reactive sales. Sometimes when we get a great idea on our own, we find there’s no market for it.

MB: Yeah, I saw that on the website that you even say…

CSz: Bring us a problem, and we’ll design a program for you.

MB: Yeah, exactly – have you had…

CSz: We’ve had lots of people do that.

MB: Do you do any evaluation on your programs or do you ever get any feedback on people you work with on how they’re evaluating it once they’re done with the workshops?

CSz: Most of the time, I talk with the main contact afterwards, and we have a phone call or exchange emails. One thing I’ve found is that people are never doing as much follow-up as I wish they would. Life gets busy. We’ve designed evaluation surveys and had almost no one fill them out. I wish there were more of it. We touch base, we talk – almost exclusively they tell me all the great things about it. Every once in awhile, we’ll hear, “Oh there was this one activity that didn’t really resonate with people because of this…” Honestly, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s almost like I’d feel better if I heard that more often.

 

By the way, in this portion of our business, we’ve had zero dissatisfied customers the entire time we’ve been doing it. We had one, sort-of, once, and I fixed it. The one “sort-of” was when we did a customer service training for a small municipality here in Oregon, a little town–and when I say “little”, it was 8 employees – the city manager booked it, but didn’t participate, which could’ve been part of the issue. After this 3 – hour customer service workshop, the city manager called me the next day and said, “Hey – they loved the workshop, the loved the games, they thought you were awesome, they don’t have any idea what this had to do with customer service.” My reply was, “Well, we didn’t get to that.” They were a little slow. They were one of the slower clients I’ve worked with, and they just didn’t get there. So I simply said, “Schedule some time – I’ll come back and finish the job.” I ended up spending 5 hours total with them. I went back for 2 hours, and they were delighted. They did the rest of it – it was great. That’s as close as we’ve come to a “failure”.

MB: That’s fantastic.

CSPo: Seriously, it’s almost like I want someone to call and say,“This didn’t work,” because then it would feel more human. I’m not going to go deliberately blow it, so… we may be waiting a long time for a failure. Applied Improvisation works.

Patrick Short is the co-author of Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. He’s currently attempting to convince Oregon Ballet Theatre that a little improv training could go a long way toward reducing dancer fear of improvisation in performances.