What the World Needs Now is Improv

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“Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, and transformation can take place.”

— Viola Spolin

I have always believed that arts instruction is an essential part of one’s education. In the last couple of years, as I’ve watched our government breakdown and organizations crumble over differences of opinion, I am even more convinced that everyone could take a lesson (or several) from the arts. This week’s lesson – improvisation.

I’ve been reading Tina Fey’s, Bossypants, in which she highlights 4 basic rules of improv that have not only given her success on stage but also in business. Theater is all about give and take, listening, working together, and supporting each other. Let’s all consider for a moment, what would happen if we put a few improv techniques into practice in our daily lives, in our relationships, and in the workplace?

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  1. Agree… and say yes - Rule #1! You must first respect what your partner has created. You may later agree to disagree, but great improvisers always keep an open mind and build a safe space where new ideas are welcome and dialogue can thrive. This also means that we have to listen to what our partner is saying! Let’s just imagine what would happen in our government, if for one day politicians agreed to hear each other out, respect what the other side presented, and hold off on comments like, “no – that will never work.” I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be shut down right now!

  2. Yes, and... – Rule #2. Say yes and then contribute something for god’s sake! There is nothing worse than watching an improv sketch tank because one (or more) of the actors only gives one word responses and doesn’t contribute anything to the scene. Ok – maybe there is something slightly worse. It’s watching my fellow colleagues in the performing arts field cancel concerts, lose great conductors, and close their doors because two sides have differing opinions on how to run an organization. Instead of saying yes and contributing new ideas, they stamp their foot, cross their arms, and refuse to join in a conversation. Let’s have more “yes, ands” in this world.

  3. Make Statements. In other words, have confidence in yourself, in the words you speak, and the actions you take. If an actor does nothing but ask questions, then it leaves it up to the others to do all of the heavy lifting. It also leaves us as the audience feeling unsure of the capabilities of those onstage. In business, we’ve all worked with that person who drains the meeting room with their endless questions and no contributions to the solution. Also remember that this rule is not at the exclusion of rules #1 and 2. Make strong, confident statements, while still respecting others and contributing something new to the conversation.

  4. There are no mistakes – only opportunities! Some of the best moments in improv start with a miscommunication of ideas and seeing how the actors work together to get on the same page. Often what results is so much better and funnier than the actor(s) originally intended. Let’s take chances. Let’s understand that mistakes are going to happen and learn to adapt. Let’s admit that our ideas are not always superior and that we can learn a thing or two even when decisions don’t go our way (that means you Congress).

“In life, we are constantly editing ourselves and second-guessing our ideas in an attempt to be perfect. Improvisation dares us to trust our instincts and appreciate others and what they bring to the table.” – Tina Fey

I know that many of the issues our country and businesses are faced with today are very complex. I know that problems are not solved overnight with a few theater techniques. But what if – just maybe – we stopped worrying about ourselves for a moment and supported our fellow actors on this stage we call life? I’d like to see what would happen!

Amy Kirkland