Can the tools used, and principals gained from practicing theatrical improvisation help ordinary people to rediscover their extraordinary ability to communicate, to make decisions, and to lead? This is the question that came to me in my first days of Improv training at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, one of New York City’s well-known improvisation schools for actors.
In order for a group of actors to perform on stage successfully, each actor must adopt a few simple but powerful principles: Listen with your whole body. Be in a state of agreement and build on what your scene partner is creating. Silence your self-judging inner critic. Own, celebrate, and share failure.
Having come to improvisation from a career in IT, Technical training and Recruiting, it seemed to me that many of the skills one needs to create a good stage improvisation are very much the same skills one needs to be successful in business. The principles seemed so basic, so universal, so easy, yet so powerful! I wondered why they had remained vastly un-adopted in the business world today.
When I moved back to Seattle in 2007, I began exploring how I might pass along the skills I had learned in my improvisation training to “regular people” in a non-scary, but engaging way. My first improv class, which I taught through the Seattle Free School, consisted partially of actors and partly of non-actors, including professionals from Microsoft, AT&T and REI. It became clear to me as class progressed, that the students who seemed to be getting the most out of the sessions were the non-actors. I went on to teach subsequent improv classes, and the more I taught, the clearer it became to me that the ones who were consistently finding abilities within themselves that they never knew they had, were the ones who had never explored improvisation. Repeatedly, I was told by these students how they wished they could bottle this stuff up and take it to work.
So why is it that the skills gained from improvisation remain relatively unknown in the business world? In my experience, the answer can be summed up in three words: FEAR OF FAILURE. At some point between toddler-hood and adolescence, many people become conditioned to hide their mistakes and apologize when they don’t perform the way they think they’re expected to. They often forget the gift they were endowed with at birth. Yes, creativity comes as standard equipment in humans. So, the trick to fostering creativity in an individual or organization is to create, through improvisational play, an environment in which each person allows themself to rediscover their creativity by breaking down their self-imposed limits, and in doing so, unleashing their innate creativity.