I had been exposed to improv before. Once as part of a team-building event. Then again in a one-night intro class that I did as a birthday surprise for a friend who has everything. But if you were to ask me back then if I would ever find myself on a stage performing, let me tell you my answer would be no.
Then a global pandemic happened. And we were severed from human connection and all the wonderful little things that make our lives whole. So I found myself searching for joy like my life depended on it, because it did.
So my first class was virtual
Improv, or improvisation, is a form of live theater. Most or all of what is performed is created spontaneously by the performers, rather than being scripted in advance. Improv classes typically focus on building skills such as active listening, teamwork, communication, and adaptability. My first Improv class was virtual through Zoom, which I didn’t mind at the time. I guess Points North was a pioneer of Zoom. We had been using it for meetings long before the pandemic trend. Nonetheless, I was curious if the same Zoom that hosted all our work meetings could also be synonymous with something fun. Although it’s no substitute for being in person, virtual improv allowed me to drop all the stresses of the day and just have fun. I was hooked and ready to experience it in person as soon as it was safe to do so.
Flash forward to now, and I’ve completed all the class levels, and perform regularly with an indie team at Baltimore Improv Group Theater in the Station North district. That’s right, I actually hop on stage with no plan and completely go with the flow in front of a live audience. For some this might sound like torture, but for me, it’s been the most fun I’ve had in quite some time. And I started wondering, could some of the lessons I’ve learned here be applied outside the theater? The answer is yes, and…
Here are a few specific ways in which improv lessons might apply to running a business:
In improv, it is important to listen carefully to your scene partner(s) and respond in a way that moves the scene forward. For example, I come out on stage and my scene partner is visibly upset. She says “the tulips in my garden have died!” I could dismiss her idea and say “those aren’t tulips, those are weeds!” But that wouldn’t be supporting what she came up with. I could also belittle her idea and say “ugh, what’s the big deal, they are just tulips.” But that shows us immediately that her feelings are not valid.
The ideal response is to support my scene partner and also help to move our story forward. So when she says “the tulips in my garden have died!” I can add, “yes that’s terrible, mom. We’re not going to win the best in show at the garden awards this year.” This adds more detail to help build out a scene, and gives my partner even more reason to be upset. Alternatively, I could say “yes, that’s terrible. I told you not to feed them steak sandwiches. Tulips need water, not steak!” That sounds crazy, right? Good. My goal was to add some backstory, get the audience’s attention, and set this scene up to go deeper.
How This Applies to Work
This same principle applies to business, where effective communication and collaboration with colleagues and clients is key. If you’re in a brainstorming session with your team or with a client, it’s important to not just share your ideas, but also listen to the ideas of others in the room. Don’t just wait for a break in the talking so that you can share your ideas. Try to actively listen to what others are saying, and see if there are ways you can support or heighten what they bring to the table. This kind of inclusive listening lets others know that they are heard and that their opinions are valued.
Improv requires a high level of teamwork and trust, as performers must rely on each other to create a cohesive scene. Before a show, we look our teammates in the eye, say their name, pat their back, and say “I’ve got your back.” It’s a lesson in trust and knowing that we are not alone when we step out on stage. It means the person or people who step out with you are going to support you. This means it’s okay for you to fail or to make a weird choice. Because you can trust that your team is going to support it and try to make it work. They will help you to move the scene forward. Or they will know when it’s time to naturally end the scene so a new story can emerge.
In business, strong teamwork and trust among employees can lead to more efficient and effective work. But in order for someone to do their best work, they have to feel supported. They have to know they are in a safe place where they can feel free to speak up, do their best work, and also know that it’s okay to fail.
Improv requires clear, concise communication in order to move a scene forward. When I’m practicing and when I’m performing on stage, I have to get out of my head and into the present moment. How often do we even do that in real life? Honestly, it feels like I’m almost always thinking about the past or making up scenarios about the future. My mind is best known for ruminating about things that have very little to do with the moment I’m in. But improv demands my attention. The craft asks me to leave everything else at the door. If I’m not fully present, I might miss something important. To be in the moment, I’m not just taking in the words my scene partner is saying, I’m also taking in the way it’s being said, tone of voice, inflection. And I’m looking at body language and movement as well, including the amount of space between us. So much can be said with so few words.
In business, effective communication is crucial for successful collaboration and decision-making. And when it comes to the workplace, I actually think we have put ourselves at a disadvantage with all the systems we use. It’s all too easy to miss certain social cues when communicating through email or a project management system. If you need to have an important conversation, I think it’s best practice to do that in real-time. See the “Active Listening” section for more details.
In improv, performers must be able to adapt and respond to changing circumstances in the scene. If I’m in a gardening scene and suddenly my scene partner says “We need to run! The dinosaurs are on the loose!” then it looks like I’m now on the run. That’s how quickly a scene can change, and I have to be able to adapt to keep the story moving forward. Sometimes the humor is in the changing circumstances, and by engaging in this way I’m deepening the scene, making the show truly one of a kind. There is beauty in the chaos. That’s where the gold is, so we keep rolling with it.
This same ability to adapt and respond to change is important in business, where circumstances can change quickly and unexpectedly. The truth is that no part of life follows a linear line, and there’s not much that adheres to the script of what you thought your life and your work would be. You must have the ability to be flexible, to pivot, and to adapt to new information. Just like it unfolds on stage, in business, this is also where some of the best ideas and strategies emerge.
Overall, the skills developed in improv class can help individuals and teams in a business setting to work more effectively and efficiently, and to communicate and collaborate more effectively with colleagues and clients. I can say without a doubt that this art form has changed my life. If you’re in Baltimore, consider taking an Intro to Improv workshop with Baltimore Improv Group, and maybe I’ll see you on stage!