Improvisation Unleashed: Elevating Your Theatrical Artistry

Improvisation Unleashed: Elevating Your Theatrical Artistry

Embracing the Unknown: Improv as a Pathway to Connection

Say the word “improv,” and most people conjure up images of “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” Chicago’s Second City, or other comedy shows. While many enjoy the art form as an audience member, the thought of actually doing improv often gives them chills. This was certainly my response when I first encountered improv. I was shocked when a very shy friend of mine shared that he had just taken an improv course. However, I was also intrigued and plied him for more details. As he described his experience, he was elated and full of an energy I’d never seen in him before. He was lit up and a fuller version of himself – more alive and more confident. I was won over and signed up for a class immediately, a five-day improvisation intensive.

The first day of the workshop brought me back to my first days at school as a young boy. I was overcome with nervousness, used the bathroom at least five times, and almost walked out during the introduction. I was terrified, and all I could imagine was feeling like a fool and completely embarrassing myself. But I plucked up my courage and stayed.

Within the first hour of our class, I was hooked. My nervousness quickly transformed into fascination. We immediately engaged in exercises that were simple on the surface but allowed us to open up, relate to each other, and develop quick but meaningful bonds. It turned out we were all nervous but eager to step into this new territory together. What lay ahead suddenly became less daunting.

Over the course of those five days, we learned the practices of improvisation firsthand. The through-line was a few basic principles described well by Robert Poynton in his book “Everything’s an Offer.” With every exercise we did, these principles came to life. Along with “yes, and,” they are the foundation of the improv you see on stage or TV, but they also apply beautifully to almost every aspect of life. Any time life takes you by surprise and you have to respond quickly and in the moment by drawing upon your innate wisdom, that is improvisation at work.

Improv as a Relational Practice

Of the many things we learned, what has stayed with me are the initial exercises we did to get to know each other. Those connection exercises were powerfully effective and helped us build relationships that elevated our learning.

Jane Dutton, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, reminds us that like in this improv class, organizations depend on individuals to interact and form connections to accomplish the work of the organization. The quality of those connections, in turn, affects how organizations function. It is relatively easy to make connections in work and life, but it is the quality of those connections that influences the quality of outcomes.

Life in organizations is organized around task and relationship, yet we spend much of our time and energy focused on the first of these practices – task. Companies that devote equal attention to relationship have been shown to produce higher business results. Anything that helps create those bonds is investing in the organization’s relational reserves. The financial reserve is what an organization carries to provide a budgetary cushion during an economic downturn or market hardship. Similarly, a relationship reserve equally provides a bank of built-up trust, hope, and other virtues that equally support an organization during tough times. The higher quality those relationships are, the healthier your reserves are.

Connection and relationships are the bedrock of organizations – without them, organizations are handicapped in their ability to thrive and succeed. Improv is a unique way to build these ties – it is a relational practice.

Improv at Work

Improvisation has become a core part of my practice as an organization leader and practitioner. One playground for my practice is the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations in the Ross School of Business. Each year, I teach improv to a class of undergraduate and graduate business school students. The class is part of a six-week intensive called Magnify, focused on the practices of positive organizations. My session is at the beginning of Magnify, and I capture this moment as an opportunity to use improv to build connection and relationships.

Over the course of the three-hour session, we playfully and skillfully move from acquaintance to high-quality connection, using improvisation to build trust and safety. I have seen each group’s energy transform from reserved and hesitant to open, joyful, and alive. It is magical. By the end of each class, a real team and community have been formed – the group has built up a significant relational reserve that amplifies commitment and learning during the intense demands of the following six weeks.

One student in a recent class described his experience in this way: “I had taken classes and workshops where the importance of play was elaborated and implemented heavily. We would play countless types of games, but the social skills they facilitated were not salient. During our time with Chris, every activity was purposeful. Each game or group exercise had the excitement of play in its natural form but pushed us to utilize deeper team skills. Taking directions, communication, and fast thinking are a few of the many vital social and career tools called upon, all disguised in a seamless, fun package.”

This experience at the University of Michigan reminds me of my own introduction to improvisation many years ago. Through its invitation to play, improvisation reliably breaks down barriers and supports a relational engagement that is powerful and lasting. This kind of connection is a building block of positive workplace culture, and from such a foundation, so much more becomes possible for individuals and organizations.

Embracing the Unknown: Improv as a Mindset

Life will always throw us some curveballs. I invite you to practice the principles of improvisation to embrace the unknown in the new year and see the change it can bring to your work and life.

At the heart of improvisation lies the concept of “yes, and.” This mantra encourages us to accept what is presented to us, build upon it, and move the action forward. It’s a mindset of openness, collaboration, and forward momentum – the antithesis of resistance, judgment, and stagnation.

In our daily lives, how often do we find ourselves saying “no” or “but” when presented with something unexpected? We may do this out of habit, a desire for control, or a fear of the unknown. But what if we instead responded with a resounding “yes, and?” This simple shift can unlock a world of possibility.

Improv also teaches us to be present and attentive. When we’re in our heads, worrying about the past or the future, we miss the opportunities unfolding right in front of us. Improvisation demands that we stay grounded in the here and now, ready to recognize and seize upon the unexpected.

Furthermore, improv fosters a willingness to make mistakes and embrace failure as a necessary part of the creative process. In the world of theater and performance, there is no room for perfection. Actors who can laugh off their missteps and keep the scene moving are the ones who shine. This mindset can be remarkably freeing and empowering when applied to our personal and professional lives.

Whether you’re an actor, a business leader, or simply someone navigating the unpredictability of life, the principles of improvisation can be a profound ally. By cultivating a “yes, and” mindset, staying present, and celebrating failure, you can unlock new levels of creativity, connection, and resilience.

So the next time life throws you a curveball, take a deep breath, say “yes, and,” and see where the journey leads. Who knows – you might just find yourself improvising your way to greatness.

Conclusion: Improv as a Pathway to Theatrical Artistry

As performers, we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, called upon to respond in the moment and bring our characters to life. Improvisation is not just a tool for comedians and improv troupes – it is a vital skill for any actor, musician, or creative artist.

By embracing the principles of improvisation, you can elevate your theatrical artistry and unlock new levels of expressiveness, spontaneity, and connection with your audience. Improv teaches us to let go of control, trust our instincts, and engage in a genuine, in-the-moment dialogue with our scene partners and the world around us.

Whether you’re rehearsing a new role, workshopping a musical theater piece, or simply exploring your own creative boundaries, the lessons of improvisation can be transformative. They can help you develop a more nuanced understanding of your craft, cultivate a deeper empathy for your characters, and tap into the raw, authentic energy that captivates audiences.

So consider exploring an improv class or workshop at your local musical theater education and performance center. Unleash your improvisational skills and watch your theatrical artistry soar to new heights. The journey may be filled with surprises, but that’s what makes it so exhilarating.

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