Improv skills lead to success

Archive for August 2012

Improv and Limitations

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This post continues my brief series on how you can learn about improv and business from non-improvisers. I’m drawing this set of examples from 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick.

Frederick points out that limitations encourage creativity. Some improvisers, particularly younger ones, want to perform with either no or minimal constraints on their creation. For them, true improvisation isn’t constrained by suggestions or game rules. Instead, they might not even get a suggestion before starting…something… based on whatever comes to mind. This type of production can work, but the process relegates the audience to the role of passive observers. As I’ve said several times before: if audience members expect to see improvised theatre but have no chance to affect the performance, how do they know what they’re seeing is truly improvised?

Like architects who work within the constraints of space, physics, budget, and client desires, improvisers should strongly consider ceding more control to their audience. Stepping out of the constraints imposed by high school and college instructors and spreading one’s wings feels wonderful to the performer, but it’s not as satisfying for audience members who expect to participate in the process. Rehearsals, workshops, and performances for other improvisers present wonderful opportunities to work from scratch and indulge. Paying audiences deserve the chance to play their role, too.

Never Lie, Especially Not to Yourself

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In improv, like other arts, the audience wants to see a glimpse of the performers’ true selves. Those expectations make it difficult to deliver a truly satisfying performance when you’re not honest with yourself. That means being honest about your likes, dislikes, habits, crutches, and motives. It also means of being honest about whether you succeeded and to what extent.

Outside of the improv context, I have found it very useful to be completely honest with myself and others about whether I win or lose money when I play poker. I used to play pretty seriously, heading to Atlantic City or Vegas several times a year. Yes, this was before I got married. In the mid to late 90s I was a consistent winner, mainly because poker was just starting to get popular and my skills were a couple of years ahead of the pack. As time went by, the field got tougher and my results suffered. I analyzed my play, decided I no longer wanted to work hard enough to stay ahead of the game, and made the transition to playing recreationally.

I monitored my own play and results, and of course you should as well for whatever you do, but most improv groups have someone who is in charge of giving notes or notes are offered in a group session after a performance. Performers are expected to accept the notes, evaluate them, and incorporate them into their work. Improv notes, like performance reviews in an office setting, have a strong subjective element. Poker wins and losses, though of course guided in part by luck, are much more straightforward. If you leave with more money than you brought, you are a winner.

Where most performers, business people, and poker players trip up is by lying about how they did. Pretty soon the little white lies that save your reputation create cognitive dissonance, especially when someone sees a show or watches you play cards and the results don’t match the image you’re projecting. This realization can strain a friendship or promote distrust among colleagues.

My rule is to never lie to anyone, especially myself, about my performance. I don’t care if it’s about my work on stage, my writing, or at the poker table. I reserve the right not to answer a question (unless my wife asks, she gets to know everything), but I will never lie. This policy keeps cognitive dissonance to a minimum and forces me to deal with unfavorable results. That sounds pretty grim, but it also means I get to revel in what I do right.

Improv and Control

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This post is the second in my series on learning about improv from non-improv authors. My current favorite book of that type is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, in which Frederick has some very useful thoughts on control and the creative process.

Kinesthesiologists refer to walking as “controlled falling.” To move forward, you must first unbalance your body and then catch yourself before you hit the ground. This basic human activity illustrates our lives perfectly. Not only must we create an imbalance to make progress; we have to do so repeatedly. In a similar vein, human existence is about the struggle to control one’s environment. Whether you arrange your work area so you’re comfortable or you go after a job, you think will make you happy, you’re fighting for control.

Improv groups that rely on a single, more or less controlling individual can do good work, but in many cases the group’s performances will be something less than the sum of its parts. As Frederick points out, “properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process.” In another context, racing great Mario Andretti said, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” Improv teams are just like other groups in that everyone is responsible for everyone else’s success. When a performer makes a choice on stage, it is everyone’s job to make that choice work.

In relation to architectural design, Frederick says that every choice must be justified in at least two ways. In improv, justification means incorporating an offer into a scene. There are times when players make multiple offers and only one can be taken up, or someone could make an offer that truly can’t be incorporated without wrecking the scene, but among experienced players those incidents are exceedingly rare. Yes, you always want to make great offers, but Frederick argues that a beautiful composition is the result of a harmonious relationship among the design elements, not a grouping of the most beautiful elements available.

Learning from non-Improvisers

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My current favorite improv book by a non-improviser is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Frederick distilled the wisdom he’s developed over his career as an architect, urban designer, and instructor into 101 aphorisms meant to help burgeoning architects deal with the rigors of their undergraduate training and assimilate that knowledge into a viable creative process. As it turns out, most of his advice applies directly to improvisational comedy and to the business world.

After noting that architectural design springs from an idea, Frederick states that “the more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be.” His example shows two churches, one that represents itself as being for everyone and the other for purple-striped vegetarians. The church that’s targeted at a very specific group is much better attended than the other generic church.

Improv scenes are based on offers, which are scene details that come out of a player’s statement or action. An offer such as walking through a door; stamping one’s feet; and then taking off earmuffs, coat, and gloves tells us that the character just came in from the snow. The player’s emotion and intention give even more information. If she moves quickly and yanks off her hat, it might mean that it is bitter cold outside. If she moves slowly and sets down her purse before taking off her cold weather gear, she might have trudged for half a mile through foot-deep drifts because the bus was on a snow route and couldn’t get up her hill.

Frederick’s nineteenth dictum, that one should start a composition with general elements and add details once the outline has been drawn, fits well within the context of improvised theatre but does have its limitations. An offer such as the one I just described, which provides details but doesn’t drive the scene in any particular direction, gives the second player a lot of room to work. He could open a window, for example, signaling a conflict between his perception of the room as too hot and the first performer’s obvious chill.

In business, this type of conflict occurs in many contexts. To move forward through the conflict, you must find a way to honor what your colleagues have said and done while making progress toward your goals. And you do have the same goals, right?