Improv skills lead to success

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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?