Me: “You literally add ZERO value to this company.”
The above conversation transpired between a co-worker and I last week. My blunt honesty was definitely a huge shock to her, but she seemed to take my words in stride. Subtlety has never been a trait of mine, and consequently I had chosen to conduct this decidedly personal conversation in front of a fairly sizable crowd. Rather than empathize with her, the folks who had gathered around to watch laughed hysterically as I returned each of her insecure inquiries with another direct personal attack.
Now, before you pass any judgment, hear me out. The stage that this conversation took place on made it a very appropriate venue for this emotional transaction. Why? Well…. because it was an actual stage. And that dialogue? All of it was improvised on the spot as part of a performance capping off an eight week Intro to Improv course I attended at the Dallas Comedy House.
What comes to mind when you think of improvisational comedy? A lot of you may conjure up memories of the classic ABC show, “Whose Line is It Anyway?” where creative masterminds like Wayne Brady delivered hilarious punch lines and well crafted songs from the tip of their tongue all without any preparation. That show is but one embodiment of the many forms of improv. Take away the props and musical instruments and we arrive at improv’s roots.
Improv at its core is about one basic concept: sending and receiving information. Add some funny people, creativity, a stage, and an audience, and this exchange of information often results in spontaneous hilarity. Like any performance art, it is something that must be learned, practiced, refined and developed.
Its benefits are so numerous, it’s really hard to encapsulate in one article. It enhances your interactions with co-workers, with family and friends, and with new acquaintances. It develops your confidence for when you have to present yourself on the metaphorical stage of life.
When you go on stage with absolutely zero preparation, chances are, at one point or another, you are going to create a stale, boring, and generally bad scene. You will run into strange, awkward situations, and they will all take place under the watchful eye of an audience. At first, you feel tense, weird, and generally uncomfortable. However, after countless repetitions, you develop a sort of numb apathy to the consequences associated with “messing up.” In short, you stop giving a fuck about what other people are thinking about you.
When I emerged back to the day to day antics of real life, I started to realize that I was much more comfortable being vulnerable in front of others. I had developed a new sort of confidence that only comes with trying and failing repeatedly. And it was quite liberating.
Truly riveting improv scenes paint a scene rich in detail with characters that are relatable and memorable. However, these scenes don’t just emerge magically. The characters on stage have to critically listen to the dialogue presented by the other players, pick apart the interesting elements in those details, and develop a scene that builds upon those details, creating some sort of theme. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with just another generic conversation between two generic people.
These improv skills translate directly to conversational skills in the real world. Too often, we find ourselves being half-assed listeners. We constantly think about the next thing that WE want to say instead of the next interesting question or comment we are going to make about what THE OTHER PERSON has said. In improv, you become trained to avoid that conversational pitfall because it makes the scene fail.
What’s more memorable— two nondescript people talking about how much they despise their jobs or two astronauts griping about how NASA has underfunded their mission and they’ve been secretly harboring resentment against their employing organization as their shuttle launches into the abyss of space?
In improv, developing a good scene means adding rich, colorful details. And in real life, having a successful transmission of information from one individual to another means infusing rich details into your message.
Whether it be in a presentation to senior management or a conversation with a potential boyfriend/girlfriend on a first date, situations that require poignant informational presentations constantly arise. If you’re trying to convince the Senior Director of Operations to buy into a proposed process change, you NEED to paint a compelling and convincing story of WHY he or she should buy into what you’re saying. Likewise, if you’re trying to convince the potential love of your life to fall for you, you need to relate the bare, intimate details of your souls’ nature to the other person. (okay, maybe that’s a little extreme but you get the point…)
Silence can create dead space, but it can also give the audience time to contemplate what has already been said. Employed usefully, it greatly enhances the potency of a scene and can really aid character development. In day to day interactions, a little silence can give you and those around you time to settle your thoughts and collect yourselves. By learning when to be silent on the stage, you will learn when to be silent in real life.
Improv scenes have a beginning and an end. The scene’s beginning is set— it starts when the players walk onto the spotlight of the stage. However, the scene’s end is completely up to you, the players on stage. You trust your cast members to “cut” your scenes when they have either reached a climax or if they have lulled into a painfully hard to watch travesty.
Improv teaches you to be alert while watching others’ scenes so as to know when to go in and constructively “cut” their actions. Oftentimes, in life, we have meetings and conversations that drag on endlessly, yet contain zero added value. If you know when to cut scenes on a stage, you’ll know how to better “cut” scenes in real life.
Title Photo Credit: flickr