May 13

Improv at Work

“All work and no play makes ___ a dull person.”

Insert a name and you have a grim assessment of the state of work in our world (and in The Shining film adaptation, thanks, Jack Nicholson). The well-known phrase asserts one truth and one lie. Does “no play” in fact hurt us? YES. Are work and play mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. 

When was the last time you had fun at work? Ok, you may have had some awesome cake at the last conference room birthday party or won the March Madness pool. Now think of when you were able to incorporate play into your regular work day, thus making a project, a client, or a team goal less of a haul and more of a ball (rhyming absolutely counts as play, and I will do it all day). 

Play is just one of the ways to incorporate improvisation into our work lives. Infusing improv at work has grown in popularity, especially as agility and flexibility have become the most sought after skills for overcoming the challenges of the past year. Let’s explore some ways that we can bring improv into your workplace, effortlessly enmeshing work and play. 

Proactivity

Raise your hand if you have ever tuned out. Hello? Hey, it’s ok if you had to reread that last line before waving your hand at the screen. Listening is a common communication skill explored at work, and it’s a crucial skill in improv. As improvisers we also practice “heightening,” so let’s next-level this thing, breezing past simple listening to proactivity. 

As I mentioned, this past year has changed the game, and we are feeling a collective sense of sluggishness. It’s no longer enough to listen, we must find ways to exercise our engagement. Listening, hearing, and responding proactively, rather than reactively, is something we have to grab onto with both hands after a long period of fear, uncertainty, and aimlessness. 

How do we do that through improv? We play a game. One person offers a “gift” to another via what we call onstage “object work.” Improvisers create invisible props onstage since we cannot plan or know what our scenes will be about. If one player holds their hand in a round shape, their partner might assume they are being handed a ball, a paperweight, or an adorably round hamster. Once the second player names the object, the first gets to say why they are giving their gift. “I knew you wanted a pet, but weren’t quite ready for a dog. Enjoy Hammie!” 

Yes, this is an exercise we do with adults at work all the time. It is silly, funny, and spontaneous. It is also effective.

The invisible offer is a discovery the two people must make together based on limited information. Once they decide together what the thing is, they go one step further in justifying the transaction, creating a full circle story based on equal contributions. Sounds a little bit like work and a lot like play

This game exercises proactivity by reminding those involved that they have power individually, and they have greater power together. You can create and discover with your team without sacrificing your ideas. Hold out that hand and say yes to the hamster (not a common improv lesson, but it definitely works)!

Flexibility

Flexibility at work can feel like a zero sum game.  If I am flexible, then I am bending, and if I am bending then I am giving in, letting go, losing. This black and white view, however, is the opposite of flexibility. Bending but not breaking is the point of being flexible, and it is something we have unfortunately had to practice more this past year than ever before. 

In improv, flexibility is not a zero sum game, but the name of the game. Onstage we are constantly pivoting, accepting new realities, saying yes, and moving forward with what we can add. Imagine if at work you were energized and excited about a change or new idea being thrown your way. “YES,” you would think, “I get to be flexible!”

To apply flexible thinking to your work, improv explores the principle of what “yes” and “no” mean. Our favorite phrase in improv is “yes, and.” It affirms reality while staying open to what is next. So we obviously love a yes, as we guess you do, too. What if all you heard at work and home was, “Yes, brillant, of course”?

Sounds nice. Or dull. Or stressful. If all you hear is yes, then no one is contributing to your ideas, or even worse, no one is challenging you. Now you are responsible for everything. Oof. 

Now picture the flexible alternative. You have a plan or an idea, you offer it, and you hear, “No…” Is that no a stop sign for you? Or is it an alternative route? When we improvise with your team, we love to play with the idea of no and where it can take you. Sometimes a no is a welcome redirection, taking us to a place we didn’t expect. After all, Thomas Edison said, referencing his journey to the light bulb, “I haven’t failed — I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work.” 

Creativity

Many people mistakenly believe they are not creative. If you are an insurance adjuster, banker, or general math nerd, it is easy to mistake that fiery left-brain for a lack of creativity. Joke’s on you, Captain Logic, we are all creative. Whether it is writing a song, filling out your calendar, or packing your lunch, you are creating. As humans, we naturally tell stories.

Our brains, right, left, and center, constantly make connections in order to make sense of all the data we are taking in, making us creative whether we like it or not. 

Improvisers train and practice at making connections, from taking the suggestion of spatula and doing a scene about a mom and daughter relationship, to accepting that cute, aforementioned hamster. Our connections are a conglomerate of outside sensory information, our emotions, and our past experiences. When you are working with a team on a project, you aren’t a blank slate. You are bringing in all the past experiences you have had with Jill from Accounting, with this client’s product, and with those three doughnuts you had prior to the meeting. 

In a workshop, we practice games and exercises that push you into your personal zone of creativity. We ask you to tell us a story about a recent event in your life and then have you add a detail to it, then another, and another, until the story looks either very different or possibly an even truer, more vivid version than the first. We ask the ensemble in the room to build an object together, creating something that no individual could have imagined, but that couldn’t exist without exactly this group.

Creativity is magic, and yes, you are a wizard. 

Bring Us to Work

Improv works at work, and anyone who has experienced it can tell you it changes the way you think about yourself and your team.  Through a single workshop or a series, we can help you hone your proactivity, flexibility, and creativity. Contact Vegas Improv Power to learn more about how to make work and play work together. 

 


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