Applying improv to life and business…

Over the past two years I have been introduced to the wonderful world of improv comedy. It all started when my partner signed up for an 8 week Foundation in Improv course with ComedySportz UK Manchester back in autumn 2012. He’s always been fairly shy and thought improv would be a great way to step out of his comfort zone, improve his confidence and have some fun. Soon enough he was addicted and trying to encourage me to get involved. I started watching lots of improv shows and once I had also got to know most of the ComedySportz UK crew, I was being roped into signing up for the classes as well.

Last autumn I joined the CSz UK Foundation in Improv course and since then I’ve taken part in various ComedySportz UK courses, as well as workshops by Hoopla in London, Box of Frogs in Birmingham and most recently with Chicago’s Baby Wants Candy during their Edinburgh Fringe run. I’ve watched a tonne of improv too – Austentacious, ImprovAcadia, The Maydays and Baby Wants Candy shows being a few highlights. Most importantly, I’ve met some great people and had a lot of laughs.

I can’t claim to be very good, but I find it great fun, occasionally therapeutic and I love the fact that no one cares if you make a fool of yourself. I can also really see the benefits of applying improv to my career.

In America, the idea of ‘applied improv‘ is well established. Kids are taught improv in schools and many businesses use improv in corporate learning as well. Sadly over here, most Brits don’t even know what improv is, unless perhaps they’ve been busy watching old episodes of the UK version of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?‘ on 4oD.

Awareness seems to be slowly growing here though. At the Fringe this year, there were more improv shows than ever before and the ‘impro’ scene in London (for some reason they seem insistent on dropping the ‘v’) is particularly healthy. There are a few pioneers teaching improv in the business world too. Experiential learning in general seems to be increasing in popularity and I think there is growing interest in innovative learning. I’ve had a few conversations lately with people about how improv could be used in learning over here and I think there is so much scope for this to grow. I would love to get more involved in sharing the benefits.

Improv teaches so many useful skills which are applicable to all areas of life, as well as business. The ability to listen, to innovate, to accept and build upon mistakes and to trust and support your team (or troupe) are all hugely beneficial within the workplace. You can build your confidence and learn not to be afraid of the things you cannot control. CIPD members will have no doubt heard Peter Cheese talking about the VUCA business world – improv can help you to cope with that. Learning through improvised comedy is safe, fun and enjoyable. Improv games are easy to pick up and accessible to all. You will learn so much and have so many laughs along the way. Who doesn’t want to have a laugh in the training room? It has to beat death by PowerPoint any day!

The latest workshop I attended focussed upon long-form techniques. Long form improv is a special kind of voodoo. To be able to start with nothing and somehow develop a fully-formed story with a plot, from just the smallest of a suggestion and a few techniques under your belt is pretty impressive.

The first time I saw Baby Wants Candy perform their full-band improvised musical at Edinburgh, I was blown away. I’ve always sung and loved musicals, but to see one created on the spot in front of your very eyes is awesome. I immediately wanted to do it and I was desperate to see them again. One of the great things about improv is you will never see the same show twice.

Since then I’ve had the chance to try my hand at musical improv and it’s every bit as fun as I thought, although combining words and melody is still a bit of a challenge for me. I get tongue-twisted and caught in the words, but that just comes with practice.

Seeing BWC again this year at Edinburgh I realise how much I have learnt in the past year. I now understand how they do what they do – it takes a great deal of practice and team work to be as good as they are, but with a basic understanding of improv principles you can spot the tricks of the trade and have a greater appreciation for the way they pull everything together.

Now I admit improv singing probably isn’t for everyone – but combining the benefits of singing with the benefits of improv could have an impressive impact at work. I would love to run an experimental workshop some day bringing together improv, music and other accelerated learning tricks to develop teamwork, communication and innovation skills within the workplace. Gareth Malone, step aside – musical improv is coming your way as the next big thing in employee engagement!

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