Friday, January 25, 2013

Improvisational Life Skills; Trusting Yourself and Others in Work and Play

I took my first improvisational comedy class in 2005.  It was offered through a community theatre program and geared toward “executives and aspiring actors.”  I was the former, having just assumed the role of foundation executive to the FACT and Pacific Homes foundations, both Front Porch partners. 

Everyone else in the class was the latter … and much, much younger than I was. While I was taking the course to hone my “off the cuff” speaking skills, I immediately discovered I felt a very keen desire to make my classmates laugh and a very visceral fear that they would.  Everyone likes to get a laugh, but who wants to be the butt of the joke?  How could a middle-aged professional fundraiser relate to a bunch of young, budding actors?  Flash forward seven years: I’m a player in an improv comedy troupe that performs half a dozen times per year in Southern California -- Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, High Desert and Orange County.  It’s been a heck of a journey and I couldn’t have made the trip without learning to trust deeply.

Trust is about give and take. In most things in life, taking is the easy part.  It usually requires more trust to give.  Improv is the exception to that rule.  Because nothing is scripted you never know what the audience or your fellow player(s) are going to give you.  We oftentimes start a scene with just the suggestion of a location from the audience.  Someone shouts “sushi bar” and you and your fellow player have a decision to make: do you starting miming the actions of fish-chopping sushi chef, a fish-chomping diner, a fish fearing for its life, or…?  Let’s presume that your partner chooses to play a diner, pulls up a chair (the only prop ever on the stage) and sits down.  He looks at you and says “I’m glad you agreed to meet me here, Mr. Kirisawa.  We need to talk about your new movie.” 

You must trust yourself and honor your fellow player’s  idea.  You cannot say “you must have mistaken me for someone else.  My name is Bill Houston.”  It doesn’t matter that you had a funny scene in mind where a Texas beef rancher tries sushi for the first time.  Denial is a no-no in improv.  Improv scenes move forward when you respond “yes, and…”  The “and” is as important as the “yes” as it obligates you to add information to the scene and participate fully.  The result is cooperation and trust and things play out organically and, hopefully, hilariously.

Life is a lot like an improve scene.  You can plan diligently, but you have to trust yourself and those around you when things inevitably happen that weren’t part of the plan.  When you say “yes, and” you meet challenges with flexibility and optimism.  Uncertainty can be scary.  I find that being able to trust myself as well as family, friends, co-workers and others promotes full participation in the scene that is life when the outcome is unknown.  That’s comforting.  Heck, sometimes I even get a laugh out of it.

— Keith Church