It’s true – I went back to school and learned to open a door. I promise this is not a metaphor.
Over the summer I enrolled in 3-day improvisation intensive course. I thought it was something I should do because – well, given my job and the company I work for I should probably experience it. You can’t market Pringles if you’ve never popped open a can.
So I enrolled and the morning of the first day I ran through all the concerns anyone would have – “I’m not funny”, “I’m not funny and everyone else in the class is going to be funny and I’m just going to drag them all down”, “I’m not funny” … you get the picture.
But my concerns were quickly put to rest when I walked into the room and realized everyone looked just as uncomfortable as me.
As we went around the room on day 1 and introduced ourselves I was surprised (pleasantly) by the diverse backgrounds of my classmates. People had flown in from California, Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio (not just me!). Ages ranged from 19 to 50ish. There were varying genders and races. Out of the 15 students, only 3 were pursuing a career in entertainment. My class consisted of a preacher, a high school teacher, a museum curator, a director of innovation at a healthcare company, a manager of Starbucks, a stockbroker, and a financial analyst. Some were looking to increase confidence, some wanted to become more comfortable in front of a group, others wanted to improve communication skills, and a few just thought it would be fun. What I recognized over the next 3 days was these diverse backgrounds brought diverse points of view which made our creations interesting!
Perhaps the most fascinating lesson learned was the role of relationships, and our response to those dynamics, in everyday life. There’s a funny bit in an episode of The Office where Michael Scott (Steve Carrell – Second City Alum and former training center teacher) is taking improv classes and he repeatedly kills everyone in the scene. Sure enough, in one of our early exercises students were pulling out weapons and eliminating their ensemble. Our amazing instructor, Greg Komorowski explained “Relationships are better and more interesting when working together and building – it’s too easy just to fight.” But he also explained that “Relationships with tension and conflict make a scene (and honestly life) interesting because not all tension and conflict is bad. Competing and differing ideas are a great thing”.
In business we preach “fail and fail fast” or “create an environment where employees have the freedom to fail”. Even if the company culture truly supports that, failure doesn’t happen often. Companies hire experienced employees who have proven success in their field. Failure is rare.
In improvisation almost everything you do fails. For 3 straight days I failed over and over and over and over again. I was pushed so incredibly far outside of my comfort zone. There was one particular exercise that I COULD NOT DO. It’s an exercise where you have to speak in gibberish. I couldn’t do it. Greg explained that this was a good thing. “You need to work the side of the brain that has the challenge”.
Our entire class was particularly abysmal with opening and closing doors (see, not a metaphor). In scenes you have no props so you have to create the appearance of everything. We couldn’t figure out doors. We’d forget to open a door and would walk right through, or we’d forget to shut the car door and would drive right off. We were really awful. Greg pointed out the door issue a few times and finally someone asked if he had any recommendations for improving our door work. As I write this I still laugh at his response “Well, you just turn the handle and push the door forward”.
The point in all of this is that constant failure is novel – but it was actually refreshing to experience failure all the time. Life went on, we laughed about it, we’d move onto the next scene, and we bonded more as an ensemble.
For those of us not born to command a stage, applause can be uncomfortable. At the end of a scene we were all quick to sit down. Greg stopped us and explained “Don’t rush back to your seat. Receive the applause. Take a bow. Congratulate the others in your ensemble.” A simple lesson, but one that’s often overlooked.
At the end of the 3 days I was legit sad. I could totally see how people quit their jobs or drop out of school to pursue this passion. I had a blast but what I was going to miss most was the amazing bond I developed with my classmates. Because improv is such an others-focused practice, I really got to see and experience what amazing and special people they were.
So I leave you with these 3 recommendations: