Unpacking applied improv


June 4th, 2012

Mention applied improvisation to most people and their eyes glaze over. Pity, really. There’s a lot to like about applied improv, especially if you work with people.

In this series of posts, I’m going to explore how applied improv relates to different fields of work.

I have no idea what you’re talking about! What’s applied improv?
Fair question. Theatre improvisation is a form of the arts where people work in ensemble (small groups) to co-create scenes on the stage spontaneously. That means it’s not rehearsed, scripted or pre-planned.  There’s an element of danger and excitement working without a script, yet improv groups around the world create short and long scenes (sometimes lasting up to 40 minutes) that are often extraordinary. It’s sometimes hard to believe they’re not working with a script.

How do they do it?
They follow some principles that drive how they relate to each other and to the story or scene they are creating. This is the key to successful improvisation. These principles include accepting offers, noticing, letting go, be affected and making your partner look good. There’s also understanding status and the power of movement, both physical and emotional.

And improvisors practice together, applying these principles in activities and exercises so that they become second nature.

But I don’t want to improvise, I prefer to plan, to be in control.
And I bet you certainly have no ambition to appear on stage, with or, without a script! Applied improv is not about preparing you to improvise in the theatre – it’s about those moments when all the planning didn’t prepare you for something unexpected. What then? How do you respond to the curly question, or the request for an additional impromptu presentation, or if the power goes down at a critical time, or if you expected 10 people at a meeting and 50 turn up? What then?

Learning and applying the principles of applied improv doesn’t take away the need for preparation and planning. It supplements it, giving you the confidence to respond to the unexpected, the unusual and challenges that work and life seem to throw at us, no matter how prepared we are.

Okay, that might be suitable for arty types, but I’m an accountant [insert own profession]
I bet there’s times when you’re surprised by the challenges of your work – arty or not. Maybe you’re suffering a downturn in customers, or you work in a government-funded profession and your funding has been cut, or your company is laying off lots of staff leaving you under pressure to do more with less. Or maybe you’re overwhelmed with the task ahead of you, or you’re not sure where to start, or you have an important pitch coming up and you want to impress.

You can apply the principles and practices of improv in all of these situations. And no-one need ever know. That’s the beauty of applied improv – you don’t have to announce to the world what you’re going to do, you just do it.

And I’ve heard that applied improv is just about playing games.
Ouch. Games and exercises are integral to learning the principles and practices of improv. They provide a way of learning that enables the improv principles to become second nature, and for you to be able to apply them without overthinking. And they’re fun. The application, and uses, of applied improv principles and practices happens in the real world, not by playing the same games, but by applying what you have learned about how you respond in different situations.

I’ve managed to survive this long without improv. Why should I bother now?
There’s always a time when you’re put on the spot: asked to give a speech at a mate’s birthday. Or the unexpected happens and slaps you on your face: you find yourself unemployed. Or you’re just fed up with all this change and uncertainty. Or maybe you’re bored, looking for something else and you’re not sure what.

Most of us muddle through. We’re not taught how to improvise at school. We may be wary of spontaneity as something akin to recklessness. And it can be. The art is in knowing the difference.

At its essence, improvisation principles and practices are about connecting. In this uber-connected world, it’s useful to have some skills in connecting with ourselves, and with others, in meaningful ways. Ways that can enhance our personal relationships, our work, our schools, our governments, our organisations and our communities.

We improvise our way through life. Understanding the principles and practices of improv enable us to take advantage of opportunities and know ourselves, and our families, our friends and our work colleagues, better.

And the bottom line? Improv may not change your life (though it can) and it certainly won’t do any harm.

So applied improv is just another way of saying improved communication?
Yes, and no. Communication is integral to improv – both theatre improv and applied improv. It’s also about successful collaboration, creating something from what’s available, innovating, problem solving, building confidence, and yes, having fun too.

Where do I start? I don’t want to join a theatre group, it’s just not me.
Many people do learn the principles and practices of improv by joining an improv group, but you don’t have to. You can start by learning this stuff yourself, and practicing at work with your colleagues.

Start with this: notice more.

Stop. Listen. Look around. What do you see? What do you hear? What else do you see? What else do you hear? Notice yourself. How are you sitting? Where is there tension in your body? Notice others.

You can do this anywhere. In the office, at a meeting, at lunch, walking down the street, at the bus stop, on the train, in a restaurant, in your lounge room, in the classroom, waiting for an appointment.

How do I apply this? What’s it for?
In my next post I’ll start exploring applications of applied improv.

If you have a specific situation you’d like to know about, please leave a comment. And if you have an example of where you’ve applied improv, do let me know.

We’re coming together for two days in July to further explore how the principles and practices of improv can be applied. Want to join us? More information here.

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